Red Lipstick Made Me a Criminal (and a few other fun facts about your favorite cosmetic)

By Heather Babcock, 2021

Red lipstick made me do it.

The sleek, white plastic tube of flame-orange wax called out to me from the bowels of the Zellers’ cosmetic aisle.

The year was 1988 and I was ten years old. At home, a large poster of Madonna, in character for Who’s That Girl (1987), hung over my bed: clad in fishnets, a leather jacket and fingerless gloves. More intimidating than the revolver in her hands was the stark red lipstick on her face. Fierce. Fabulous. I didn’t understand why the other girls at my school didn’t like her. I didn’t understand why I wasn’t allowed to wear lipstick too.

Every Saturday, my mother would go grocery shopping at the Kipling Queensway Mall and my dad would give my sister and I a dollar each to buy either trash or a treat at the mall’s dollar store or Zellers. But this Saturday, I didn’t feel like a chocolate bar or a bag of chips. I didn’t need another whoopee cushion or copy of Tiger Beat magazine.

I wanted that lipstick.

It didn’t matter that it cost a little more than the dollar my dad had given me. To my ten-year-old mind, that was an unfairness that could be easily corrected. And so, taking advantage of my then-mousy invisibility, I quietly slipped the coveted tube into the pocket of my Levi’s. I don’t remember feeling nervous or even giddy about it and I certainly didn’t feel guilty – that red lipstick belonged to me. It was mine. I did however make the colossal mistake of boasting to my sister about the steal, in proud whispers, on the ride home.

Hey Daaaa-dddd,” she called out smugly. “Heather stole a lipstick!

And so, before I knew it, I was back in the Zellers department store, handing over my swag and stammering out an apology to the bored teenage clerk whose only response to my foray into crime was a glassy-eyed shrug.

Continue reading “Red Lipstick Made Me a Criminal (and a few other fun facts about your favorite cosmetic)”

Honest Ed’s: 1948 – 2016

Photo of Heather Babcock, outside of Honest Ed’s, taken by Nigel Hamid of Toronto Verve, 2014

“There’s no place like this place!”

Honest Ed’s was one of the most inclusive places in the city of Toronto. It wasn’t just a bargain basement; with its fading posters and head-shots of long forgotten stars scotch taped to its poorly painted walls, Honest Ed’s was a free museum of Toronto’s theatrical history. Toronto tends to take itself a little too seriously sometimes and Honest Ed’s was a reminder that it’s okay to be a little silly and to have some fun.

The delightfully tacky and iconic landmark permanently turned off its lights on December 31st, 2016. A couple of years prior, the very talented photographer Nigel Hamid of Toronto Verve took some photos of me, outside and inside of Honest Ed’s. I feel very lucky to have these photographic memories of a fun and never-to-be-forgotten historic wonder.

“Relaxing” at Honest Ed’s, 2014. Photo by Nigel Hamid of Toronto Verve.

“It’s not how you wear ’em, it’s how you work ’em”: Back Seam Stockings

“Immediately, she examined Miss Armstrong closely as a mistress. (…) Francie looked at her legs. They were long, slender and exquisitely molded. She wore the sheerest of flawless silk stockings, and expensively-made high-heeled pumps shod her beautifully arched feet. ‘Beautiful legs, then, is the secret of being a mistress’, concluded Francie.” – Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943)

“One of the most important things in being well-dressed, to my way of thinking, is to watch your hose. No matter how expensive the rest of your costume, if your hosiery is not sheer and clear and in the right shade, the entire effect can be ruined. Therefore I am careful about the shade of hose I wear with each frock, and always, always have hose that are sheer and utterly ringless.” – Joan Blondell, Modern Screen Magazine, January 1937

Stockings have steadily fallen out of favor over the past four decades. Fishnet and patterned leggings are still donned by fun loving fashionistas, but today drugstore pantyhose is only one step ahead of crocks in the style department. However, there was a time when stockings were the must have accessory, for both everyday wear and to complement an elegant outfit. Held in place by garter belts, with a straight seam up the back, fully fashioned stockings (or “back seam stockings”) were worn by everyone from factory girls to movie stars.

Continue reading ““It’s not how you wear ’em, it’s how you work ’em”: Back Seam Stockings”

A Savage Detour into Hell: Review of Detour (1945), the (Tough) Mama of Film Noir.

detour middle

“There oughta be a law against dames with claws.”   

Straight out of Poverty Row, what Detour (1945) lacks in budget, it makes up for in style. Written by Martin Goldsmith (The Twilight Zone) and starring Tom Neal and the inimitable Ann Savage, Detour is to film noir what The Public Enemy (1931) is to the gangster flick: it isn’t the first in its genre but it’s certainly one of the most definitive and influential. In A Pictorial History of Crime Films (1975), author Ian Cameron calls Detour “well in the running to being the cheapest really good talkie to come out of Hollywood.”

There’s no Public Enemy-style grapefruit in Detour but if there was, it would undoubtedly be Ann Savage smashing the breakfast fruit into Tom Neal’s face and not the other way around. As Vera, the unhinged hitchhiker whom our wide-eyed protagonist Al Roberts (Neal) has the misfortune of picking up, Savage is the most dangerous of all film noir dames: the femme who puts the “fatal” in femme fatale.

Continue reading “A Savage Detour into Hell: Review of Detour (1945), the (Tough) Mama of Film Noir.”

We Are the Weirdos, Mister.

theda bara

We are the weirdos, mister.”

 After Nancy (Fairuza Balk) uttered the infamous line in The Craft (1996), the audience at last night’s Revue Cinema screening burst into fervent applause.  Many in attendance were in their thirties and forties and probably, like me, nostalgia-tripping former teenage outcasts.

As a lonely, imaginative girl, I loved was obsessed with The Craft and its story of four teenage witches, played by Balk, Neve Campbell, Rachel True and Robin Tunney, who use their powers to wreak havoc on the dumb jocks and the mean girls at their Catholic high school.  In 1996, there were very few spaces where teenage girls could feel powerful.  We were told (by society, television and YM magazine) that the only way to obtain any sort of power was through our physical appearance and our relationships with boys: two things that were beyond our control since you can’t really dictate how someone else sees or reacts to you. And any “power” based on physical beauty is precarious when we live in a society that equates being beautiful with being young. If beauty is power and youth is beauty, than that power is ephemeral.  I knew that when I was 16 and I know that now. One of the very few media outlets in the 1990s where teenage girls did have a voice was the fiercely fun and feminist Sassy Magazine, which sadly folded in 1996. The Craft filled a void. The vicarious power-fantasy fulfillment was enough to (almost) forgive and forget its disappointingly anti-feminist ending.

The witches in The Craft are direct descendants of Theda Bara (pictured), the silver screen’s first “bad girl” and the woman who made the word “vamp” both a noun and a verb. In A Fool There Was (1915), the film that catapulted her to fame, Bara chews up scenery (and men) as a liquor pushing, sexually aggressive vampire. This vamp doesn’t drink blood though: rather Bara slowly drains the will to live from her male victims by eating away at their dignity. “Kiss me, my fool!” she famously purrs but beware: her kiss renders “respectable” men destitute and depraved. Buried alive under the rubble of their broken lives, still her victims beg her for more. Bara’s appetite for destruction is never satiated and, unlike Nancy in The Craft, she never loses her power.

– Heather Babcock

 

 

Remembering Jean Harlow and Saratoga (1937)

saratoga

Saratoga (1937) is most notable for being Jean Harlow’s last film: she died of kidney failure during filming and a stand-in was used for her remaining scenes. The film was released on July 23rd, 1937, only a little over six weeks after her death. In Saratoga, Harlow (who really should be remembered as much for her impeccable comic timing as for being a sex goddess) stars alongside a “who’s who” of 1930’s Hollywood talent including Clark Gable, Hattie McDaniel, Lionel Barrymore and Una Merkel. For the most part, the film is a delightful romantic comedy buoyed by the chemistry of its cast. A dark cloud hovers over the film’s final 15 or 20 minutes though when Harlow suddenly disappears and a skinny imposter, face hidden and voice dubbed, takes her place, like the Grim Reaper in a sun bonnet. The most lively, vivacious woman in Hollywood vanishes right before our eyes.

Heather Babcock, 2019