In Honour of International Women’s Day: Remembering Film Pioneer Nell Shipman

just nell

“Surely not many a silver screen star can write, produce and slice her own nitrate. I take pride in my skills but without a distribution deal, these talents remain ‘in the can’, as we say – invisible, worthless. Tomorrow the studio heads will wave their magic wands of approval – or not. I believe we have good prospects if I can dodge the (creditors) by the fire escape one more day. (…) There are so many stories yet to be told and sold in our future. Tomorrow. Thank God, there is tomorrow.” – Nell Shipman

One hundred years ago, before Wall Street moved in and before the domination of the large studio system, women ruled Hollywood: in front of and behind the scenes, they wrote the stories, shot the scenes, managed production budgets and dreamed up the publicity scenarios that turned everyday shop girls into superstars. One of the most fearless of these early film pioneers was Nell Shipman, a Canadian born director, actress (who performed all of her own stunts!), producer, screenwriter, novelist and animal rights activist and trainer. I recently discovered Nell during a midnight screening of Back to God’s Country (1919), an action-adventure blockbuster that she both wrote and starred in. I was equal parts surprised, delighted and enchanted by Nell’s earthy sensuality (her infamous skinny-dipping scene is more joyful than salacious) and the feminist tone of the film (her character – a woman surviving in the harsh Canadian wilderness – is no damsel in distress but rather a defiant dame).  The thoughtful portrayal and gentle handling of the many animals in the film is also refreshing; at a time when most other nature filmmakers were as likely to shoot animals as they were to film them, Nell Shipman emphatically advocated for the humane treatment of animals in movies and spoke out against animal cruelty.

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Forgotten Her-stories: Pioneer Women Filmmakers

mabel

(Pictured at top: Director, actress, screenwriter & comic genius Mabel Normand)

“Not only is a woman as well fitted to stage photo-drama as a man, but in many ways she has a distinct advantage over him because of her very nature.” – Alice Guy-Blaché

When you hear the words “movie director” what do you immediately picture? Someone in sunglasses and a flat-cap barking out orders into a megaphone? Whatever you envision, it’s probably a man and he’s probably white. Yet many of the pioneers of film-making – the very people who carved the way for the movies that we watch today – were women and people of color.  In fact the first narrative film, La Fée aux Choux (1896) – also known in English as The Cabbage Fairy – was directed by a French woman named Alice Guy-Blaché. Comb through film history books however, and you’ll find chapter upon chapter devoted to Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith but you’ll be lucky to find a sentence, let alone a paragraph, about Guy-Blaché or Mabel Normand, the woman who taught Chaplin how to direct film comedy, or Black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, whose anti-lynching drama Within Our Gates (1920) remains as vital and important today as it was upon its release. It’s doubtful you’ll find a chapter in those history books devoted to Marion E. Wong, who established the Mandarin Film Company in 1916 in Oakland, California and who wrote and directed The Curse of Quon Gwon: When the Far East Mingles with the West (1916/1917), the first American feature length film with an all Asian-American cast.  Nell Shipman, the Canadian screenwriter/director and actress who performed all of her own stunts, is also MIA from the pages of most film history books.

Racism, misogyny, economics, the advent of sound and the domination of the big studio system all played a role in erasing the work of many of these pioneers, who may have lacked the finances needed to preserve their films and who – unlike Chaplin and Griffith – did not have access to, or the help of, the mainstream media to promote their legacies.

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Remembering the Forgotten: A Look at WW1 through the Lens of Pre-Code Hollywood

heroes for sale

By Heather Babcock

“Pain. Agony. Continual torture. Day after day, like a million ants eating me alive. Do you know what that means? No, you don’t. Because when I was being blown to bits, you were sitting here safe and comfortable. And you’re still sitting here in judgement.” – Tom Holmes (Richard Barthelmess), Heroes for Sale (1933)

Remembrance Day is not about “glorifying war”. November 11th is not about the men, safe in their power, who created the wars. Rather, Remembrance Day is about the men and women who left their homes and their families to sacrifice – sometimes their lives – for us: for the freedoms we can choose to take for granted today. November 11th is about the Veterans who are not here to tell their stories. It is about the Veterans who thankfully are still here to tell their stories. And it is about those who cannot or could not tell their stories because they are/were too painful to verbalize.

Sound motion pictures (“talkies”) were introduced to the public about nine years after the end of World War One. Many of the top directors of early sound films – such as Busby Berkeley, James Whale and William A. Wellman – were WW1 veterans. War films made during this period, while in no means shying away from the death and destruction of the battlefield, are not gory as the war films that would be made in later decades. War films released during Hollywood’s Pre-Code period focus more on the mental, emotional and financial struggles that the WW1 veterans faced after coming home. Perhaps the directors – who may have experienced PTSD themselves – did not want to exploit the real-life horrors and violence they had faced for an audience’s entertainment.  While modern war films focus on battlefield action, Pre-Code war movies focus on humanity and loss.

In the 1933 film Heroes for Sale, Richard Bartelmess plays Tom Holmes, a WW1 soldier whose heroic act on the battlefield is rewarded not with a medal but with a morphine addiction. He gets a job at a bank and attempts to hide his addiction but his drug dealer keeps pushing up the price. Desperate, Tom goes to see his doctor. The doctor refuses to prescribe the drug and instead calls Tom’s boss at the bank, who promptly fires him. “You fellows forget the war is over,” the smug banker chastises Tom. “Time to quit beating the drum and waving the flag.” This scene is interesting for a couple of reasons: as is often the case in Warner Brothers’ Pre-Code films, the banker is presented as sinister and downright evil, which makes a lot of sense in a film that was released about three and a half years after the stock market crash, but even more importantly this scene gives flesh to the feelings of ingratitude and dismissiveness that some WW1 vets were feeling upon returning home. In the groundbreaking 1932 movie I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, WW1 vet James Allen (the wonderful Paul Muni) exclaims in frustration: “No one seems to realize that I’ve changed – that I’m different now! I’ve been through hell! Folks here are concerned with my uniform and how I dance. I’m out of step with everybody.”

In his 1931 book Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920’s, author Frederick Lewis Allen describes a 1919 Life magazine cartoon in which a personification of Uncle Sam says to a WW1 vet “Nothing is too good for you, my boy! What would you like?” to which the soldier replies “A job.” About fourteen years later, Joan Blondell and Etta Moten Barnett performed the boot stomping finale “Remember My Forgotten Man” in the movie Gold Diggers of 1933. Blondell speaks the song’s opening lyrics:

“Remember my forgotten man? You put a rifle in his hand. You sent him far away, you shouted ‘hip, hooray!’ But look at him today.” (Lyrics by Warren and Dubin)

The elaborate number, choreographed by WW1 vet Busby Berkeley, begins with the forgotten women: the war widows, grieving mothers and the girls whose dreams of home and marriage were ripped away in what is now considered one of the bloodiest and deadliest wars in history with an estimated 37 million lives lost. “Forgetting him means you’re forgetting me,” Blondell sighs, as she wanders the streets looking for a trick. The number then shifts from the women to the men. We see proud men marching off to war in crisp uniforms. Girls throw flowers and toss kisses at them. Blankets of ticker tape and confetti seem to fall from the sky. But new soldiers come to join the parade: these men are bloody and bandaged; some carry dead, broken bodies on their backs. No one cheers these men on for the crowd has long disappeared.  Next, the battlefield transforms into a breadline and young men shiver in the cold as they wait in line for a stale sandwich and a cup of watered down coffee. “We are the real forgotten men,” the soldiers sing. “Who have to lead this life again. We sauntered forth to fight, for glory was our pride but somehow glory died.”

Busby based the number on the Bonus Army of 1932. During one of the bleakest years of the Great Depression, an estimated 15,000 WW1 veterans, out of work and hungry, made their way to the nation’s capital to demand payment of their bonus for serving in the war. They called themselves the “Bonus Expeditionary Force” and set up camp and ramshackle tents throughout Washington, D.C. Their pleas fell on deaf ears though when on June 17 the Senate voted against the House-passed bill that would have given WW1 vets immediate payment of their bonus. With no money and no place to go, the soldiers remained in their man-made camps. On July 28th, 1932 President Hoover ordered the Army to forcibly remove the veterans, along with their wives and children, using a violent force of tanks and cavalry with fixed bayonets and tear gas. Afterwards, the government set the veteran’s make-shift homes on fire.

Public sentiment was largely on the side of the WW1 soldiers: it didn’t matter which political party one followed, nobody – Republican, Democrat or independent – thought it was okay for the government to be gassing American war vets on the White House lawn.

Incidentally, Gold Diggers of 1933 was shot during the same time as Heroes for Sale. Both films are examples of the grit and perseverance of the people who lived through the Great Depression: “It takes more than one sock in the jaw to lick 120 million people,” Tom says at the end of Heroes for Sale, as he shivers in the rain in a Hooverville (an early 1930s term for a homeless camp). People in the 1930s may have been beaten down but they were looking up.

Canadian artist F.H. Varley’s 1918 painting “For What?” depicts a scene from WW1. Although a barrel of folded up corpses is in the painting’s foreground, this is not what immediately captures the eye. Instead we first notice the men in the background: one planting white crosses as another digs graves. Heavy clouds roll above them. This haunting painting is the strongest representation of PTSD (at the time referred to as “shell shock”) that I have ever seen.

On November 11th, we will remember the ones who died and the ones who were left behind to “lead this life again”; the decorated and the forgotten.

We will honor them as these films honored them: by remembering the horrors that they tried so hard to forget.

Breezy Stories: Beautiful 1918 Magazine Cover Art

breezy stories

I don’t mind when my beau spends the weekend in Buffalo record shopping…not when he brings me back goodies like this! This magazine is 101 years young; I love the cover artwork, particularly the woman’s bathing suit which was probably considered quite daring at the time. This magazine accepted short stories and novelettes from new and established writers; their only request was that you typed your manuscripts or wrote them out by hand (!) “neatly”. Ah, to be a writer in 1918…

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

 

 

“All that Savors Indecency”: The early 20th Century’s Campaign for Movie Censorship

movies

“It is gratifying to know that newspapers throughout the province stand solidly behind a rigid enforcement of the censorship and the absolute prohibition of all that savors indecency.” – Quote taken from an article titled “Cleansing the Movies”, published August 1st, 1927 in the Globe.

The world changed after WW1.  New technologies and gadgets abounded, some which helped save time and some that helped pass the time, such as gramophones, telephones, vacuum cleaners, radio and the movies.  Music was faster, booze was cheaper and skirts were shorter.  Political parties and newspaper pundits wrung their hands in anxious frustration at a world which was seemingly spinning out of their control.

Newspaper archives from this period offer an interesting history of these pivotal times, as well as unintentionally shining a spotlight on the prejudices that fueled the self-righteous fervor of the censors and moral reformers so often quoted in the major papers of the day.

Racism was behind the anti-jazz music campaign of the 1920s.  The following are typical newspaper headlines from this time:

“Modern Day Dance Music is ESSENCE OF VULGARITY” – The Globe, September 20th, 1927

“Mothers Should Aid in Combating Jazz” – The Globe, March 21st, 1929

 Wife Played Jazz While Husband Was Dying!” – The Globe, March 9th, 1923

 One Globe article from September 28th, 1926 was simply titled: “The Evils of Jazz!”

 Misogynists directed their venom at the knee baring, high kicking young flappers often eulogized by F. Scott Fitzgerald and immortalized by the likes of Clara Bow and Joan Crawford. In a March 31st, 1932 article titled “Flapper Idols of Movies Have Bad Effect on Girls”, Chancellor Wallace of Victoria College issued the following warning to parents: “Do not let the emotional lives of your daughters be over-stimulated by the books they read and the shows they see…Which is your daughter – an angel or a flapper?”

 Some moralists however had a kitchen sink attitude to their crusades, such as the funster featured in this April 30th, 1925 Globe headline: “She Fears Smoking Will Ruin Humanity: Mrs. M.E. Frey, Evangelist, Decries Present Craze for Pleasure, Jazz, Drink and Poker.”

 There was one “pleasure” though which really had the Mrs. M.E. Freys of the world reaching for their smelling salts and that was the movies.

The 1897 boxing documentary “The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight” (also known as “The Great Corbett Fight”) is widely considered to be the world’s first feature film or at least its first blockbuster. Film historian Terry Ramsaye wrote that “until that picture appeared, the social status of the screen had been uncertain. It now became definitely low-brow, an entertainment of the great unwashed commonalty. This likewise made it a mark for up lifters, moralists, reformers and legislators in a degree which would never have been obtained if the screen had reached a higher social strata.” (Source: “Hollywood: The Pioneers”, Kevin Brownlow and John Kobal, 1979).

 Just as they had tried to “save” the working man from booze with Prohibition, the upper class moral reformers of the day made it their mission to “clean up” the movies all in the name of “protecting” the lower classes, whom they feared would be led down a rabbit hole of salacious sin and depravity by way of Jean Harlow’s nipples and James Cagney’s knuckles.

“Women Smoking, Modern Dancing Scorned by Pastor: Rev. Dr. Riley Blames Movies for Tidal Wave of Banditry” screamed an April 12th, 1929 Globe headline.  “Sex Saturnalia of the Screen Must be Stopped” warned the Globe on March 19th, 1921 (I’d like to thank this headline for introducing me to the word “Saturnalia” which means “an occasion of wild revelry”, as in “I’m ready for my sex Saturnalia, Mr. DeMille”).

 Movies were being blamed for a supposed increase in crime: “Young Locksmith Lured to Vagrancy by Movies!” reads a headline from December 28th, 1920. A Globe article dated July 30th, 1934 tells the tale of a 12 year old girl “with blonde bobbed hair” who was charged with stealing purses and jewelry from homes in the Beach district. “Child is Moving-Picture ‘Fan’” clucks the subhead.

The flickers were also held accountable for men not casting their ballots: “Young Men Today Shunning Politics, Declares Liberal: Ward 5 Officer Blames Autos and Movies for Secession.” (The Globe, March 19, 1930).

A Globe article dated August 1st, 1927 titled “Cleansing the Movies” quotes the Stratford Beacon Herald as asserting that “People…go to the movies to be entertained, not for the stimulation of passion…If the provincial and state authorities will put their feet down good and hard on the ‘sex appeal’ stuff**, the film magnates will soon elevate the movies to the standard they ought to be.”

(**Mae West herself couldn’t have written a saucier double entendre! ;-))

I’ll end with this Letter to the Editor published on June 27th, 1927 in the Globe:

“I cannot believe that the average parent realizes the effect of these vulgar pictures on the girls and boys. The intelligent adult does not frequent the motion-picture house, only children and morons can stand the steady diet of frivolity, vulgarity and vice which the producers are serving up for us.”

 When it comes to my movies, I’ll have a cup of vulgarity with a side of vice, please. 🙂

***

Note: I don’t mean to pick on the Globe here. I researched this post by checking out the expansive Globe newspaper archives available on the Toronto Public Library website.  I am sure that most newspapers of the day carried similar headlines.  My sincere thanks to both the Globe and the Toronto Public Library for the invaluable public access.

Photo Credit: Photo of me taken by Neil Traynor at the historic Fox movie theater (established in 1914) during the 2019 Toronto Silent Film Festival.

 

 

Virginia Rappe: The Self-Made Woman behind the Man-Made Rumors

Dear Virginia

Written by Heather Babcock, 2019

“Be original – every girl can be that.” – Virginia Rappe

 It was Labor Day, 1921. The beloved on-screen comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was throwing a gin-soaked party in his San Francisco hotel room when one of his guests, the comely starlet Virginia Rappe, fell seriously ill. Four days later Virginia was dead, Arbuckle stood accused of her murder and the flourishing movie industry would never be the same.

Although we may never truly know what happened in room 1219 on that fateful Monday, it is now widely believed that is was peritonitis, and not Arbuckle, which led to Rappe’s death. In spite of this, many myths regarding the tragedy still exist today with the most egregious centered on Virginia. Over the decades, she has been painted by both the press and Arbuckle’s numerous biographers as either a spotless angel or a dirty harlot, depending on whether the writer wishes to vilify or exonerate Roscoe. Usually it’s the latter. One of the most persistent – and vicious – myths is that Virginia’s supposed promiscuity led to Mack Sennett having to fumigate Keystone Studios for crabs (not surprisingly this rumor originated from that tome of trash Hollywood Babylon). Never mind that Virginia never even worked for Keystone nor was she ever afflicted with louse, the rumor (and slut-shaming) endures.

Thankfully Virginia Rappe has finally found a friend in Greg Merritt, a biographer who doesn’t believe that the only way to prove Arbuckle’s innocence is to slander Rappe.  In his extremely well researched and thoughtful 2013 true crime biography Room 1219: The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, and the Scandal That Changed Hollywood, Merritt debunks many of the myths surrounding the Arbuckle scandal (including the aforementioned Keystone crabs rumor). As he searches for the truth of what actually happened in that hotel room on September 5th, 1921, Merritt treats both Arbuckle and Rappe with empathy and compassion but it is his chapter on Virginia’s life which brings to light the human behind the headlines.

Here is some of what I learned about Virginia Rappe from reading Greg Merritt’s book:

Supermodel, You Better Work:

 Born out of wedlock to a teenage mother in 1891 and orphaned at the age of eleven, Virginia changed her last name from “Rapp” to the French sounding “Rappe” (pronounced “Rap-pay”) and began modelling when she was sixteen years old (this was during the high fashion industry’s infancy stage; Virginia’s modelling career started in 1907 and the first reported runway show was only in 1904). In 1913, Virginia toured the United States and Europe as a full-time model at a reported salary of $4000 (Over $100,000 in today’s currency).

Independent Woman:

 In 1911, Virginia and two of her close girlfriends made a pact never to marry. A proud feminist, Virginia wore a black tuxedo coat in a magazine photo: “Equal Clothes Rights with Men!” read the accompanying text. The model turned media maven gave career advice in press interviews, encouraging young women to become self-employed and financially independent.

Making Headlines – and Hemlines:

 Adept at self-promotion and publicity, Virginia Rappe knew how to make both headlines and hemlines: in 1914, she became a fashion designer, marketing her designs at the 1915 World’s Fair. Her creations included the “spider web hat”, an airplane shaped hat and even a “submarine hat”. An outspoken pacifist, a design which may have been especially close to Virginia’s heart was her “peace hat”, a cap which was molded in the shape of two dove wings.

In a newspaper article at the time, Virginia Rappe was praised as “a young woman who has lifted fashion designing to the plane of fine art.”

After her death, Virginia’s extraordinary accomplishments fell into the shadows. I guess “feminist fashion designer” just doesn’t have the same salacious pull as “fresh young starlet”.

“In most accounts of the case, she (Virginia) is diminished to a bit part, as if it was not her tragedy,” writes Greg Merritt in Room 1219: The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, and the Scandal That Changed Hollywood.

 His book gives Virginia the respect she is long overdue.

Source: Room 1219: The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, and the Scandal That Changed Hollywood by Greg Merritt, 2013, Chicago Review Press Incorporated.