I asked myself this question a few years ago, while watching a 2017 reboot of King Kong in which the main female character, unlike Fay Wray in the 1933 original, never screams. Not once. I’ve since noticed this “no-scream” trend with other recent action and horror films (a notable exception being Annabelle Wallis in the surprisingly campy 2021 release Malignant). Is it that today the Scream Queen is considered un-PC? Do filmmakers worry that showing a woman character screaming will render her weak and helpless? If so, this kind of thinking is nothing more than misogyny disguised as feminism.
What I lack in bodily strength, I make up for in lung power. My scream has frightened off would-be attackers. My scream saved me (once) from being raped. My scream is not shameful. My scream is a weapon. My scream is powerful.
So without further adieu, all hail The Soda Fountain’s Top Five Hollywood Scream Queens of alltime. Distressed Dames, yes. Damsels in Distress? Never.
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.
Ever since I saw Breakfast at Tiffany’s as a teenager, I’ve held an admiration for the art of burlesque. If you’ve never seen the movie, or it’s been awhile, there’s a great scene where Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard duck into an early morning girlie show with the goal of getting zozzled. A voluptuous beauty in a skintight fishtail hemmed dress appears onstage and begins bumping her shapely hips to the beat of a vaudevillian drum. “Gracious!” Audrey exclaims, yanking her oversized sunglasses down her nose. “Do you think she’s handsomely paid?”
As an adult, I had the pleasure of attending burlesque performances in Toronto; my friend Lizzie used to run a great Cabaret Noir which often featured burlesque dancers. I love the sexy cheekiness of this artform, as well as its unapologetic femininity. Much imagination and preparation goes into planning and executing these performances; the skill of the burlesque dancer is often overlooked and/or underrated.
Much of the action in my debut novel Filthy Sugar takes place at a burlesque house. One of the joys of writing Filthy Sugar was that I got to be my own Busby Berkeley. Coming up with ideas and choreography for my protagonist Wanda Wiggles was super fun. Some of the burlesque scenes were inspired by famous striptease performers: a chapter in which Wanda bathes almost naked in a giant glass of champagne is a nod to Lili St. Cyr, while Bettie Page and Tempest Storm’s act in the 1955 film Teaserama gave me the idea for the sexy maid/mistress routine between Wanda and fellow burlesque dancer/lover Lili Belle. In addition to watching vintage footage of burlesque performances and wiggle movies, I also took a drop-in class at the Toronto School of Burlesque, which helped me to learn the basics of the artform.
Some of the routines were inspired by nothing more than my imagination. Here is one of my favorites, excerpted from my novel:
The chorines, dressed in shimmering onyx black cat suits with a mammoth feather affixed to the back of each girl’s bowed head, lock arms as they arrange themselves into the shape of a giant almond. At the sound of Eddie’s fat drumroll, the hoofers roll their shoulders backwards and bob their heads: the assembly line of feathers fluttering flirtatiously. I emerge from the centre of the elephantine eye with arms outstretched, spinning atop a small revolving stage like a little ballerina doll in a jewellery box.
Coyly, I peer over my shoulder at the audience. Is Mr. Manchester in the house tonight? Is he watching me? I part my lips and slip a gloved finger into my mouth. Slowly, I remove the soft satin grey glove with my teeth, tossing it toward the footlights. The band kicks it into high gear and I wiggle my bottom and shake my hips as the crowd roars. I wrap my left arm over my chest and unzip the back of my dress with my right hand. Holding the gown loosely over my breasts, I throw out a wink and a smile to the audience. With the impatient pounding of Eddie’s drum, I let the dress fall as the eye blinks and swallows me whole.
Filthy Sugar is available from Inanna Publications as both a paperback and as an e-book. It is also available in Kindle, Kobo and audio editions. Or ask for it at your local bookseller!
You know that dream where you discover a room in your house that you never even knew existed? Well, imagine that room filled with various 1930’s movie stars (including Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler, Butterfly McQueen and Pat O’Brien to name just a few) as well as Joe Louis, Ed Sullivan, Dick Clark, Richard Pryor, Busby Berkeley, Rudy Vallee and Colonel Sanders (yes, THE real Colonel Sanders), serving up his famous buckets of fried chicken while a young Monkees-inspired rock band restores everyone’s faith in America.
No, this isn’t a dream. This is The Phynx (1970).
The Phynx (1970) has been called the “Holy Grail” of bad movies but it’s not bad at all – in fact, I’d argue that it’s actually pretty groovy. The film was released in May of 1970 but Warner Bros.-Seven Arts pulled the picture after only a few screenings. As it was shelved so quickly, no movie posters were created (hence the banner photo of my physical DVD of the film, in lieu of a proper poster image). It would languish in obscurity in the vaults for forty-two years before Warner Bros. finally released the film on DVD in 2012, as part of their manufactured-on-demand Archive Collection.
But why did Warner Bros. pull this movie when so many worse films have seen wide release? Why, some may ask, did Warner Bros. make the picture at all? Fifty-one years later and counting, the riddle of The Phynx remains unsolved.
“My first awareness was the sound of laughter and applause, the scent of powder, perfume, greasepaint; and as the months passed, my world became a kaleidoscope of music, colors, and lights, the rhythm of train wheels pressing the tracks, the wail of a whistle, the exquisite harmony of the orchestra playing, the exquisite discord of the orchestra tuning up, the cadence of that familiar call, ‘Peanuts, popcorn, Cracker Jack!'” – Joan Blondell, Centre Door Fancy (1972)
Curvaceous and quick witted, Joan Blondell was the quintessential sassy dame of the Pre-Code era. One of the hardest working actors in Hollywood – she starred in a total of fifty-four films during the 1930s alone – Blondell was “born in a trunk” and began her lifelong career in show business at the age of four-months on the stages of Vaudeville.
In 1972, Blondell published her novel Centre Door Fancy, described by her publisher as “a fascinating (story) of the world of Vaudeville and the world of Hollywood by a woman who was born into one and became a star in the other.”
Recently the Wall Street Journal ran an article about the pandemic themed HBO Max movie Locked Down in which writer John Jurgensen posed the question: does anyone want to see on screen what they experience every day? After all, as Jurgensen points out, Covid-19 themed productions such as the TV Show Connecting…and the movie Songbird both flopped with audiences and critics alike.
“Man, I can’t wait to watch all these movies being made about the pandemic – said no one ever!” my friend Natasha recently texted me. “Maybe a movie about dogs in the pandemic would be more interesting.”
Both the conversation with my friend and Jurgensen’s article got me thinking about all those movies made during another crisis: namely the Pre-Code films created during the early years of the Great Depression.
But weren’t Depression-era movies all about glitzy escapism, you may ask and you’d be partly right: the most enduring films of the 1930s are the flashy musicals, the screwball comedies and the Universal monster flicks. However a closer look at these films reveal more grit than glitter: after all, remember that it was a stolen apple that led the impoverished waif Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) to Skull Island in King Kong (1933), arguably the most famous of all Pre-Code movies.
Looking for the perfect gift for the vintage lover on your list? My publisher Inanna Publications is currently having a holiday sale: use the coupon code HOLIDAY20 at checkout and receive 30% off my debut historical novel Filthy Sugar.
Set in the 1930s, Filthy Sugar follows the adventures of my voluptuous redheaded heroine Wanda Whittle who finds fame on the burlesque stage at the Apple Bottom theatre as “Wanda Wiggles”. Shady coppers, coke-snorting temperance ladies, cowardly boxers and dime-store bootleggers: Wanda will encounter them all on her journey from rags to riches and back again as she discovers that a girl doesn’t need a lot of sugar to be sensational!
“Filthy Sugar is so delicious it’s positively sinful! Wanda Wiggles will take you to another time and place, but a place where love, lust, greed, sex and power are just as heartbreaking and complex as they are today”. – Lisa de Nikolits, author of The Occult Persuasion and the Anarchist’s Solution and The Rage Room
Support small businesses and local authors this Christmas and get your hands on some Filthy Sugar here.
One of my favorite aspects of Pre-Code Hollywood film is what I like to call “the Pre-Code Peep Show”. These scenes, in which one or more of the film’s actresses disrobe for the camera, are a staple of Hollywood movies made between 1929 and July of 1934. Usually the “Pre-Code Peep Show” has absolutely nothing to do with the plot; take for example Joan Blondell helping Barbara Stanwyck with her stockings in Night Nurse (1931) or Jean Harlow wiggling out of her blouse and skirt in Red-Headed Woman (1932) and giving the audience a glimpse of her naked right breast in the process. Sometimes however, the leading lady strips to reveal more than just her flesh, such as when Bette Davis gets naked in order to further secure her tight grip on Richard Barthelmess in the proletariat drama The Cabin in the Cotton (1932). One of my favorite such scenes is the introduction of Ivy (Miriam Hopkins) in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932): After being rescued from an abusive john by the “good doctor” (Fredric March), the flirtatious Ivy lifts her skirts, ostensibly to show Dr. Jekyll a bruise, while exposing her garter and bare thigh. Jekyll chides her for wearing “so tight a garter – it’s bad for you, it – uh – impedes the circulation.” (Nudge nudge, wink wink) He suggests bed rest and Ivy, smiling at the camera, slowly lifts her skirts, revealing her black stockings and beribboned garters. She gleefully kicks off her high-heeled shoes, peels off her right garter belt and, giggling, tosses it toward the camera. The camera pans to the garter at Dr. Jekyll’s feet before moving back to Ivy, now naked under a white, doily-like bedspread. “Come back soon, won’t ya?” she purrs to Jekyll, swinging her bare leg over the side of the bed like the hand of a clock. “Soon”. Her shapely leg continues to dangle in double exposure as Jekyll departs: a hypnotist’s pendulum.
November is shaping up to be an exciting month for Filthy Sugar! My debut novel, which is set in a burlesque theater during the mid-1930s, was recently reviewed by the Historical Novel Society. What an honor!
Bonnie DeMoss of the Historical Novel Society writes:
“This is an extremely sensual work of art with very mature themes, exquisitely written by Heather Babcock. The characters are real and raw.”
You can read the full review on the Historical Novel Society website here.
Currently available in both paperback and e-book forms, Filthy Sugar will soon be accessible as an audiobook, on all digital platforms, to be released November 15, 2020. I have already heard the audio tapes, narrated by accomplished voice actress Jacqueline Pillon, and they are wonderful! Ms. Pillon really captured Wanda’s spunk and essence.
Filthy Sugar was inspired by the Pre-Code period of Hollywood film and, in particular, the feisty dames of these movies, such as Jean Harlow and Barbara Stanwyck. I hope you’ll check it out!
Brazen and busty, Wanda Wiggles, the star of Filthy Sugar, has taken the burlesque world by a storm! She’s been described by the Underwood bangers as both a “voluptuous dream sweeter than a whipped cream strawberry sundae” and a “Vengeful Vamp”. Here at the Soda Fountain, we thought it was high time to sit down with the rebellious redhead herself. So we put on our best negligee, broke out the rotary dial telephone and gave Ms. Wiggles a call on the horn. Join us below as we discuss everything from burlesque to brassieres and bathtub gin with the infamous hoofer!