The Great Dames of Scarface (1932): Ann Dvorak and Karen Morley

Ann Dvorak in a publicity photo for Scarface (1932). Newspapers called her “Hollywood’s New Cinderella”.

“There are certain things that simply do not belong on the screen. The subject matter of Scarface is one of them,” The Film Daily wrote in its 1932 review of the now-legendary gangster classic. “It should never have been made.”

Audiences disagreed but Scarface producers Howard Hughes and Howard Hawks (the latter also directed) knew that they would. As if to show their distaste for the Eighteenth Amendment, movie-goers in the 1920s and early 1930s hungered – or should I say, thirsted – for the gangster movie: in 1927, when Paramount Pictures released Underworld (arguably the Granddaddy of the gangster genre) theatres had to keep the film playing 24 hours a day just to keep up with public demand.

Warner Bros. began 1931 with a bang when they released the influential gangster movie Little Caesar in January of that year and The Public Enemy in the spring. Both films made household names of their leading men Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney, respectfully. Scarface, distributed by United Artists, is the third film to fill out the “Holy Trinity” of the great pre-Code gangster movies and, like its beer-and-blood soaked predecessors, it made a star of its male lead, Paul Muni (as the Capone-inspired Tony Camonte), and co-star George Raft. However Scarface also boasts two of the most interesting performances by women in the gangster genre: Karen Morley as tough moll Poppy and, most decidedly, Ann Dvorak as Tony’s ambitious younger sister Cesca.

Picture F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby with Al Capone as the protagonist and you have a pretty good idea of Scarface. Striking with its use of shadows and symbolism, Scarface is a tale of the American Dream…and in an America caught in the double fisted grip of Prohibition and the Great Depression, it’s a dream gone dangerously delirious – a dream fueled by buckets of bathtub gin; a dream which can be poisonous if taken straight. Stylish and visually dazzling, Scarface is in many ways a precursor to film noir, particularly in its opening scene which depicts – largely by the use of shadows – Tony killing a rival gang boss.

Although the role of Tony is obviously based on Capone, no one in the movie actually refers to him as “Scarface”; this is due to a compromise of sorts between Hughes and the Hays Office, who wanted Hughes to change the title of the film, fearing that it glamorized Capone (…or maybe they just feared Capone). Thankfully, Hughes kept the original title intact but removed all references to the name “Scarface” in the finished film. Even so, the movie was on Capone’s radar. According to Thomas Doherty in his fascinating book Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930-1934, one of Capone’s henchmen told director Howard Hawks that “the Big Fellow” wanted to look over the picture. “The Big Shot will have to lay down his money at the box office if he wants to see Scarface,” the unflappable Hawks replied. Screenwriter Ben Hecht – who also co-wrote the script for Underworld – allegedly convinced Capone’s associates to become consultants on the movie.

Continue reading “The Great Dames of Scarface (1932): Ann Dvorak and Karen Morley”

“Come on baby, what are you afraid of?”: The Bad Boy Gangster Was the Femme Fatale of 1930’s Pre-Code Cinema

Clark Gable and Norma Shearer in A Free Soul (1931)

Sandwiched between the silent movie Vamp and the Femme Fatale of 1940’s film noir, is the Bad Boy Gangster, who swaggered and strutted his way over the morally ambiguous terrain that was pre-Code Hollywood film.  But make no mistake: pre-Code movies belonged to the ladies, or to put it more accurately, the New Woman.

WW1 changed everything – but its aftermath changed women in particular. The carnage of “the Great War” had depleted the number of eligible young men and the expectations that a young woman had previously taken for granted – a husband, children and a home – now seemed less likely for many. Becoming an independent “working girl” (whether that meant working in a dress shop or cleaning houses) was not a choice – it was a necessity. The independence didn’t stop there. By the end of 1922, almost all of the Canadian provinces had granted women the right to vote (it would not be until 1940 that women in Quebec would be granted full suffrage). In the USA, the 19th Amendment, ratified on August 18th and certified as law on August 26th of 1920, technically granted women suffrage although the fight for the right to vote was far from over for Black women in America.

In 1918, Marie Stopes’ controversial best selling book Married Love or Love in Marriage openly discussed methods of birth control, and it wasn’t just married women who read it. However it wasn’t until the economic depression of the 1930s that birth control gained wider acceptance. In his brilliant book The Great Depression 1929-1939, Pierre Berton writes that “after 1930 it began to be obvious that ignorance of birth control methods was causing hardship among the poor, who couldn’t afford large families. Deaths from illegal abortions, many self-induced, were on the rise.” As a result, the United Church formally endorsed birth control in 1936, with Rev. John Coburn stating that “every child had the right to come into the world wanted.” In Ontario, Canada, birth control advocate and social worker Dorothea Palmer, who was arrested – and later acquitted – in 1936 for canvassing the homes of impoverished mothers and asking them if they would like information on birth control, publicly stated that “a woman should be master of her own body. She should be the one to say if she should become a mother.”

Working girls. Voting rights. Birth control. The first wave of the women’s revolution coalesced with a new phenomenon: the movies. Mary Pickford. Clara Bow. Josephine Baker. Joan Crawford. Suddenly working class girls had something other than a man to pin their dreams on. Thanks to the validity of the movies and their wildly popular female stars, make-up was no longer “just for prostitutes” – plenty of “nice” girls now rouged their lips and painted their faces. Skirts were shorter and morals were looser…well, sort of.

Continue reading ““Come on baby, what are you afraid of?”: The Bad Boy Gangster Was the Femme Fatale of 1930’s Pre-Code Cinema”

Guest Post: Frank Capra, a Master of Comedy and Social Awareness by Jeff Cottrill

Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934)

Editor’s Note: Jeff Cottrill is a talented writer and spoken word artist. We met over a decade ago, as youngsters making our way in Toronto’s open mic scene. A fellow film buff, Jeff is one of my favorite people to talk movies with. So when he approached me about writing a guest post for the Soda Fountain, I knew it would be a great fit. Jeff’s debut novel Hate Story is being released from Dragonfly Publishing (Australia) in March 2022 and I was honored to read an ARC. Hate Story is a fresh, funny and original telling of the dark side of social media and internet shaming. Its heroine happens to be a movie blogger so the novel is sprinkled with lots of great references to classic and contemporary films. Read on for Jeff’s essay “Frank Capra: A Master of Comedy and Social Awareness”.

I wouldn’t give you two cents for all your fancy rules if, behind them, they didn’t have a little bit of plain, ordinary, everyday kindness. And a little lookin’ out for the other fella too.

James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

When many people hear the name Frank Capra today, chances are the only title they think of is It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). This movie is a timeless holiday favourite, but it’s a shame its reputation now outshines the rest of Capra’s filmmaking career – especially his pre-World War II movies, which are arguably better. Capra had a streak unmatched by any other director in the 1930s, winning three Academy Awards while helming classics like Lady for a Day (1933), It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Lost Horizon (1937), You Can’t Take It with You (1938) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).

Frank Capra is my favourite director from this era – or maybe tied with Charlie Chaplin. There are two important traits Capra and Chaplin have in common: their impeccable comedic timing, and their passionate social conscience. Many critics have dismissed Capra as a corny sentimentalist, but it’s really the comedy that brings his work to life, propped up by the wit of screenwriter Robert Riskin and the sharp delivery of actors like Jean Arthur, James Stewart, Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Thomas Mitchell, Lionel Barrymore and many others.

Take the whip-smart repartee that Gable and Colbert lob at each other in It Happened One Night. As Gable’s cynical reporter buses and hitchhikes across America with Colbert’s spoiled runaway heiress, the pair bicker and debate hilariously about everything from dunking donuts to piggybacking, with a speed and timing that surely influenced later romcoms. On the surface, the characters have nothing in common – but the energy they devote to each other reveals a deep connection, one of shared intelligent sarcasm, and you can’t help rooting for them to hook up.

Arthur and Stewart play off each other in a similar way in You Can’t Take It with You and Mr. Smith, and Arthur had a knack for portraying jaded professional women with a hidden compassionate side. In both Mr. Deeds and Mr. Smith, Arthur’s character starts off mocking and patronizing the naive title hero – but once she gets to know him, she not only falls in love with his sincerity, but also becomes his number-one supporter. It sounds like an implausible fantasy, yet Arthur makes it work by staying smart, funny, fast-talking and worldly even while yielding to her inner sentiment. She’s no pushover; she thinks for herself and owns full agency over her decisions, in a way that may surprise modern viewers who expect dated sexism.

All Capra’s best movies centre on the theme of an ordinary man (the “Little Guy”) winning out against the big guns of the establishment. This theme was especially potent during the poverty and social upheaval of the Great Depression, but I think it’s even more relevant now – in the wake of the recent Occupy movement, and in an era of high wealth gaps and billionaires playing space tourism. Every Capra classic features a relatable lone hero who stands up for bedrock moral values against the corruption, egotism and greed around him – the kind of hero people wished for in the ’30s, and the kind we could use now.

Continue reading “Guest Post: Frank Capra, a Master of Comedy and Social Awareness by Jeff Cottrill”

Pre-Code Film Review: Ladies They Talk About (1933)

Listen, don’t think you can walk in here and take over this joint. There’s lots of big sharks in here that just live on fresh fish like you.

Susie (Dorothy Burgess), Ladies They Talk About

On the silver screen of the 1930s, beauty and talent counted for some but personality was worth a lot more. Lucky Barbara Stanwyck had all three – and how! One of the most quintessential actresses of the Pre-Code era, Stanwyck could be both tough-as-nails and vulnerable at the same time, as showcased in two of her best movies from this time period, Baby Face (1933) and Ladies They Talk About (1933). In both movies, Stanwyck plays the “good bad girl”, a term coined by Henry James Forman in his 1933 book Our Movie-Made Children to describe a leading female character who combines “sweetness” with “loose morals”.

If there were any doubts that Depression-era audiences adored the “good bad girl”, the trailer for Ladies They Talk About casts them aside, exclaiming:

Men called her BEAUTIFUL! Women called her BAD! Police called her DANGEROUS! You’ll call her WONDERFUL!

Released on February 4th, 1933 and starring Stanwyck as Nan, a “beautiful gun moll” who helps rob a bank and gets sent to the slammer, Ladies They Talk About was Warner Bros’ feminine take on the prison film, a genre that was incredibly popular in the early 1930s. In 1932, Warner Bros. released the hard hitting classics I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, although both movies were predated by RKO Radio Pictures’ Hell’s Highway (released in September of that year; Fugitive followed in November and Sing Sing in December). The success of Ladies They Talk About encouraged Warner Bros. to do for the gangster flick what Ladies did for the prison movie, with the surprisingly feminist Blondie Johnson (1933), starring Joan Blondell as an organized crime boss.

Pre-Code Hollywood loved gangsters and the feeling was reciprocated. The infamous Bonnie Parker adored the movies and, like many poor and working class girls of her time, saw in them a way out of drudgery and poverty. In March 1930, Parker hid a gun under her dress to help her boyfriend Clyde Barrow escape from jail. It was April of 1933 however when the two bank robbing love birds became household names: when authorities investigated the Barrow gang’s hideout, they found rolls of unprocessed film containing posed images of the couple that were soon splashed across newspapers nationwide. It was the photos of Bonnie that captured the public’s imagination the most: tight sweater, gun at her hip, cigar wedged between her lips: women like this had only ever existed in the movies. Until now. Did Bonnie see Ladies They Talk About and was she influenced by it? It’s certainly plausible.

Continue reading “Pre-Code Film Review: Ladies They Talk About (1933)”

Quotes About WW1 From the Best Silent and Pre-Code War Movies

Remembrance Day is not about glorifying war. It 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 fight for the freedoms that 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.

The Granddaddy of war movies and perhaps the greatest of them all, The Big Parade (1925), was released just seven years after the Armistice by the very generation that fought in WW1. Indeed, many in the film’s cast and crew were directly involved in WW1: Canadian actress Claire Adams worked as a Red Cross nurse; actor Tom O’Brien served in the Navy and Laurence Stallings, who wrote the film’s story, had served as a Marine Captain and lost his leg fighting in the “Great War”.

Many of the top directors of early war films, such as James Whale and William A. Wellman, were WW1 veterans. War movies made during the 1920s and 1930s, while in no means shying away from the death and destruction of the battlefield, are not as gory as the war films which would be made in later decades. In particular, war movies made and 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 that they had faced on the battlefield for an audience’s entertainment. While modern war dramas focus on battlefield action, Pre-Code war movies focus on humanity and loss (silent movies such as The Big Parade and Wings effectively handled both).

If we can look at old movies as snapshots in the photo journal of time, then perhaps these films speak to the faith, fears, anger and anxiety of the forgotten soldier. As follows are some of the most poignant quotes from the best war movies of the silent and Pre-Code period.

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Classic Hollywood’s Top Five Greatest Scream Queens

We All Go a Little Mad Sometimes: Janet Leigh, Psycho (1960)

Where have all the Scream Queens gone?

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 all time. Distressed Dames, yes. Damsels in Distress? Never.

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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)”

This Writer’s Bump and Grind

Doll photography inspired by Wanda Wiggles

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!

Heather Babcock, 2021

American Pop Culture Saves Democracy: The Phynx (1970)

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.

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Book Review: Centre Door Fancy by Joan Blondell

Review by Heather Babcock, 2021

“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.”

In other words, this ain’t exactly fiction.

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