The Classic and the ‘Trash-ic’: 42nd Street (1933) and Showgirls (1995)

One is a (seemingly) wholesome and widely beloved classic Warner Brothers’ movie musical, featuring visually dazzling song and dance numbers choreographed by the now-legendary Busby Berkeley. The other is a crass and tacky soft core MGM porn show whose title became a punch-line even before its release.

On closer inspection however, 42nd Street (1933) and Showgirls (1995) have a lot more in common than one may suspect. To paraphrase Truman Capote, it’s like the two movies grew up together in the same house and one day 42nd Street got up and strutted out the front door, while Showgirls sneaked out the back.

Although only one takes place in Vegas, both films were a gamble.

Continue reading “The Classic and the ‘Trash-ic’: 42nd Street (1933) and Showgirls (1995)”

We’re (Not) in the Money: What Covid-era Filmmakers Can Learn From Pre-Code Depression-era Movies

“He’s just the kind of man I’ve been looking for: lots of money and no resistance.” Aline MacMahon and Guy Kibbee in Gold Diggers of 1933

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.

Continue reading “We’re (Not) in the Money: What Covid-era Filmmakers Can Learn From Pre-Code Depression-era Movies”

Once Upon a Time…Fritz Lang Made a Romantic Comedy (You and Me, 1938)

you and me

“The Big Shots aren’t little crooks like you. They’re politicians.”

If Karl Marx baked a birthday cake and laced it with marijuana, the results would probably be very similar to You and Me (1938), a delicious grab bag of a movie which combines humour, film-noir, romance, musical numbers and a social message all to delightful – and dizzying – effect.  But what did Paramount expect when they asked Fritz Lang, the German director best known for his Weimar-era expressionist films such as Metropolis (1927) and M (1931), to direct a romantic comedy?

Continue reading “Once Upon a Time…Fritz Lang Made a Romantic Comedy (You and Me, 1938)”

Youth Derailed: William A. Wellman’s Wild Boys of the Road (1933)

wild boys of the road

By Heather Babcock

 “You say ya gotta send us to jail to keep us off the streets. Well that’s a lie. You’re sending us to jail because you don’t wanna see us.” – Eddie (Frankie Darro), Wild Boys of the Road (1933).

When it comes to Depression-era movies, we tend to picture splashy musicals, Fred Astaire’s tap shoes and Shirley Temple’s dimples.  But there were many films of the decade which chose instead to turn away from the glitter in favor of the grit: movies that had their noses planted in the newspaper headlines of the day and their feet in the dirty streets. Films like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) and Heroes for Sale (1933). These are movies that came out of Warner Brothers, a studio which prided itself on catering to a working class audience. For a brief moment in time blue collar workers, taxi drivers, waitresses, maids and the unemployed could see images of themselves up on the silver screen. These images usually came in the voluptuous mold of Joan Blondell or the firecracker form of James Cagney. But they were there, just the same. Warner Brothers, home of the gangster flick and Busby Berkeley musicals, strove to tell stories “ripped from the headlines of the day” – the main rule being that the stories never be boring. Darryl F. Zanuck, Warner’s then-head of production, wrote a letter to the Hollywood Reporter in 1932 advocating these types of films which, as he wrote, “must have the punch and smash that would entitle it to a headline on the front page of any successful metropolitan daily.” One of those films – which definitely packs one smash of a punch – is Warner’s Wild Boys of the Road (1933), directed by William “Wild Bill” Wellman.

It is a crying shame that Wellman is not better remembered today. He directed a whopping seventy-six films in his time including the influential gangster picture The Public Enemy (1931), the original A Star is Born (1937) and the first winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture, Wings (1927). Even just one of these movies would be an enviable accomplishment! It was however his 1933 film Wild Boys of the Road, about a group of young train hopping waifs, which held a special place in his heart: his son, William Wellman, Jr., wrote in his 2015 biography Wild Bill Wellman: Hollywood Rebel that the film’s story reminded Wellman of his own troubled youth. His son has said that of all of his movies, the director counted Wild Boys of the Road (1933) among his top ten favorites.

The plight of homeless people is often romanticized in the media. In the 1930s, newspapers couldn’t resist the adventurous stories of down-on-their-luck individuals who “rode the rails” in the hopes of finding work. In an article published on July 15th, 1931 the Globe newspaper wrote: “As a general rule, the hobo is on the road because a cog slipped earlier somewhere in the machinery of his life…The lure of the road has gripped him, and in the morning he must be off to new scenes.”

But those “new scenes” and adventures were often filled with misery, violence and trauma. Wild Boys of the Road (1933) rips apart the headlines of the day and admirably turns its unflinching eye on the brutal crush of poverty. Continue reading “Youth Derailed: William A. Wellman’s Wild Boys of the Road (1933)”

“It’s not what I say but the way I say it”: Ten Sassy Quotes from Pre-Code Hollywood

jean

By Heather Babcock

The advent of “talkies” (sound films) in the late 1920s coincided with the public’s increased access to radio and jazz music; this combined with the women’s rights movement and a burgeoning sexual revolution inspired a lot of the slang and witticisms that populate classic Hollywood movies, particularly those released during the Pre-Code period.

As someone who loves language, I enjoy the bon mots and word play of early sound films (and silent movies too – we must remember that although the words were not audible, there was still quite a lot of talking in pre-sound films). Hollywood pioneers like Mae West and screenwriter Anita Loos believed that language, like sex, should be fun. Although sexy, their witticisms were suggestive rather than coarse, teasing instead of tawdry.

Here is my top ten list, in no particular order, of the sassiest, cheekiest and sometimes sexiest quotes from Pre-Code Hollywood movies. If at first glance these lines don’t seem saucy or hot enough for you, try reading them out loud with a hand on your hip and a cigarette dangling from your lips. As the great Mae West said, “It’s not what I say but the way I say it.”

  1. “Will ya stop reminding me of Heaven when I’m so close to the other place?” – Joan Blondell, Three on a Match (1932)
  1. “You can’t show me a thing – I just came from the delivery room.” – Edward Nugent, Night Nurse (1931)
  1. “Your day off is sure brutal on your lingerie.” – Jean Harlow, Bombshell (1933)
  1. It takes more than flat heels and glasses to make a sensible woman.” – Ruth Chatterton, Female (1933)
  1. “When I kiss ’em, they stay kissed for a long time.” – Jean Harlow, Red-Headed Woman (1932)
  1. “When I’m good, I’m very good. But when I’m bad, I’m better.” – Mae West, I’m No Angel (1933)
  1. “I’d like to kiss ya, but I just washed my hair.” – Bette Davis, The Cabin in the Cotton (1932)
  1. “You make any joint look like a speakeasy.” – Joan Blondell, Night Nurse (1931)
  1. Police detective: “You don’t look like these other women.” Marlene Dietrich: “Give me time.” – Blonde Venus (1932)
  1. “Would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?” – Jean Harlow, Hell’s Angels (1930)