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.

Continue reading “American Pop Culture Saves Democracy: The Phynx (1970)”

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)”

Depression-era movies were made for this time: Top Pre-Code Escapist Films

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We are all experiencing the loss right now of our regular day-to-day way of living. As with any loss, many of us are experiencing the stages of grief, which include shock, denial, bargaining and depression. I always thought of myself as an introvert but this crisis has shown me how important human interaction is: social distancing is necessary right now but it’s also very disheartening and, well, lonely.

During this time, I have found some comfort in movies made during Hollywood’s saucy Pre-Code period, which took place from 1930 to mid-1934, during the darkest days of the Great Depression.  Although there are many excellent social dramas from this era – films such as Heroes for Sale (1933) and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) – which, with their focus on income equality and corrupt bureaucracy remain relevant today, Hollywood was also pumping out loads of escapist fare meant to lend a little hope and cheer: two things I think we all could use right now.

What follows is just a handful of my favorite Pre-Code escapist films.  Feel free to list your own favorites in the comment section. Continue reading “Depression-era movies were made for this time: Top Pre-Code Escapist Films”

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

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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.

From Flesh to Fantasy: Busby Berkeley and the Revitalization of the Movie Musical

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Ah, the limitations of a writer. How do you describe a bevy of beautiful women, with come-hither curves and wholesome smiles, suddenly morphing into a giant glistening magnolia flower in bloom?

As difficult as such a scene may seem to put into words, imagine having to actually create it using real live human beings and without the aid of animation or CGI. And yet somehow 1930’s choreographer and movie director Busby Berkeley did just that: by pushing the limitations of the early sound film, Busby gave flesh to fantasies that we didn’t even know we had yet.

Before Busby, musical sequences in the popular “let’s put on a show!” genre were filmed in long shot; the movie audience could only see what a stage audience would see. In 1933, Busby revitalized the genre by putting the camera where a stage audience couldn’t go. Suddenly, show-girls could fly (Dames, 1934), violins glowed in the dark (Gold Diggers of 1933) and a scrub-woman’s laundry morphed into a gallant lover (Dames, 1934).  And then there’s the elaborate water ballet “By a Waterfall” in Footlight Parade (1933), a musical sequence full of lush forests, frolicking nymphs and a human waterfall that’s so erotic it makes me blush just thinking about it!

“But you couldn’t do that in a theater!” His critics still cry. Um, that’s the point. Welcome to the magic of the movies.

Busby’s choreography was sensual but it wasn’t sexist: a celebration of the beauty of the female form, it was almost always erotic but never pornographic. When I watched La La Land (2016) in the theater a couple of years ago, I was shocked by how skinny most of the chorus girls were. Conversely, musicals made from 1929 – 1934 often showcase gorgeous chorines with ample hips and beautiful thick thighs. The genre’s shift from curvy to skinny probably says more about the power of advertising than it does about human desire.

Busby’s musical sequences in films such as 42nd Street (1933), Footlight Parade (1933), Gold Diggers of 1933 and Dames (1934) still have the power to dazzle and enthrall even the most jaded audiences of today.

Who needs CGI when you’ve got Busby Berkeley?

Written by Heather Babcock, 2019

 

Gold Diggers of 1933

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“It’s the Depression, dearie.”

 “We’re in the money!” Ginger Rogers sings during the opening of this extravagant musical, but when she starts warbling the song in Pig Latin, we know she’s just being tongue-in-cheek, particularly when the sheriff and his deputies interrupt the show to collect on the producer’s unpaid bills (“Ain’t you goin’ to at least give me car fare?” Ginger asks, as one of the sheriff’s men demands her costume). Because of course in 1933, most Americans weren’t “in the money” and most refreshingly neither are the “gold diggers” in this movie: the fetching trio of Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler and Aline MacMahon wake up in a flea bag hotel, scratching at bug bites and complaining of hunger pains. So what do you do in hard times? Well, if you’ve ever seen a 1930s movie, you know the answer to that question is “put on a show!” And with the incomparable Busby Berkeley choreographing, what a show it is! Busby works his innovative magic with the romantic “Shadow Waltz” (neon gowns and violins!) and the fun & naughty “Pettin’ in the Park” (keep an eye out for gorgeous Theresa Harris). After nearly 90 minutes of escapism though, the film explodes with the boot stomping finale “Remember my Forgotten Man” in which WW1 veterans, physically broken and emotionally battered, ask “We fought for USA, but where are we today?”

It is important to note that Gold Diggers of 1933 shares the same director as I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932): Mervyn LeRoy. You don’t have to dig too deep to find the nugget of social commentary lurking in the shadows of Gold Diggers of 1933’s party: there’s plenty of grit in this glitter.

“Yes,” the film seems to say to its intended Depression-era audience, “We know you need escapism and we will give it to you, but we will also respect you by acknowledging and validating that of which you need to escape from.”

This need for both human connection and fantasy is why we go to the movies.

It’s also why we create art.

Toronto readers note: Gold Diggers of 1933 is playing March 23rd, 2019 at the Revue theatre in 35mm!

 

Ruby Keeler:America’s Forgotten Sweetheart

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As cuddly as a kitten and twice as sweet, Ruby Keeler (self-admittedly) wasn’t much of a singer – and perhaps she did look at her feet a little too much when she danced – but none of that mattered to Depression-era audiences who fell head over heels for the wide-eyed, leggy sweetheart of the Busby musicals made during Hollywood’s sassy Pre-Code era. With her natural charm and knack for playing naive yet plucky innocents, Ruby Keeler helped to boost American morale during the darkest days of the Great Depression.

Text by Heather Babcock, 2019