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.

Continue reading “Classic Hollywood’s Top Five Greatest Scream Queens”

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.

Continue reading “Book Review: Centre Door Fancy by Joan Blondell”

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”

“Goodness Had Nothin’ to Do With It, Dearie”: Favorite Mae West Quotes

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In 1933, Hollywood’s leading sex symbol was a feisty 40-year-old woman who was as smart as she was curvaceous. Mae West was more than just another sexy blonde though; one of the most influential people, of not only the 1930s but of the twentieth century, West was an accomplished playwright, screenwriter, actress, singer and comedienne. A pioneer of the sexual revolution, Mae said “I let people know that women like sex too, and that’s a good thing, not a bad thing, as long as you don’t hurt anyone.” In 1927, Mae’s smash hit play Sex was raided by police and after the subsequent trial, she was found guilty of “corrupting the morals of youth”. The judge sentenced her to either pay a fine of five hundred dollars or spend ten days in a women’s prison. Mae chose the jail sentence because she thought it “more interesting” and figured it would provide fodder for her writing: “I wasn’t going to be deprived of that experience,” she would say years later. “I saw those as ten very valuable days, a kind of working vacation.” In 1933, West’s movie She Done Him Wrong (1933) did Paramount Studios very, very right: the film – and Mae – saved the studio from bankruptcy during the bleakest days of the Great Depression. In the excellent 2009 biography She Always Knew How: Mae West, A Personal Biography, author Charlotte Chandler wrote: “There were even some people who were willing to miss a second meal in order to see She Done Him Wrong and Mae West a second time.”

She may have only had a third-grade education, but Mae West is inarguably the most quoted person of the twentieth century. Popular double entendres such as “Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?” originated with West. Because of the sheer wealth of her smart and snappy one-liners, it would be next to impossible to limit a list of Mae’s top quotes to just ten.  So instead I am sharing a top ten of my personal favourite Mae West quotes. Feel free to add your own in the comments section.

Continue reading ““Goodness Had Nothin’ to Do With It, Dearie”: Favorite Mae West Quotes”

A Savage Detour into Hell: Review of Detour (1945), the (Tough) Mama of Film Noir.

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“There oughta be a law against dames with claws.”   

Straight out of Poverty Row, what Detour (1945) lacks in budget, it makes up for in style. Written by Martin Goldsmith (The Twilight Zone) and starring Tom Neal and the inimitable Ann Savage, Detour is to film noir what The Public Enemy (1931) is to the gangster flick: it isn’t the first in its genre but it’s certainly one of the most definitive and influential. In A Pictorial History of Crime Films (1975), author Ian Cameron calls Detour “well in the running to being the cheapest really good talkie to come out of Hollywood.”

There’s no Public Enemy-style grapefruit in Detour but if there was, it would undoubtedly be Ann Savage smashing the breakfast fruit into Tom Neal’s face and not the other way around. As Vera, the unhinged hitchhiker whom our wide-eyed protagonist Al Roberts (Neal) has the misfortune of picking up, Savage is the most dangerous of all film noir dames: the femme who puts the “fatal” in femme fatale.

Continue reading “A Savage Detour into Hell: Review of Detour (1945), the (Tough) Mama of Film Noir.”

Blood and Kisses: Ten Fabulous Bette Davis Quotes

cool Bette

By Heather Babcock

The odd one out in a sea of perfect cheekbones and symmetrical faces, Bette Davis was the closest thing to an “every-woman” that classic Hollywood ever got. Dismissed early on in her career by studio heads who didn’t find her “sexy” enough, the feisty trailblazing Davis went on to become one of the most popular, iconic and enduring figures of film and pop culture.

In some ways, Davis was the female Lon Chaney, “The Man of a Thousand Faces”. In films like Of Human Bondage (1934), Mr. Skeffington (1944) and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), she portrayed unlikable characters with a relish that bordered on sadomasochism and insisted on using “ugly” make-up to look more hideous than her directors thought necessary. In her breakout role as Mildred Rogers, the vile wretch who cruelly toys with poor, sensitive Philip Carey (Leslie Howard) in Of Human Bondage (1934), Bette, in her own words, “made it pretty clear that Mildred was not going to die of a dread disease looking as if a deb had missed her noon nap.” During the filming of Mr. Skeffington (1944), when her director Vincent Sherman balked at the over-the-top make-up she insisted on wearing to play Fanny Skeffington, a deteriorating socialite who has lost her looks to diphtheria, Bette shrugged. “My audience likes to see me do this kind of thing,” she replied.

Those large, infamous eyes were like that of a doe but onscreen Bette Davis often possessed the look of a startled rattlesnake. Like a razor blade hidden inside a tube of pink lipstick, her kiss – and words – had plenty of bite. In films such as The Letter (1940) and All About Eve (1950), Davis delivered cutting and suggestive lines with her own signature blend of caustic sensuality. Here is a look at some of Bette’s most unforgettable on-screen quotes (with a fabulous off-screen one thrown in for good measure):

Continue reading “Blood and Kisses: Ten Fabulous Bette Davis Quotes”

The Way We Wore Part 1: The Women (1939)

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The Women (1939)

 “When anything I wear doesn’t please your husband, I take it off.”

Director: George Cukor

Gowns and Fashion Show by Adrian

MGM’s star-studded The Women boasted an all-female cast but don’t let that fool you: it may very well be one of the most sexist movies ever made. The film’s original tagline was “It’s all about men!” and the plot revolves around a romantic tug of war between a society wife (played by Norma Shearer) and her husband’s mistress (Joan Crawford, chewing up scenes, along with the aforementioned husband, as sassy shop girl Crystal Allen). So why should we watch The Women today? For the clothes, of course! Particularly the six-minute fashion parade styled by Adrian.

Hailed by MGM as “Hollywood’s foremost studio designer”, Adrian’s over 250 film credits include designing the costumes for The Wizard of Oz (1939), Dinner at Eight (1933) and Grand Hotel (1932). In the 1940 MGM featurette Hollywood: Style Center of the World, the film’s narrator declares that Adrian “has probably done more to influence style trends the world over than any other designer.” In the featurette, a young farm girl named Mary goes to town to buy a dress for her date with Jim. The saleslady assures her that the dress she chooses is styled the same as the one that “Joan Crawford wears in her new picture.”

And so to this quiet little town, far from the Metropolitan areas, the Hollywood influence reaches out to style and gown Mary just as smartly as Joan Crawford,” the narrator boasts. “Today the girl from the country is just as modern and dresses just as smartly as her big city sister.”

In The Women Adrian takes us on a “voyage into fashion land” as the black&white film morphs into eye popping technicolor and the viewer is treated to a department store fashion parade. In the 1930s, department stores held live fashion shows complete with tea and sandwiches; the models were commonly referred to as “mannequins” so sometimes these shows were also called “mannequin parades”. Wide brimmed hats, wide shouldered belted jackets, feathered caps, silk turbans, matching gloves and Gone With the Wind inspired wide skirted gowns with puffed sleeves and high necks: this “voyage” has it all, including a rather creepy beach cape with a Frankenstein-like man’s hand as a clasp. The feminine, frilly and sometimes over the top styles showcase a smorgasbord of late 1930’s fashion. For an audience that was still feeling the effects of the Great Depression, this parade must have been an eye-candy store fantasy of indulgence.

Written by Heather Babcock

Happy Birthday, Clara Bow!

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By Heather Babcock

“I’m a curiosity in Hollywood. I’m a big freak because I’m myself.” – Clara Bow

“The girl…blossomed in a mud puddle,” wrote Stephen Crane of his eponymous heroine in his 1892 novel Maggie: A Girl of the Streets.

Crane’s sentiment could just as easily apply to Clara Bow, born thirteen years later, on July 29th, 1905.

If the term “It Girl” makes you think of spoiled blonde socialites clutching yappy little Chihuahuas while spilling out of stretch limousines, you may be surprised to learn that the original “It Girl” was born 114 years ago in a Brooklyn tenement, in a neighborhood populated by prostitutes, dope peddlers and assorted criminals of both the soft and hard core variety. In fact, Clara Bow was not expected to live at all. Her mother went into labor during a brutal heatwave which shot the infant mortality rate in the tenement district up to around eighty percent. Clara was the third child of Robert and Sarah Bow; their first daughter had died three days after her birth while their second child lived for only two hours. When Clara Bow was born, her impoverished young parents were so certain that she would not survive that they didn’t even bother obtaining a birth certificate.

But not only did Clara survive; she thrived. Continue reading “Happy Birthday, Clara Bow!”

They Call It Sin (1932)

they call it sin poster

“When I first started playing my music on the church organ, a committee of outraged citizens went to the minister and wanted me discharged. They said my music was inspired by the devil.” – Marion (Loretta Young), They Call It Sin (1932).

In the early ‘90s, I’d spend my Saturday afternoons at Zellers poring over their vast selection of the True magazines: True Story, True Confessions, True Love and True Romance. Only the covers bearing the most salacious headlines would I deem worthy of my five dollar weekly allowance.  Cover stories such as “I’M CHEATING – MY HUSBAND TOLD ME TO!”, “MY HUSBAND CALLS ME A TRAMP – AND IT’S TRUE!” and “I WAS THE MAIN COURSE AT THANKSGIVING DINNER!” piqued my pre-adolescent curiosity. However the actual stories never lived up to the promise of their titles. So when my father reprimanded me for reading “such trash”, it was with no small measure of disappointment with which I informed him that the stories within were actually quite chaste.

This is also true of the 1932 film They Call It Sin, a movie whose title is much more risqué than the film itself. Although the movie – made during Hollywood’s naughty Pre-Code era and starring the doe-eyed beauty Loretta Young and cutie-pie comedienne Una Merkel – certainly has its tantalizing moments, namely what I like to call “the Pre-Code Peepshow”: a scene requisite to Pre-Code films in which one or more of the leading ladies slowly undress, for no other purpose but to titillate the audience (for modern viewers, these scenes also give us a delicious fashion lesson on 1930’s undergarments).  But for all of its dressing and undressing, They Call It Sin has some feisty feminist underpinnings.

The story centers on Marion Cullen (Loretta Young), an aspiring musician saddled with a strict family in a small minded town. Resplendent in a wide brimmed Easter bonnet and a long lacey dress with sleeves so puffed they’d make Anne Shirley green with envy, Marion is playing the organ in her parent’s church when she catches the eye of a handsome businessman from the big city.  After a whirlwind romance at the soda fountain, Marion follows her beau to New York where she discovers that the cad is actually engaged to a high society gal.  Her dreams of love dashed, Marion pursues her career ambitions and lands a job as an accompanist for a lecherous producer who ends up stealing her music. After a tragic accident, Marion stands falsely accused of his murder.

More than just knock-out looks, Marion also has plenty of “can’t knock me out” resilience: when the two-bit producer plagiarizes her music, she literally fights him – with her fists. “Dixie,” she says to her best pal, a charming showgirl played by Una Merkel, “my music’s all I have left and I’m not going to let him have it!” to which Dixie replies “Let him have it – right on the nose!”  Although she came to New York with the ambition of finding love, she stays for her career. This is something that many women in 1932 could probably relate to: with WW1 having tragically wiped out a great deal of eligible bachelors, many women were carving out their own path – a path that was very different from the wife and motherhood lifestyle that they had grown up expecting.

Call it sin? Maybe not. But this Pre-Code gem, available on Warner Bros. Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume Four, is a fun, feminist romp that’s well worth watching. And re-watching.

Reviewed by Heather Babcock, 2019

 

 

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)”