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)”

“It’s not how you wear ’em, it’s how you work ’em”: Back Seam Stockings

“Immediately, she examined Miss Armstrong closely as a mistress. (…) Francie looked at her legs. They were long, slender and exquisitely molded. She wore the sheerest of flawless silk stockings, and expensively-made high-heeled pumps shod her beautifully arched feet. ‘Beautiful legs, then, is the secret of being a mistress’, concluded Francie.” – Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943)

“One of the most important things in being well-dressed, to my way of thinking, is to watch your hose. No matter how expensive the rest of your costume, if your hosiery is not sheer and clear and in the right shade, the entire effect can be ruined. Therefore I am careful about the shade of hose I wear with each frock, and always, always have hose that are sheer and utterly ringless.” – Joan Blondell, Modern Screen Magazine, January 1937

Stockings have steadily fallen out of favor over the past four decades. Fishnet and patterned leggings are still donned by fun loving fashionistas, but today drugstore pantyhose is only one step ahead of crocks in the style department. However, there was a time when stockings were the must have accessory, for both everyday wear and to complement an elegant outfit. Held in place by garter belts, with a straight seam up the back, fully fashioned stockings (or “back seam stockings”) were worn by everyone from factory girls to movie stars.

Continue reading ““It’s not how you wear ’em, it’s how you work ’em”: Back Seam Stockings”

Crashing the Party: “Our Modern Maidens (1929)” and the Inevitable Ticking of the Clock.

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Do you remember where you were on Wednesday, March 11th, 2020?

I do. I was having lunch with a friend at George’s Chicken at Bloor & Bathurst. I can’t remember what we talked about but I know it wasn’t Covid-19. The overhead TV was on and I remember a newscaster reporting that the NBA had suspended its season due to a player testing positive for the coronavirus but I didn’t think that would affect me. After lunch, my friend and I parted ways and I hopped on the subway to shop for some vintage inspired seamed stockings at Damsels and then I headed to Brentwood Library to pick up a book and a few DVDs that I had placed on hold. I had no idea that by Saturday these simple pleasures – lunch with a friend, clothes shopping and visiting the public library – would be impossible. That day now feels like something out of a dream.

I was thinking about this as I recently watched Our Modern Maidens (1929).  The movie is a follow up – though not a sequel – to MGM’s smash hit Our Dancing Daughters (1928), the flapper film that turned the budding young starlet Joan Crawford into a bona fide superstar. In addition to the top-billed Crawford, both movies also feature Anita Page and Edward Nugent, but make no mistake: the real stars of these “mad youth/high society/jazz baby” films are the elaborate sets, glittering gowns, fancy cars and flapper bling. This is Art Deco porn at its most indulgent. Champagne parties (“lunch is poured!”); fireworks viewed from a yacht; sex in a Rolls-Royce; plenty of orchids, feathers and furs and – oh yeah – Joan Crawford dancing half naked in a speakeasy: Our Modern Maidens puts the “roar” in the Roaring Twenties.  The film was released on September 8th, 1929: six and a half weeks before Black Thursday and the start of the Great Depression. Talk about a party crash!

Continue reading “Crashing the Party: “Our Modern Maidens (1929)” and the Inevitable Ticking of the Clock.”

Silent Film Review: Stage Struck (1925)

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Jennie Hagen, whose dreams were all of triumphs as an actress, and whose life was all long hours and poor pay in a cheap restaurant.” (Title card from Stage Struck)

 In the silent romantic comedy Stage Struck (1925), Gloria Swanson plays waitress Jennie Hagen, a sweet but kinda goofy young woman who lives in black & white but dreams in color – two-strip Technicolor to be exact. She’s hopelessly in love with Orme Wilson (Lawrence Gray) the pancake chef in the sleazy diner wherein she toils.  Orme, who is as dimwitted as he is cocky, is obsessed with stage actresses so Jennie is determined to do whatever it takes to become a stage star herself in order to win his heart. A fateful encounter with the producer of a showboat promises Jennie a chance at the stardom she’s dreamed of – but maybe Orme doesn’t really think actresses are so swell after all.

Stage Struck (1925) is a black & white movie but its prologue and epilogue were filmed in two-strip Technicolor. If you’ve never seen two-strip Technicolor, thank your lucky eyes.  This is NOT the glorious Technicolor rainbow seen in later films such as The Wizard of Oz (1939).  Two-strip Technicolor was all sickly pinks and greens; it is literally an eyesore. Jean Harlow (Hell’s Angels, 1930) was one of the few stars who actually made early Technicolor look good. Likewise, Gloria Swanson’s beauty also escapes the format unscathed.  The opening sequence showcasing Jennie’s dreams of fame and stardom are a sumptuous showcase of diamonds, gowns and glamour (thanks to Swiss born costume designer René Hubert, a favorite of noted fashionista Swanson). Whatever the film format, Gloria Swanson was always ready for her close-up.

I’d only ever seen Gloria Swanson in dramatic roles in films such as Sadie Thompson (1928), Queen Kelly (1932) and, of course, Sunset Boulevard (1950) so I was surprised at how funny she is here: Swanson, whose plain gingham waitress uniform and apron only seem to emphasize her sophisticated beauty, literally juggles dirty dishes, hilariously flips pancakes – the flapjacks landing on her head (and down the front of an unsuspecting customer’s dress) instead of the plate –  and frequently falls on her ass, all with the fearless dexterity of Lucille Ball. Indeed, the glamorous Swanson got her start in slapstick – most notably at Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios. Photoplay, in their 1925 review of Stage Struck, wrote that the film “makes Gloria Charlie Chaplin’s nearest rival. If Charlie is a genius, this picture makes Gloria a genius too.”

Like many films of its period, Stage Struck was clearly aimed at the “little shop girls”: young working class women who, after WW1, had left the domestic service sector behind, with its low wages, long hours and social isolation, in favor of jobs in the burgeoning urban department stores (shorter hours and more fun). Like Jennie, the movies were giving 20th century working class girls and women dreams and hopes – a promise of a way out.

It’s unfair to Gloria, but while watching Stage Struck, I couldn’t help but think of Clara Bow. Indeed, Stage Struck has many similarities with It, the movie that immortalized the red-haired, Brooklyn born Bow as the original “It Girl”: both films are from Paramount Pictures (and produced by Famous Players-Lasky corporation); both feature lovelorn, working class flappers; in Stage Struck, Jennie has a stuffed toy dog named Flea, in It, Bow’s Betty-Lou also still plays with stuffed toys; in It, Betty-Lou cuts up her work dress into a fashionable gown for a night out at the Ritz, in Stage Struck, Jennie (less successfully) takes the scissors to her kid boots and wide brimmed hat in an attempt to look like the modern showgirl of Orme’s dreams.  But It was released in January of 1927, over a year after Stage Struck’s November 1925 release. So can we say that Gloria Swanson started “It” but Clara Bow perfected “It”?

Stage Struck (1925) is a fun, frothy little movie and if you’ve never watched a silent film before, this would be an enjoyable introduction.

Note: Kino Lorber released Stage Struck (1925) on DVD in 2018, stunningly mastered from 35mm film elements preserved by the George Eastman museum and featuring a great musical score composed and performed by Andrew Simpson.

Review written by Heather Babcock (2019)

 

 

 

 

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

Before there was Baby Jane, there was Fanny Skeffington…(Review of Mr. Skeffington, 1944)

one and only bette

By Heather Babcock

“One should never look for admirers while at the same time one is falling to bits.” – Fanny Skeffington (Bette Davis)

Mr. Skeffington (1944) is kind of like a granola bar – it looks super healthy and good for you but in reality it’s filled with about as many empty calories as a chocolate bar.

Released during World War II, Mr. Skeffington spans thirty years, beginning in 1914 and ending during the film’s present day of 1944. This means that the film’s star, the inimitable Bette Davis, gets to wear lavish period costumes designed by Orry-Kelly. All of the silks, feathers, furs and frills are enough to make any fashion enthusiast’s mouth water. Continue reading “Before there was Baby Jane, there was Fanny Skeffington…(Review of Mr. Skeffington, 1944)”

Burning Up the Motion Picture Production Code: Some Like It Hot (1959)

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By Heather Babcock

There is a scene in Some Like It Hot (1959) which never fails to elicit rapturous sighs from both my boyfriend and I:

On the run after accidentally witnessing a gangland massacre, musicians Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) are going undercover as “Josephine” and “Daphne”, the newest (and the most stylish) members of an all-girl jazz band. They’re about to board their train to Florida when they spot Sugar (Marilyn Monroe), the band’s voluptuous lead singer and ukulele player. “Look at that! Look how she moves,” Daphne whispers, admiring Sugar’s sumptuous strut. “It’s just like jello on springs!

My boyfriend’s awe is directed at the devilish wiggle and angelic beauty of Marilyn Monroe, and while I certainly can understand (and share) his admiration, my own sighs are reserved for the gorgeous outfits adorned by Curtis’ haughty and elegant Josephine and Lemmon’s sassy jazz-baby Daphne.

In a 2001 interview with Leonard Maltin, Tony Curtis, who based the refined Josephine on his mother and Grace Kelly, revealed that after he and Jack had unsuccessfully tried on the cast-off dresses of Debbie Reynolds and Norma Shearer, he approached the film’s director/producer Billy Wilder and asked if the famed costume and gown designer Orry-Kelly could custom make their wardrobe. The results were breathtakingly fabulous. Continue reading “Burning Up the Motion Picture Production Code: Some Like It Hot (1959)”