In Honour of International Women’s Day: Remembering Film Pioneer Nell Shipman

just nell

“Surely not many a silver screen star can write, produce and slice her own nitrate. I take pride in my skills but without a distribution deal, these talents remain ‘in the can’, as we say – invisible, worthless. Tomorrow the studio heads will wave their magic wands of approval – or not. I believe we have good prospects if I can dodge the (creditors) by the fire escape one more day. (…) There are so many stories yet to be told and sold in our future. Tomorrow. Thank God, there is tomorrow.” – Nell Shipman

One hundred years ago, before Wall Street moved in and before the domination of the large studio system, women ruled Hollywood: in front of and behind the scenes, they wrote the stories, shot the scenes, managed production budgets and dreamed up the publicity scenarios that turned everyday shop girls into superstars. One of the most fearless of these early film pioneers was Nell Shipman, a Canadian born director, actress (who performed all of her own stunts!), producer, screenwriter, novelist and animal rights activist and trainer. I recently discovered Nell during a midnight screening of Back to God’s Country (1919), an action-adventure blockbuster that she both wrote and starred in. I was equal parts surprised, delighted and enchanted by Nell’s earthy sensuality (her infamous skinny-dipping scene is more joyful than salacious) and the feminist tone of the film (her character – a woman surviving in the harsh Canadian wilderness – is no damsel in distress but rather a defiant dame).  The thoughtful portrayal and gentle handling of the many animals in the film is also refreshing; at a time when most other nature filmmakers were as likely to shoot animals as they were to film them, Nell Shipman emphatically advocated for the humane treatment of animals in movies and spoke out against animal cruelty.

Continue reading “In Honour of International Women’s Day: Remembering Film Pioneer Nell Shipman”

Forgotten Her-stories: Pioneer Women Filmmakers

mabel

(Pictured at top: Director, actress, screenwriter & comic genius Mabel Normand)

“Not only is a woman as well fitted to stage photo-drama as a man, but in many ways she has a distinct advantage over him because of her very nature.” – Alice Guy-Blaché

When you hear the words “movie director” what do you immediately picture? Someone in sunglasses and a flat-cap barking out orders into a megaphone? Whatever you envision, it’s probably a man and he’s probably white. Yet many of the pioneers of film-making – the very people who carved the way for the movies that we watch today – were women and people of color.  In fact the first narrative film, La Fée aux Choux (1896) – also known in English as The Cabbage Fairy – was directed by a French woman named Alice Guy-Blaché. Comb through film history books however, and you’ll find chapter upon chapter devoted to Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith but you’ll be lucky to find a sentence, let alone a paragraph, about Guy-Blaché or Mabel Normand, the woman who taught Chaplin how to direct film comedy, or Black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, whose anti-lynching drama Within Our Gates (1920) remains as vital and important today as it was upon its release. It’s doubtful you’ll find a chapter in those history books devoted to Marion E. Wong, who established the Mandarin Film Company in 1916 in Oakland, California and who wrote and directed The Curse of Quon Gwon: When the Far East Mingles with the West (1916/1917), the first American feature length film with an all Asian-American cast.  Nell Shipman, the Canadian screenwriter/director and actress who performed all of her own stunts, is also MIA from the pages of most film history books.

Racism, misogyny, economics, the advent of sound and the domination of the big studio system all played a role in erasing the work of many of these pioneers, who may have lacked the finances needed to preserve their films and who – unlike Chaplin and Griffith – did not have access to, or the help of, the mainstream media to promote their legacies.

Continue reading “Forgotten Her-stories: Pioneer Women Filmmakers”

Let ‘em Eat Grapefruit: The Fierce Martyrdom of Mae Clarke

my girlfriend

“I’m sorry I ever agreed to do the grapefruit bit.” – Mae Clarke

In black & white film, Mae Clarke inhabited the grey zone exclusive to Pre-Code cinema. “Nice Girl”, “Bad Girl”, “Hooker with a Heart of Gold”: Clarke’s characters never stayed still long enough to fit into easy Hollywood tropes. She wouldn’t let them.

Sexy but too sophisticated for cheesecake and yet too edgy to be a sophisticate, Mae’s defiance at being easily defined is probably one of the reasons why her career waned with the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code in July of 1934.

In 1931 though, during Hollywood’s bold Pre-Code era, Mae was at the height of her career, delivering memorable performances in four important films which continue to awe, inspire and influence today: Frankenstein, The Front Page, Waterloo Bridge and The Public Enemy.  In three of these films Mae comes to a bad end; in one she dies, in two she narrowly escapes death and in the fourth she famously endures a degrading humiliation. In all four movies, Mae portrays tragic figures who derive little pleasure and much pain from their romantic attachments.

Here I will explore Mae’s most famous roles. Interestingly, Mae was rumored to be author Anita Loos’ inspiration for bubbly blonde showgirl Lorelei Lee in her 1925 novel “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”, suggesting that perhaps Mae’s real life personality contradicted her somber onscreen presence. Continue reading “Let ‘em Eat Grapefruit: The Fierce Martyrdom of Mae Clarke”

Happy Birthday, Clara Bow!

girlfriend birthday

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!”

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)”

“All that Savors Indecency”: The early 20th Century’s Campaign for Movie Censorship

movies

“It is gratifying to know that newspapers throughout the province stand solidly behind a rigid enforcement of the censorship and the absolute prohibition of all that savors indecency.” – Quote taken from an article titled “Cleansing the Movies”, published August 1st, 1927 in the Globe.

The world changed after WW1.  New technologies and gadgets abounded, some which helped save time and some that helped pass the time, such as gramophones, telephones, vacuum cleaners, radio and the movies.  Music was faster, booze was cheaper and skirts were shorter.  Political parties and newspaper pundits wrung their hands in anxious frustration at a world which was seemingly spinning out of their control.

Newspaper archives from this period offer an interesting history of these pivotal times, as well as unintentionally shining a spotlight on the prejudices that fueled the self-righteous fervor of the censors and moral reformers so often quoted in the major papers of the day.

Racism was behind the anti-jazz music campaign of the 1920s.  The following are typical newspaper headlines from this time:

“Modern Day Dance Music is ESSENCE OF VULGARITY” – The Globe, September 20th, 1927

“Mothers Should Aid in Combating Jazz” – The Globe, March 21st, 1929

 Wife Played Jazz While Husband Was Dying!” – The Globe, March 9th, 1923

 One Globe article from September 28th, 1926 was simply titled: “The Evils of Jazz!”

 Misogynists directed their venom at the knee baring, high kicking young flappers often eulogized by F. Scott Fitzgerald and immortalized by the likes of Clara Bow and Joan Crawford. In a March 31st, 1932 article titled “Flapper Idols of Movies Have Bad Effect on Girls”, Chancellor Wallace of Victoria College issued the following warning to parents: “Do not let the emotional lives of your daughters be over-stimulated by the books they read and the shows they see…Which is your daughter – an angel or a flapper?”

 Some moralists however had a kitchen sink attitude to their crusades, such as the funster featured in this April 30th, 1925 Globe headline: “She Fears Smoking Will Ruin Humanity: Mrs. M.E. Frey, Evangelist, Decries Present Craze for Pleasure, Jazz, Drink and Poker.”

 There was one “pleasure” though which really had the Mrs. M.E. Freys of the world reaching for their smelling salts and that was the movies.

The 1897 boxing documentary “The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight” (also known as “The Great Corbett Fight”) is widely considered to be the world’s first feature film or at least its first blockbuster. Film historian Terry Ramsaye wrote that “until that picture appeared, the social status of the screen had been uncertain. It now became definitely low-brow, an entertainment of the great unwashed commonalty. This likewise made it a mark for up lifters, moralists, reformers and legislators in a degree which would never have been obtained if the screen had reached a higher social strata.” (Source: “Hollywood: The Pioneers”, Kevin Brownlow and John Kobal, 1979).

 Just as they had tried to “save” the working man from booze with Prohibition, the upper class moral reformers of the day made it their mission to “clean up” the movies all in the name of “protecting” the lower classes, whom they feared would be led down a rabbit hole of salacious sin and depravity by way of Jean Harlow’s nipples and James Cagney’s knuckles.

“Women Smoking, Modern Dancing Scorned by Pastor: Rev. Dr. Riley Blames Movies for Tidal Wave of Banditry” screamed an April 12th, 1929 Globe headline.  “Sex Saturnalia of the Screen Must be Stopped” warned the Globe on March 19th, 1921 (I’d like to thank this headline for introducing me to the word “Saturnalia” which means “an occasion of wild revelry”, as in “I’m ready for my sex Saturnalia, Mr. DeMille”).

 Movies were being blamed for a supposed increase in crime: “Young Locksmith Lured to Vagrancy by Movies!” reads a headline from December 28th, 1920. A Globe article dated July 30th, 1934 tells the tale of a 12 year old girl “with blonde bobbed hair” who was charged with stealing purses and jewelry from homes in the Beach district. “Child is Moving-Picture ‘Fan’” clucks the subhead.

The flickers were also held accountable for men not casting their ballots: “Young Men Today Shunning Politics, Declares Liberal: Ward 5 Officer Blames Autos and Movies for Secession.” (The Globe, March 19, 1930).

A Globe article dated August 1st, 1927 titled “Cleansing the Movies” quotes the Stratford Beacon Herald as asserting that “People…go to the movies to be entertained, not for the stimulation of passion…If the provincial and state authorities will put their feet down good and hard on the ‘sex appeal’ stuff**, the film magnates will soon elevate the movies to the standard they ought to be.”

(**Mae West herself couldn’t have written a saucier double entendre! ;-))

I’ll end with this Letter to the Editor published on June 27th, 1927 in the Globe:

“I cannot believe that the average parent realizes the effect of these vulgar pictures on the girls and boys. The intelligent adult does not frequent the motion-picture house, only children and morons can stand the steady diet of frivolity, vulgarity and vice which the producers are serving up for us.”

 When it comes to my movies, I’ll have a cup of vulgarity with a side of vice, please. 🙂

***

Note: I don’t mean to pick on the Globe here. I researched this post by checking out the expansive Globe newspaper archives available on the Toronto Public Library website.  I am sure that most newspapers of the day carried similar headlines.  My sincere thanks to both the Globe and the Toronto Public Library for the invaluable public access.

Photo Credit: Photo of me taken by Neil Traynor at the historic Fox movie theater (established in 1914) during the 2019 Toronto Silent Film Festival.