My Kind of Dame

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Every Wednesday evening as a child, my mother would force me into an ugly, itchy brown polyester dress and thick woolen stockings and take me – no doubt kicking and screaming – to the local community center for my weekly Brownies meeting. (For those not in the know, Brownies are a version of Girl Guides for younger kids).  I’d spend about an hour or so with a bunch of seven year old frenemies, sitting around a musty smelling stuffed owl (no, this is not an unflattering description of our group’s leader; it actually was a stuffed bird) while sewing badges on our fugly uniforms and reciting the group’s “motto, promise and law” as we raised and held our right index and middle fingers together tightly. I have no idea why we made this hand gesture – my only guess is that it was meant to symbolize what we were expected to do with our legs come puberty. (“Keep ‘em together, ladies!”)

Our most important promise was to “always think of others before” ourselves. I remember being puzzled by this – why were other people’s needs so much more important than mine? Didn’t I matter too? Nonetheless, I took the promise to heart – as a girl, I learned, this made life easier. As a woman, I learned, this only made life easier for everyone else.

No wonder as a teenager I always gravitated toward “the feisty ones”: the girls in the tight clothes; the ones who wore too much make-up; the girls who gave out plenty of cut-eye but never minced words.

Girls like Jean Harlow.

St. Louis Blues (1929), Baby Face (1933) and the Desire of a Woman

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(Featured photo: the great Bessie Smith)

At the turn of the 20th century a woman, deserted by the man she loves, walks alone on the streets of St. Louis:

“My man’s got a heart like a rock cast in the sea…”

Musician and composer W.C. Handy, soon to be known as the Father of the Blues, hears her and, inspired by the poetry in her lonesome cry, writes a song: “Saint Louis Blues”. Originally published in 1914, “Saint Louis Blues” quickly became a smash hit; by the century’s end, Handy’s song had been covered by well over thirty noted musicians.

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(Above photo: W.C. Handy)

“Saint Louis Blues” is a staple of Pre-Code movies, which is where I first discovered it. It is employed as a plot device in the drama Rain (1932), in which Joan Crawford portrays a free spirited, hard loving prostitute who falls under the spell of a hypocrite bible thumping reformer. The song is also used prominently in Ladies They Talk About (1933), a sexy women’s prison film starring Barbara Stanwyck as a bank robber who falls in love with – you guessed it – the moral reformer who sent her to the slammer. Most famously recorded by the great Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong in 1925, “Saint Louis Blues” would become the theme song for the “bad good-girls” of Pre-Code film: misunderstood and abandoned women, whose sexual desire is at the root of their loneliness.

Continue reading “St. Louis Blues (1929), Baby Face (1933) and the Desire of a Woman”

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”

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

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“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”

“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”

Forgotten Her-stories: Pioneer Women Filmmakers

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(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”

Blood and Kisses: Ten Fabulous Bette Davis Quotes

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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”

Barbie: A Doll’s Uprising

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The only thing bigger than their breasts was their smiles. The women lived in a large pink house, shared a pink convertible and ran their own clothing shop where they sold – you guessed it – little pink dresses. There was no need for men in their world: when the ladies felt like a little romance, they had each other. When they weren’t in the shop, you could probably find them in little striped bikinis, lounging by the pool which doubled as my parent’s bathroom sink.

Yep, I was a Barbie girl and this was my Barbie’s world.

I didn’t know back then that Barbie’s figure – with its itty-bitty waist, huge perky boobs and tippy-toed feet – made her a controversial role model and I definitely had no idea of the origins of that sexy figure; that Barbie owed her bodacious bod to an ancestor named Lilli, an adult toy based on Bild Lilli, a popular comic strip about a high-end call girl.

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Sold at bars and cigar shops, the Lilli doll was meant as a stag gift for adult men. On a 1956 vacation in Switzerland, Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler was inspired by Lilli to create a similar doll – but this one for little girls, who up until then were expected to play with baby dolls.  Back home, male toy buyers scoffed at her idea.

“Each said ‘Ruth, you’ve made a major mistake with this doll. Little girls want cutesy, cuddly baby dolls. They all want to pretend to be mommies.’ No, little girls want to pretend to be bigger girls.” – Ruth Handler

Sixty years later, Barbie is still here and Handler is still right.  Personally, I love that Barbie liberated herself from the trappings of a misogynist joke, morphing from sex object to independent woman. No longer just an object of male fantasy, Barbie became a conduit for girlhood dreams and ambitions.  Over the years, Barbie has been a teacher, a rock star, an astronaut and – most importantly – whatever the little girl holding her in her hand wants to be.

“My whole philosophy was that through the doll, a little girl could be anything she wanted to be. She became not just a doll. She became part of that child through those growing up years. Many of those children set their life’s dreams, their goals, through Barbie. Many of them said Barbie helped them achieve those dreams. That’s a pretty heavy thing, but it’s true”.  – Ruth Handler

I’ve always loved experimenting with fashion and when I was in my 20s, I went deliciously overboard: wigs, PVC dresses, NSFW miniskirts, tiaras – you name it.  Back then, people would sometimes call me a “Barbie doll”.  It’s interesting: when women called me this, it was always with affection and good humor. However when men said it, it was with a sneer: using the doll’s name as a dismissive put-down.

Too bad for them I took it as a compliment.

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

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“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!

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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!”