Celebrating “Dangerous Dames” at the 29th Vintage Film Festival

Heather Babcock speaking at the 29th Vintage Film Festival on October 23rd at the Capitol Theatre. Photo by Neil Traynor.

On Sunday, October 23rd, I had the pleasure and honor of being the speaker at the 29th Vintage Film Festival’s Brown Bag Lunch Seminar.  I spoke on the topic of “Dangerous Dames: Celebrating the Women of Pre-Code Gangster Movies”.  My partner and I arrived in beautiful Port Hope on the Friday evening of the Festival so that we could take in some of the great classic films that the Festival had to offer.  Trust me, you haven’t seen Frankenstein (1931) until you’ve watched it under the twinkling “stars” of the magnificent Capitol Theatre!

Below, I have posted a condensed and edited version of my speech.  I want to thank Rick Hill, Rick Miller, the Marie Dressler Foundation and the Vintage Film Festival Committee for having given me this wonderful opportunity! 

Continue reading “Celebrating “Dangerous Dames” at the 29th Vintage Film Festival”

Hello, is it Jean you’re looking for?

Jimmy & Jean: The Public Enemy (1931)

My partner and I are looking forward to attending the 29th Vintage Film Festival at the Capitol Theatre in Port Hope. The Festival runs from Friday, October 21st – Sunday, October 23rd. I am honored to have been asked to be the speaker at the Festival’s Brown Bag Lunch seminar on the Sunday. I will be speaking on the topic of “Dangerous Dames: the Women of Pre-Code Gangster Movies”.

As such, I thought it was a good time to reshare an essay that I wrote a couple of years ago about one of my favorite “dames”, Jean Harlow. The essay, Jean Harlow: My Kind of Dame, was published in 2020 on the Inanna Publications’ blog. You can read it here.

One of the topics that I will be discussing during my talk is the importance of Harlow’s casting in the influential Pre-Code gangster movie The Public Enemy (1931).

Hope to see you at the Festival!

“Come on baby, what are you afraid of?”: The Bad Boy Gangster Was the Femme Fatale of 1930’s Pre-Code Cinema

Clark Gable and Norma Shearer in A Free Soul (1931)

Sandwiched between the silent movie Vamp and the Femme Fatale of 1940’s film noir, is the Bad Boy Gangster, who swaggered and strutted his way over the morally ambiguous terrain that was pre-Code Hollywood film.  But make no mistake: pre-Code movies belonged to the ladies, or to put it more accurately, the New Woman.

WW1 changed everything – but its aftermath changed women in particular. The carnage of “the Great War” had depleted the number of eligible young men and the expectations that a young woman had previously taken for granted – a husband, children and a home – now seemed less likely for many. Becoming an independent “working girl” (whether that meant working in a dress shop or cleaning houses) was not a choice – it was a necessity. The independence didn’t stop there. By the end of 1922, almost all of the Canadian provinces had granted women the right to vote (it would not be until 1940 that women in Quebec would be granted full suffrage). In the USA, the 19th Amendment, ratified on August 18th and certified as law on August 26th of 1920, technically granted women suffrage although the fight for the right to vote was far from over for Black women in America.

In 1918, Marie Stopes’ controversial best selling book Married Love or Love in Marriage openly discussed methods of birth control, and it wasn’t just married women who read it. However it wasn’t until the economic depression of the 1930s that birth control gained wider acceptance. In his brilliant book The Great Depression 1929-1939, Pierre Berton writes that “after 1930 it began to be obvious that ignorance of birth control methods was causing hardship among the poor, who couldn’t afford large families. Deaths from illegal abortions, many self-induced, were on the rise.” As a result, the United Church formally endorsed birth control in 1936, with Rev. John Coburn stating that “every child had the right to come into the world wanted.” In Ontario, Canada, birth control advocate and social worker Dorothea Palmer, who was arrested – and later acquitted – in 1936 for canvassing the homes of impoverished mothers and asking them if they would like information on birth control, publicly stated that “a woman should be master of her own body. She should be the one to say if she should become a mother.”

Working girls. Voting rights. Birth control. The first wave of the women’s revolution coalesced with a new phenomenon: the movies. Mary Pickford. Clara Bow. Josephine Baker. Joan Crawford. Suddenly working class girls had something other than a man to pin their dreams on. Thanks to the validity of the movies and their wildly popular female stars, make-up was no longer “just for prostitutes” – plenty of “nice” girls now rouged their lips and painted their faces. Skirts were shorter and morals were looser…well, sort of.

Continue reading ““Come on baby, what are you afraid of?”: The Bad Boy Gangster Was the Femme Fatale of 1930’s Pre-Code Cinema”

Quotes About WW1 From the Best Silent and Pre-Code War Movies

Remembrance Day is not about glorifying war. It 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 fight for the freedoms that 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.

The Granddaddy of war movies and perhaps the greatest of them all, The Big Parade (1925), was released just seven years after the Armistice by the very generation that fought in WW1. Indeed, many in the film’s cast and crew were directly involved in WW1: Canadian actress Claire Adams worked as a Red Cross nurse; actor Tom O’Brien served in the Navy and Laurence Stallings, who wrote the film’s story, had served as a Marine Captain and lost his leg fighting in the “Great War”.

Many of the top directors of early war films, such as James Whale and William A. Wellman, were WW1 veterans. War movies made during the 1920s and 1930s, while in no means shying away from the death and destruction of the battlefield, are not as gory as the war films which would be made in later decades. In particular, war movies made and 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 that they had faced on the battlefield for an audience’s entertainment. While modern war dramas focus on battlefield action, Pre-Code war movies focus on humanity and loss (silent movies such as The Big Parade and Wings effectively handled both).

If we can look at old movies as snapshots in the photo journal of time, then perhaps these films speak to the faith, fears, anger and anxiety of the forgotten soldier. As follows are some of the most poignant quotes from the best war movies of the silent and Pre-Code period.

Continue reading “Quotes About WW1 From the Best Silent and Pre-Code War Movies”

The “Pre-Code Peep Show”: a Lesson in 1930’s Lingerie

One of my favorite aspects of Pre-Code Hollywood film is what I like to call “the Pre-Code Peep Show”. These scenes, in which one or more of the film’s actresses disrobe for the camera, are a staple of Hollywood movies made between 1929 and July of 1934. Usually the “Pre-Code Peep Show” has absolutely nothing to do with the plot; take for example Joan Blondell helping Barbara Stanwyck with her stockings in Night Nurse (1931) or Jean Harlow wiggling out of her blouse and skirt in Red-Headed Woman (1932) and giving the audience a glimpse of her naked right breast in the process. Sometimes however, the leading lady strips to reveal more than just her flesh, such as when Bette Davis gets naked in order to further secure her tight grip on Richard Barthelmess in the proletariat drama The Cabin in the Cotton (1932). One of my favorite such scenes is the introduction of Ivy (Miriam Hopkins) in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932): After being rescued from an abusive john by the “good doctor” (Fredric March), the flirtatious Ivy lifts her skirts, ostensibly to show Dr. Jekyll a bruise, while exposing her garter and bare thigh. Jekyll chides her for wearing “so tight a garter – it’s bad for you, it – uh – impedes the circulation.” (Nudge nudge, wink wink) He suggests bed rest and Ivy, smiling at the camera, slowly lifts her skirts, revealing her black stockings and beribboned garters. She gleefully kicks off her high-heeled shoes, peels off her right garter belt and, giggling, tosses it toward the camera. The camera pans to the garter at Dr. Jekyll’s feet before moving back to Ivy, now naked under a white, doily-like bedspread. “Come back soon, won’t ya?” she purrs to Jekyll, swinging her bare leg over the side of the bed like the hand of a clock. “Soon”. Her shapely leg continues to dangle in double exposure as Jekyll departs: a hypnotist’s pendulum.

Continue reading “The “Pre-Code Peep Show”: a Lesson in 1930’s Lingerie”

Filthy Sugar: A Short (Sensual) Excerpt

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Happy Friday! I thought I’d share with you a very short excerpt from my debut novel Filthy Sugar on this lovely day! Enjoy!

“Unzip me, will you?” I ask, flipping my hair over to one side.

Lili Belle’s fingers fumble with my zipper. “I–I can’t, Wanda.” She turns away from me, her face burning. “You better do it yourself.”

“Why?” I let my dress fall to the floor. “What’s wrong, Lili Belle?”

She glances over at me shyly as I stand naked before her. I recognize the longing behind her glance and yet it is markedly different than the lust of Eddie, Mr. Manchester, or even Brock. Hers is a desire without entitlement. I take both of her hands and lead her to the bed.

“Come sit with me, Lili Belle.”

She keeps her head bent; her thick-mascaraed eyelashes casting shadows along her cheekbones, like the wings of a broken butterfly. She reminds me of a stray kitten. I can sense that she wants me to pet her, but if I do, she’ll run away.

“I should go, Wanda.”

“Do you want to go?” I press my open mouth to the spot where her shoulder meets the base of her neck, inhaling her apricot scent. “Is that what you want?”

The neighbour next door cranks up the phonograph. Piano teeth and trombone lungs, marshmallow clouds and upside down skies: suddenly Lili Belle is kissing me or I’m kissing her. Oh! What difference does it make? Her mouth is a chocolate cherry cream: messy and sweet, scrumptious and sticky. Kissing Lili Belle is devouring an ice cream cone in July; it is a hotdog at the ballpark; it is Jean Harlow slipping into something more comfortable, and it is better than all of those things.

Kissing Lili Belle is better than the movies.

***

Want to read more? The best place to get a hold of some Filthy Sugar is with Inanna Publications or ask for it at your local bookstore! 

Note: Inanna Publications is currently having a summer sale! Use the coupon code summer20 at checkout and get 30% off!

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.

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”

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)