(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.
(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”
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.”
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