We’re (Not) in the Money: What Covid-era Filmmakers Can Learn From Pre-Code Depression-era Movies

“He’s just the kind of man I’ve been looking for: lots of money and no resistance.” Aline MacMahon and Guy Kibbee in Gold Diggers of 1933

Recently the Wall Street Journal ran an article about the pandemic themed HBO Max movie Locked Down in which writer John Jurgensen posed the question: does anyone want to see on screen what they experience every day? After all, as Jurgensen points out, Covid-19 themed productions such as the TV Show Connecting…and the movie Songbird both flopped with audiences and critics alike.

“Man, I can’t wait to watch all these movies being made about the pandemic – said no one ever!” my friend Natasha recently texted me. “Maybe a movie about dogs in the pandemic would be more interesting.”

Both the conversation with my friend and Jurgensen’s article got me thinking about all those movies made during another crisis: namely the Pre-Code films created during the early years of the Great Depression.

But weren’t Depression-era movies all about glitzy escapism, you may ask and you’d be partly right: the most enduring films of the 1930s are the flashy musicals, the screwball comedies and the Universal monster flicks. However a closer look at these films reveal more grit than glitter: after all, remember that it was a stolen apple that led the impoverished waif Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) to Skull Island in King Kong (1933), arguably the most famous of all Pre-Code movies.

Continue reading “We’re (Not) in the Money: What Covid-era Filmmakers Can Learn From Pre-Code Depression-era Movies”

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!

From Dreams to Dust: Oh, the Movies You Will Never See!

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I was once asked, while volunteering for a film review website, to list the “Top Ten Greatest Films of all Time.” Of course, a “great film” is subjective but that wasn’t the only reason why I found the task daunting: cinematographic motion pictures have been around since at least the late 1890s, leaving us with – what should be – an almost limitless scope of films to watch and choose from. 

I say “what should be”, because many Silent (an estimated 80-90%) and Pre-Code movies are now considered lost.

Most Silent films were made using cellulose nitrate film stock. Nitrate stock flares up quickly – a lit cigarette nearby is enough to set it off – and can even spontaneously combust if stored improperly. The film is so flammable that it burns even when immersed in water. In 1949, nitrate was replaced by acetate safety stock but by then innumerable silent movies had already burned to death – their filmmaker’s stories forever extinguished by flames.

And sometimes they were destroyed on purpose.

Studios, not believing that future audiences would have any interest in “old” movies, junked the films to free up vault space. Not all were set on fire though: several tons of Silent movies were dumped into the Yukon river while others were used as filler for swimming pools and ice rinks.  

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(The 1919 film version of Anne of Green Gables, starring a pre-scandal Mary Miles Minter, is now considered lost)

North American society has always been “out with the old, in with the new”, but Hollywood in particular took an almost sadistic pleasure in denigrating Silent movies – essentially eating its first born. Take for example the popular musical Singin’ in the Rain (1952), a film which slanders the reputation of Silent movies as much as it celebrates the music of early talkies. In Singin’ in the Rain, Silent films are portrayed as ridiculously melodramatic period dramas. The film takes the same view as its female lead, the squeaky clean, all-American chorus girl Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), who, while exaggerating pantomime, sums up silent movie actors this way: They don’t talk, they don’t act – they just make a lot of dumb show.” She goes on to state that “real” acting means wonderful lines, speaking glorious words!”. But any creative writing instructor worth their salt will tell you that it’s better to “show” than “tell”. Kathy Selden has obviously never seen Lon Chaney’s heartbreaking performance as a depressed circus clown in the deliciously demented He Who Gets Slapped (1924) or John Gilbert’s anguished soldier in the glorious WW1 drama The Big Parade (1925). Clara Bow did not need sound when she defined the roaring twenties as a vivacious shop girl in the romantic comedy It (1927). Sometimes talk is just…noise.

So why did Hollywood desecrate its early work? Well, the dominance of sound on film coincided with the stock market crash of 1929 and talkies, in comparison to silent films, were damned expensive to produce. My guess is that Hollywood was trying to justify the expense.

When the amended Production Code “to govern the making of motion and talking pictures” took effect on July 1st, 1934, many talkies suffered a similar fate to their silent sisters, such as the popular Pre-Code sex comedy Convention City (1933). Convention City, which its star Joan Blondell called “the raunchiest thing there has ever been”, was condemned under the amended Code and its studio, Warner Brothers, ordered that all prints be destroyed.  Today, Convention City (1933) is considered the Holy Grail of Pre-Code films. 

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“We must put brassieres on Joan Blondell and make her cover up her breasts because, otherwise, we are going to have these pictures stopped in a lot of places. I believe in showing their forms but, for Lord’s sake, don’t let those bulbs stick out.” – Studio memo from Jack L. Warner to Convention City’s producer Hal Wallis. (The lovely Joan Blondell pictured). 

Still, many films – such as Paramount’s Clara Bow collection – were left to languish in locked vaults for decades; celluloid dreams disintegrating into dust.

So although I know that there are still plenty of great movies that I have yet to see, I sadly fear that there are many more that I will never see, such as Cleopatra (1917) a film which, thanks to the surviving still images of a wickedly wanton Theda Bara in the title role, has managed to achieve iconic status in spite of being considered lost.

It is heartening to remember though that films considered “lost” are sometimes “found”. For example, in 2015 a complete reel was discovered of The Battle of the Century (1927), Laurel and Hardy’s ultimate pie fight, after the original film had degenerated. In April 2017, The Toronto Silent Film Festival screened the film (complete with live musical accompaniment by Ben Model and a real pie throwing!) at the Revue Cinema. I consider myself very lucky to have been in attendance (and doubly lucky not to have gotten hit by one of the pies!).

 

Check your attics and basements – you never know, you might just find a lost cinematic gem!

Written by Heather Babcock, 2020

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”

Once Upon a Time…Fritz Lang Made a Romantic Comedy (You and Me, 1938)

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“The Big Shots aren’t little crooks like you. They’re politicians.”

If Karl Marx baked a birthday cake and laced it with marijuana, the results would probably be very similar to You and Me (1938), a delicious grab bag of a movie which combines humour, film-noir, romance, musical numbers and a social message all to delightful – and dizzying – effect.  But what did Paramount expect when they asked Fritz Lang, the German director best known for his Weimar-era expressionist films such as Metropolis (1927) and M (1931), to direct a romantic comedy?

Continue reading “Once Upon a Time…Fritz Lang Made a Romantic Comedy (You and Me, 1938)”

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”

Hitchcock’s 1927 Masterpiece “The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog”

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MURDER: WET FROM THE PRESS! MURDER: HOT OVER THE AERIAL!

Although it was director Alfred Hitchcock’s third movie, he considered The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927) the first “Hitchcock film”. In this gorgeous nightmare of nail-biting suspense and luxurious cinematography, Hitch criticizes the media’s infatuation with beautiful blonde murder victims, all the while indulging his own obsession with them. “To-Night ‘Golden Curls,” is both the name of a Broadway show starring chorines in fluffy blonde wigs and what the Jack-the-Ripper inspired serial killer whispers to his fair-haired prey. The news of the nightly murders are spelled out in hot, glittering lights on electronic billboards as citizens clamor to buy the still wet newsprint.

Hitchcock gives his male lead Ivor Novello the Garbo treatment with softly lit close-ups; the lodger appears out of the fog, mouth bound by scarf, eyes kohl-rimmed and tortured. No blood here but plenty of style – and even a bathtub scene, this 1927 masterpiece foreshadowed the terrors to come from “The Master of Suspense”.

Heather Babcock, 2019

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!”