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”

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”

An Interview with Burlesque Sensation Wanda Wiggles!

Brazen and busty, Wanda Wiggles, the star of Filthy Sugar, has taken the burlesque world by a storm! She’s been described by the Underwood bangers as both a “voluptuous dream sweeter than a whipped cream strawberry sundae” and a “Vengeful Vamp”. Here at the Soda Fountain, we thought it was high time to sit down with the rebellious redhead herself. So we put on our best negligee, broke out the rotary dial telephone and gave Ms. Wiggles a call on the horn. Join us below as we discuss everything from burlesque to brassieres and bathtub gin with the infamous hoofer!

Continue reading “An Interview with Burlesque Sensation Wanda Wiggles!”

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!”

They Call It Sin (1932)

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“When I first started playing my music on the church organ, a committee of outraged citizens went to the minister and wanted me discharged. They said my music was inspired by the devil.” – Marion (Loretta Young), They Call It Sin (1932).

In the early ‘90s, I’d spend my Saturday afternoons at Zellers poring over their vast selection of the True magazines: True Story, True Confessions, True Love and True Romance. Only the covers bearing the most salacious headlines would I deem worthy of my five dollar weekly allowance.  Cover stories such as “I’M CHEATING – MY HUSBAND TOLD ME TO!”, “MY HUSBAND CALLS ME A TRAMP – AND IT’S TRUE!” and “I WAS THE MAIN COURSE AT THANKSGIVING DINNER!” piqued my pre-adolescent curiosity. However the actual stories never lived up to the promise of their titles. So when my father reprimanded me for reading “such trash”, it was with no small measure of disappointment with which I informed him that the stories within were actually quite chaste.

This is also true of the 1932 film They Call It Sin, a movie whose title is much more risqué than the film itself. Although the movie – made during Hollywood’s naughty Pre-Code era and starring the doe-eyed beauty Loretta Young and cutie-pie comedienne Una Merkel – certainly has its tantalizing moments, namely what I like to call “the Pre-Code Peepshow”: a scene requisite to Pre-Code films in which one or more of the leading ladies slowly undress, for no other purpose but to titillate the audience (for modern viewers, these scenes also give us a delicious fashion lesson on 1930’s undergarments).  But for all of its dressing and undressing, They Call It Sin has some feisty feminist underpinnings.

The story centers on Marion Cullen (Loretta Young), an aspiring musician saddled with a strict family in a small minded town. Resplendent in a wide brimmed Easter bonnet and a long lacey dress with sleeves so puffed they’d make Anne Shirley green with envy, Marion is playing the organ in her parent’s church when she catches the eye of a handsome businessman from the big city.  After a whirlwind romance at the soda fountain, Marion follows her beau to New York where she discovers that the cad is actually engaged to a high society gal.  Her dreams of love dashed, Marion pursues her career ambitions and lands a job as an accompanist for a lecherous producer who ends up stealing her music. After a tragic accident, Marion stands falsely accused of his murder.

More than just knock-out looks, Marion also has plenty of “can’t knock me out” resilience: when the two-bit producer plagiarizes her music, she literally fights him – with her fists. “Dixie,” she says to her best pal, a charming showgirl played by Una Merkel, “my music’s all I have left and I’m not going to let him have it!” to which Dixie replies “Let him have it – right on the nose!”  Although she came to New York with the ambition of finding love, she stays for her career. This is something that many women in 1932 could probably relate to: with WW1 having tragically wiped out a great deal of eligible bachelors, many women were carving out their own path – a path that was very different from the wife and motherhood lifestyle that they had grown up expecting.

Call it sin? Maybe not. But this Pre-Code gem, available on Warner Bros. Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume Four, is a fun, feminist romp that’s well worth watching. And re-watching.

Reviewed by Heather Babcock, 2019

 

 

Love is a Battlefield: Review of James Whale’s Waterloo Bridge (1931)

waterloo bridge

By Heather Babcock

“You don’t stay boyish very long in this war.”

 Ever since I saw her get the grapefruit in the kisser, I’ve always felt rather protective of Mae Clarke. She was undoubtedly one of the finest actresses of the Pre-Code era, delivering strong performances in films such as Frankenstein (1931) and The Front Page (1931). Yet today if she is remembered at all, it is for her (unfairly) un-credited role as the moll who gets a grapefruit smashed in her face in The Public Enemy (1931).

Strong willed and intelligent, there always seemed to be a cloud of sadness hovering behind Mae’s pretty eyes; this may explain why she went largely unappreciated by the studios and directors of her time, most of whom were more interested in a bouncier, less complicated version of femininity.

Director James Whale however was smart enough to recognize and appreciate Clarke’s juxtaposition of sensuality and sorrow. In 1931, he chose Mae to star in two of his movies: Frankenstein (1931) and Waterloo Bridge (1931). The admiration went both ways: according to film historian Gregory W. Mank, in the Universal Studios documentary The Frankenstein Files: How Hollywood Made a Monster (2002), Clarke described Whale as “a perfect gentleman and a genius.” It is her knock-out performance in Waterloo Bridge (1931), and not that damned grapefruit, for which Clarke would undoubtedly prefer to be remembered. The setting of the film is London during World War I but the real war rages within Clarke as Myra Deauville, a chorus girl turned prostitute whose self-loathing runs so deep that she truly believes herself unworthy of kindness and love. In 1940, Waterloo Bridge would be remade by MGM with Vivien Leigh in Clarke’s role. Whether you prefer the 1940 or the 1931 version all depends on whether you like your movies glittery or gritty. James Whale’s Waterloo Bridge (1931) has plenty of grit. Continue reading “Love is a Battlefield: Review of James Whale’s Waterloo Bridge (1931)”

“It’s not what I say but the way I say it”: Ten Sassy Quotes from Pre-Code Hollywood

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By Heather Babcock

The advent of “talkies” (sound films) in the late 1920s coincided with the public’s increased access to radio and jazz music; this combined with the women’s rights movement and a burgeoning sexual revolution inspired a lot of the slang and witticisms that populate classic Hollywood movies, particularly those released during the Pre-Code period.

As someone who loves language, I enjoy the bon mots and word play of early sound films (and silent movies too – we must remember that although the words were not audible, there was still quite a lot of talking in pre-sound films). Hollywood pioneers like Mae West and screenwriter Anita Loos believed that language, like sex, should be fun. Although sexy, their witticisms were suggestive rather than coarse, teasing instead of tawdry.

Here is my top ten list, in no particular order, of the sassiest, cheekiest and sometimes sexiest quotes from Pre-Code Hollywood movies. If at first glance these lines don’t seem saucy or hot enough for you, try reading them out loud with a hand on your hip and a cigarette dangling from your lips. As the great Mae West said, “It’s not what I say but the way I say it.”

  1. “Will ya stop reminding me of Heaven when I’m so close to the other place?” – Joan Blondell, Three on a Match (1932)
  1. “You can’t show me a thing – I just came from the delivery room.” – Edward Nugent, Night Nurse (1931)
  1. “Your day off is sure brutal on your lingerie.” – Jean Harlow, Bombshell (1933)
  1. It takes more than flat heels and glasses to make a sensible woman.” – Ruth Chatterton, Female (1933)
  1. “When I kiss ’em, they stay kissed for a long time.” – Jean Harlow, Red-Headed Woman (1932)
  1. “When I’m good, I’m very good. But when I’m bad, I’m better.” – Mae West, I’m No Angel (1933)
  1. “I’d like to kiss ya, but I just washed my hair.” – Bette Davis, The Cabin in the Cotton (1932)
  1. “You make any joint look like a speakeasy.” – Joan Blondell, Night Nurse (1931)
  1. Police detective: “You don’t look like these other women.” Marlene Dietrich: “Give me time.” – Blonde Venus (1932)
  1. “Would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?” – Jean Harlow, Hell’s Angels (1930)

 

 

 

 

 

Ruby Keeler:America’s Forgotten Sweetheart

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As cuddly as a kitten and twice as sweet, Ruby Keeler (self-admittedly) wasn’t much of a singer – and perhaps she did look at her feet a little too much when she danced – but none of that mattered to Depression-era audiences who fell head over heels for the wide-eyed, leggy sweetheart of the Busby musicals made during Hollywood’s sassy Pre-Code era. With her natural charm and knack for playing naive yet plucky innocents, Ruby Keeler helped to boost American morale during the darkest days of the Great Depression.

Text by Heather Babcock, 2019