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”

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”

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”

(Not So) Safe in Hell: The Working Class Heroines of Pre-Code Hollywood

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By Heather Babcock

 Like many women, I was inspired and empowered by the Me Too movement but it also brought back a lot of painful memories. Most of us have probably encountered a “Harvey Weinstein” at some point in our professional lives – I know I have. This type of sexual predator lurks not only in Hollywood but in any environment where there is a power imbalance, which is most workplaces. So whether you are a waitress, a poet, a sales clerk or an administrative assistant, you learn to acquiesce. You learn quickly not to say anything because he’s “the boss”, “the big cheese” or he’s friends with so-and-so who is “really important” and besides, maybe you totally misunderstood and who do you think YOU are anyway?! So you shut up and the silence strangles you. People like Harvey Weinstein do what they do because they know they can do it – they know that we live in a society that values money and status above kindness and integrity. They believe that their wealth and position entitles them to do what they want to whomever they want and what is worse they know the people around them believe this too.

Today, the working class and the working poor rarely see their lives represented on the big screen but this was not always the case. As I have stated here before, during Hollywood’s Pre-Code period (1930-1934), movies that came out of the Warner Brothers studio catered to a working-class audience. It is therefore not surprising that many of these films addressed sexual harassment in the workplace with a bluntness and honesty that is rarely seen in Hollywood movies today. (It must be noted that, according to author David Thomson in his fascinating 2017 book Warner Bros: The Making of an American Movie Studio, Harry Warner rebuked actors who sexually harassed secretaries.)

“I related to shop girls and chorus girls, just ordinary gals who were hoping,” said Joan Blondell, one of Warner Brothers’ most prolific stars. “I would get endless fan mail from girls saying ‘that is exactly what I would have done, if I’d been in your shoes, you did exactly the right thing.’”

Blondell plays a hotel maid in the romantic comedy/crime drama Blonde Crazy (1931). In one scene, a lecherous salesman asks for towels and then tries to grab her. Blondell pushes him away and angrily stuffs his merchandise – the pearls of a broken necklace – down the back of his pants. She gives him a swift sucker-punch in the butt before bolting from the room. Although the scene is played for laughs – and the laughs are at the salesman, not Blondell – her character’s frustration is palpable.

Workplace sexual harassment is presented with much more gravity in William A. Wellman’s Night Nurse (1931). In the film, the incomparable Barbara Stanwyck portrays an idealistic rookie nurse who discovers that the children she has been hired to take care of are being starved to death by their alcoholic mother’s lover (played by a young Clark Gable). The police and the head doctor refuse to help her so she must save the children on her own – with a little help from the friendly neighborhood bootlegger (Ben Lyon). Night Nurse (1931) is the epitome of Pre-Code Hollywood and illustrative of the cynicism that many Americans were feeling at the time toward authority figures and Prohibition (the bootlegger saves the day!). But it also serves as an example of the real life violence and harassment that nurses and Personal Support Workers (PSWs) experience on a daily basis (today, Stanwyck’s character would probably be called a PSW rather than a nurse). In one scene, a friend of her wealthy employer grabs and forcibly kisses her. In another, Gable’s character literally twists her arm and then punches her. For most of the film, her nurse uniform invites both ridicule and sexual come-ons. If you think that incidents like these only happened in the 1930s or in the movies, think again. In 2017, an Ontario Council of Hospital Unions poll found that 68% of nurses and PSWs across Ontario had experienced physical violence on the job at least once during the year and that 42% had experienced sexual harassment and assault. And those were just the incidents that were reported. Watching Night Nurse (1931), I had the sinking feeling that many nurses and PSWs today would sadly relate to the violence and harassment faced by Stanwyck’s character. Night Nurse (1931) was released eighty-eight years ago – when was the last time you saw a Hollywood movie about a Personal Support Worker? Continue reading “(Not So) Safe in Hell: The Working Class Heroines of Pre-Code Hollywood”

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

 

 

Mae Clarke: Beyond the Grapefruit

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Mae Clarke: Beyond the Grapefruit

by Heather Babcock, 2019

In the early 1930s, gangster movies used real bullets but the most explosive scene in The Public Enemy (1931) doesn’t involve gun fire at all: the film’s most notorious moment happens as the film’s protagonist, bootlegger Tom Powers (James Cagney), sits down to breakfast with his moll Kitty, played by the lovely Mae Clarke. They have obviously just had sex and Tom is acting more than a little cold and distracted. Kitty, looking fabulous in a pair of silk lounging pajamas, asks him if he has met someone he likes better. Cagney’s sneer curls up like a fist as he picks up a half grapefruit and smashes it in Mae’s face. It is a cruel scene which still shocks today and it confirms our suspicion that Tom Powers is a sociopath.

It seems that almost every man who had a hand in making The Public Enemy has their own story of how this scene came to be shot; the most commonly accepted theory is also the most condescending: the belief that the scene was improvised by Cagney and director William A. Wellman, without Clarke’s knowledge or consent and that her response was thus genuine. This assumption irritates me as it is dismissive of Clarke’s admirable acting talents and relegates her to little more than a prop. Well, Mae Clarke was no prop and she sure as hell wasn’t a hack either: in 1931, in addition to the Public Enemy, she delivered strong performances in three important films: Waterloo Bridge, Frankenstein and The Front Page. As for that grapefruit, I’m going to go with Mae’s version of the story, both because I trust her talent and because I like her better than all those other mugs: in a 1983 interview with American Classic Screen, Mae said that the script originally called for Cagney throwing the grapefruit at her and then storming out. After trying this out, Wellman and Cagney felt that the scene wasn’t quite working so they took Mae aside and asked her if she would be okay with Cagney pushing the grapefruit in her face. Mae didn’t like the idea but agreed to do it on the condition that the scene be shot once and with no retakes. According to Mae, Wellman and Cagney agreed to her conditions. Still, according to her close friends, Mae always hated the “grapefruit scene”.

Viewers today may honor her talent by watching this great actress in the powerful role for which she would undoubtedly prefer to be remembered: as chorus girl turned prostitute Myra in James Whale’s Waterloo Bridge (1931).

Mae Clarke was much more than just “the dame who gets the grapefruit facial”. The most criminal thing about the Public Enemy is that she did not even receive a screen credit.

– Heather Babcock, 2019 (from my essay Beer and Blood: The Birth of the Public Enemy)

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

Red-Headed Woman (1932)

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“Say, it’s just as easy to hook a rich man as it is to get hooked by a poor one.”

 

What do you get when you pair one of the wittiest screenwriters of her time with Hollywood’s original Platinum Blonde? The sexiest, funniest and most outrageous movie of the Pre-Code period, that’s what. Based on a screenplay by Anita Loos (a prolific writer most famous for her 1925 novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), Red-Headed Woman (1932) stars sexpot Jean Harlow chewing up scenery (and men) as Lil Andrews, the titular red-headed woman, a hedonist who sets out to seduce rich men in order to better her lot in society. Lil Andrews lies, cheats, and even attempts murder but, thanks to Harlow’s gleeful performance, you can’t help but love her. Harlow, tired of being typecast in trophy-moll roles and eager to prove her comedic chops, actively campaigned for the part, even going so far as to don a red wig during public appearances. It’s difficult to imagine any other actress bringing the sheer shameless fun to the role that the vivacious Harlow does. As women unfortunately know all too well, trying to walk the fine line of being “sexy” without being “slutty” is akin to tap dancing on a tightrope. In Red-Headed Woman (1932), Harlow takes the tightrope and turns it into a lasso – she’s in charge. Bucking the censors who decreed that bad girls must always be punished and/or redeemed by a movie’s end, Red-Headed Woman (1932) rewards the deliciously unrepentant Lil with a happy ending (complete with a wealthy patron and his handsome chauffeur) – a move which had the Catholic Legion of Decency foaming at the mouth.

By Heather Babcock, 2019