Red Lipstick Made Me a Criminal (and a few other fun facts about your favorite cosmetic)

By Heather Babcock, 2021

Red lipstick made me do it.

The sleek, white plastic tube of flame-orange wax called out to me from the bowels of the Zellers’ cosmetic aisle.

The year was 1988 and I was ten years old. At home, a large poster of Madonna, in character for Who’s That Girl (1987), hung over my bed: clad in fishnets, a leather jacket and fingerless gloves. More intimidating than the revolver in her hands was the stark red lipstick on her face. Fierce. Fabulous. I didn’t understand why the other girls at my school didn’t like her. I didn’t understand why I wasn’t allowed to wear lipstick too.

Every Saturday, my mother would go grocery shopping at the Kipling Queensway Mall and my dad would give my sister and I a dollar each to buy either trash or a treat at the mall’s dollar store or Zellers. But this Saturday, I didn’t feel like a chocolate bar or a bag of chips. I didn’t need another whoopee cushion or copy of Tiger Beat magazine.

I wanted that lipstick.

It didn’t matter that it cost a little more than the dollar my dad had given me. To my ten-year-old mind, that was an unfairness that could be easily corrected. And so, taking advantage of my then-mousy invisibility, I quietly slipped the coveted tube into the pocket of my Levi’s. I don’t remember feeling nervous or even giddy about it and I certainly didn’t feel guilty – that red lipstick belonged to me. It was mine. I did however make the colossal mistake of boasting to my sister about the steal, in proud whispers, on the ride home.

Hey Daaaa-dddd,” she called out smugly. “Heather stole a lipstick!

And so, before I knew it, I was back in the Zellers department store, handing over my swag and stammering out an apology to the bored teenage clerk whose only response to my foray into crime was a glassy-eyed shrug.

Continue reading “Red Lipstick Made Me a Criminal (and a few other fun facts about your favorite cosmetic)”

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”

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

“Goodness Had Nothin’ to Do With It, Dearie”: Favorite Mae West Quotes

mae west

In 1933, Hollywood’s leading sex symbol was a feisty 40-year-old woman who was as smart as she was curvaceous. Mae West was more than just another sexy blonde though; one of the most influential people, of not only the 1930s but of the twentieth century, West was an accomplished playwright, screenwriter, actress, singer and comedienne. A pioneer of the sexual revolution, Mae said “I let people know that women like sex too, and that’s a good thing, not a bad thing, as long as you don’t hurt anyone.” In 1927, Mae’s smash hit play Sex was raided by police and after the subsequent trial, she was found guilty of “corrupting the morals of youth”. The judge sentenced her to either pay a fine of five hundred dollars or spend ten days in a women’s prison. Mae chose the jail sentence because she thought it “more interesting” and figured it would provide fodder for her writing: “I wasn’t going to be deprived of that experience,” she would say years later. “I saw those as ten very valuable days, a kind of working vacation.” In 1933, West’s movie She Done Him Wrong (1933) did Paramount Studios very, very right: the film – and Mae – saved the studio from bankruptcy during the bleakest days of the Great Depression. In the excellent 2009 biography She Always Knew How: Mae West, A Personal Biography, author Charlotte Chandler wrote: “There were even some people who were willing to miss a second meal in order to see She Done Him Wrong and Mae West a second time.”

She may have only had a third-grade education, but Mae West is inarguably the most quoted person of the twentieth century. Popular double entendres such as “Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?” originated with West. Because of the sheer wealth of her smart and snappy one-liners, it would be next to impossible to limit a list of Mae’s top quotes to just ten.  So instead I am sharing a top ten of my personal favourite Mae West quotes. Feel free to add your own in the comments section.

Continue reading ““Goodness Had Nothin’ to Do With It, Dearie”: Favorite Mae West Quotes”

Remembering the Forgotten: A Look at WW1 through the Lens of Pre-Code Hollywood

heroes for sale

By Heather Babcock

“Pain. Agony. Continual torture. Day after day, like a million ants eating me alive. Do you know what that means? No, you don’t. Because when I was being blown to bits, you were sitting here safe and comfortable. And you’re still sitting here in judgement.” – Tom Holmes (Richard Barthelmess), Heroes for Sale (1933)

Remembrance Day is not about “glorifying war”. November 11th 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 sacrifice – sometimes their lives – for us: for the freedoms 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.

Sound motion pictures (“talkies”) were introduced to the public about nine years after the end of World War One. Many of the top directors of early sound films – such as Busby Berkeley, James Whale and William A. Wellman – were WW1 veterans. War films made during this period, while in no means shying away from the death and destruction of the battlefield, are not gory as the war films that would be made in later decades. War films 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 they had faced for an audience’s entertainment.  While modern war films focus on battlefield action, Pre-Code war movies focus on humanity and loss.

In the 1933 film Heroes for Sale, Richard Bartelmess plays Tom Holmes, a WW1 soldier whose heroic act on the battlefield is rewarded not with a medal but with a morphine addiction. He gets a job at a bank and attempts to hide his addiction but his drug dealer keeps pushing up the price. Desperate, Tom goes to see his doctor. The doctor refuses to prescribe the drug and instead calls Tom’s boss at the bank, who promptly fires him. “You fellows forget the war is over,” the smug banker chastises Tom. “Time to quit beating the drum and waving the flag.” This scene is interesting for a couple of reasons: as is often the case in Warner Brothers’ Pre-Code films, the banker is presented as sinister and downright evil, which makes a lot of sense in a film that was released about three and a half years after the stock market crash, but even more importantly this scene gives flesh to the feelings of ingratitude and dismissiveness that some WW1 vets were feeling upon returning home. In the groundbreaking 1932 movie I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, WW1 vet James Allen (the wonderful Paul Muni) exclaims in frustration: “No one seems to realize that I’ve changed – that I’m different now! I’ve been through hell! Folks here are concerned with my uniform and how I dance. I’m out of step with everybody.”

In his 1931 book Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920’s, author Frederick Lewis Allen describes a 1919 Life magazine cartoon in which a personification of Uncle Sam says to a WW1 vet “Nothing is too good for you, my boy! What would you like?” to which the soldier replies “A job.” About fourteen years later, Joan Blondell and Etta Moten Barnett performed the boot stomping finale “Remember My Forgotten Man” in the movie Gold Diggers of 1933. Blondell speaks the song’s opening lyrics:

“Remember my forgotten man? You put a rifle in his hand. You sent him far away, you shouted ‘hip, hooray!’ But look at him today.” (Lyrics by Warren and Dubin)

The elaborate number, choreographed by WW1 vet Busby Berkeley, begins with the forgotten women: the war widows, grieving mothers and the girls whose dreams of home and marriage were ripped away in what is now considered one of the bloodiest and deadliest wars in history with an estimated 37 million lives lost. “Forgetting him means you’re forgetting me,” Blondell sighs, as she wanders the streets looking for a trick. The number then shifts from the women to the men. We see proud men marching off to war in crisp uniforms. Girls throw flowers and toss kisses at them. Blankets of ticker tape and confetti seem to fall from the sky. But new soldiers come to join the parade: these men are bloody and bandaged; some carry dead, broken bodies on their backs. No one cheers these men on for the crowd has long disappeared.  Next, the battlefield transforms into a breadline and young men shiver in the cold as they wait in line for a stale sandwich and a cup of watered down coffee. “We are the real forgotten men,” the soldiers sing. “Who have to lead this life again. We sauntered forth to fight, for glory was our pride but somehow glory died.”

Busby based the number on the Bonus Army of 1932. During one of the bleakest years of the Great Depression, an estimated 15,000 WW1 veterans, out of work and hungry, made their way to the nation’s capital to demand payment of their bonus for serving in the war. They called themselves the “Bonus Expeditionary Force” and set up camp and ramshackle tents throughout Washington, D.C. Their pleas fell on deaf ears though when on June 17 the Senate voted against the House-passed bill that would have given WW1 vets immediate payment of their bonus. With no money and no place to go, the soldiers remained in their man-made camps. On July 28th, 1932 President Hoover ordered the Army to forcibly remove the veterans, along with their wives and children, using a violent force of tanks and cavalry with fixed bayonets and tear gas. Afterwards, the government set the veteran’s make-shift homes on fire.

Public sentiment was largely on the side of the WW1 soldiers: it didn’t matter which political party one followed, nobody – Republican, Democrat or independent – thought it was okay for the government to be gassing American war vets on the White House lawn.

Incidentally, Gold Diggers of 1933 was shot during the same time as Heroes for Sale. Both films are examples of the grit and perseverance of the people who lived through the Great Depression: “It takes more than one sock in the jaw to lick 120 million people,” Tom says at the end of Heroes for Sale, as he shivers in the rain in a Hooverville (an early 1930s term for a homeless camp). People in the 1930s may have been beaten down but they were looking up.

Canadian artist F.H. Varley’s 1918 painting “For What?” depicts a scene from WW1. Although a barrel of folded up corpses is in the painting’s foreground, this is not what immediately captures the eye. Instead we first notice the men in the background: one planting white crosses as another digs graves. Heavy clouds roll above them. This haunting painting is the strongest representation of PTSD (at the time referred to as “shell shock”) that I have ever seen.

On November 11th, we will remember the ones who died and the ones who were left behind to “lead this life again”; the decorated and the forgotten.

We will honor them as these films honored them: by remembering the horrors that they tried so hard to forget.

Bullets and Bombshells: Blondie Johnson (1933)

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By Heather Babcock (2019)

“I know all the answers and I know what it’s all about. I found out that the only thing worthwhile is dough. And I’m gonna get it, see.” – Blondie Johnson (Joan Blondell)

Move over James Cagney. In 1933, Warner Brothers put a feminine twist on their popular gangster genre with Blondie Johnson, a rags to bullets tale starring the smart and sassy Joan Blondell as the titular Blondie: a tough as nails beauty who – in a rare move for a Pre-Code film – uses her brains rather than her body, rising from impoverishment to wealth and power as the city’s biggest – and smartest – crime boss.

In Little Caesar (1931) and The Public Enemy (1931), it was a hunger for power that drove the male protagonists to crime.  For Blondie, it’s simply hunger.

Blondie Johnson (1933) opens in a Welfare and Relief Association office where our down-on-her-luck heroine is begging for help for herself and her sick mother, who have just been kicked out of their tenement. (We know at first glance that Blondie is down-on-her-luck because she isn’t wearing any lipstick and her stockings have runs in them – in 1930’s movies, no make-up and torn stockings symbolize destitution.)  When the welfare agent curtly asks her to state her case, Blondie explains that she’s been out of work for four months after having to quit her job because of sexual harassment. “He wouldn’t leave me alone,” she says of her former boss. “So you quit,” the agent replies indifferently, his tone soaked with victim blaming. He then rejects her welfare application. Demoralized, Blondie looks hopelessly at the other welfare applicants awaiting their fate. The camera pans over tired, rain drenched souls in broken shoes and threadbare clothing; all the stuffing yanked out of them, their bodies slumped over like Capitalism’s discarded toys.  These are the faces of the Great Depression and the images bring to mind the work of photographer Dorothea Lange. This scene alone is a bold move for a popcorn flick that was released during a time when theaters shied away from showing any newsreel footage of breadlines and poverty. Unflinching realism is a staple of Warner Brothers’ Pre-Code movies.  You would never see such a scene in an MGM film. Continue reading “Bullets and Bombshells: Blondie Johnson (1933)”

(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”

Youth Derailed: William A. Wellman’s Wild Boys of the Road (1933)

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By Heather Babcock

 “You say ya gotta send us to jail to keep us off the streets. Well that’s a lie. You’re sending us to jail because you don’t wanna see us.” – Eddie (Frankie Darro), Wild Boys of the Road (1933).

When it comes to Depression-era movies, we tend to picture splashy musicals, Fred Astaire’s tap shoes and Shirley Temple’s dimples.  But there were many films of the decade which chose instead to turn away from the glitter in favor of the grit: movies that had their noses planted in the newspaper headlines of the day and their feet in the dirty streets. Films like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) and Heroes for Sale (1933). These are movies that came out of Warner Brothers, a studio which prided itself on catering to a working class audience. For a brief moment in time blue collar workers, taxi drivers, waitresses, maids and the unemployed could see images of themselves up on the silver screen. These images usually came in the voluptuous mold of Joan Blondell or the firecracker form of James Cagney. But they were there, just the same. Warner Brothers, home of the gangster flick and Busby Berkeley musicals, strove to tell stories “ripped from the headlines of the day” – the main rule being that the stories never be boring. Darryl F. Zanuck, Warner’s then-head of production, wrote a letter to the Hollywood Reporter in 1932 advocating these types of films which, as he wrote, “must have the punch and smash that would entitle it to a headline on the front page of any successful metropolitan daily.” One of those films – which definitely packs one smash of a punch – is Warner’s Wild Boys of the Road (1933), directed by William “Wild Bill” Wellman.

It is a crying shame that Wellman is not better remembered today. He directed a whopping seventy-six films in his time including the influential gangster picture The Public Enemy (1931), the original A Star is Born (1937) and the first winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture, Wings (1927). Even just one of these movies would be an enviable accomplishment! It was however his 1933 film Wild Boys of the Road, about a group of young train hopping waifs, which held a special place in his heart: his son, William Wellman, Jr., wrote in his 2015 biography Wild Bill Wellman: Hollywood Rebel that the film’s story reminded Wellman of his own troubled youth. His son has said that of all of his movies, the director counted Wild Boys of the Road (1933) among his top ten favorites.

The plight of homeless people is often romanticized in the media. In the 1930s, newspapers couldn’t resist the adventurous stories of down-on-their-luck individuals who “rode the rails” in the hopes of finding work. In an article published on July 15th, 1931 the Globe newspaper wrote: “As a general rule, the hobo is on the road because a cog slipped earlier somewhere in the machinery of his life…The lure of the road has gripped him, and in the morning he must be off to new scenes.”

But those “new scenes” and adventures were often filled with misery, violence and trauma. Wild Boys of the Road (1933) rips apart the headlines of the day and admirably turns its unflinching eye on the brutal crush of poverty. Continue reading “Youth Derailed: William A. Wellman’s Wild Boys of the Road (1933)”

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

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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)”