“Come on baby, what are you afraid of?”: The Bad Boy Gangster Was the Femme Fatale of 1930’s Pre-Code Cinema

Clark Gable and Norma Shearer in A Free Soul (1931)

Sandwiched between the silent movie Vamp and the Femme Fatale of 1940’s film noir, is the Bad Boy Gangster, who swaggered and strutted his way over the morally ambiguous terrain that was pre-Code Hollywood film.  But make no mistake: pre-Code movies belonged to the ladies, or to put it more accurately, the New Woman.

WW1 changed everything – but its aftermath changed women in particular. The carnage of “the Great War” had depleted the number of eligible young men and the expectations that a young woman had previously taken for granted – a husband, children and a home – now seemed less likely for many. Becoming an independent “working girl” (whether that meant working in a dress shop or cleaning houses) was not a choice – it was a necessity. The independence didn’t stop there. By the end of 1922, almost all of the Canadian provinces had granted women the right to vote (it would not be until 1940 that women in Quebec would be granted full suffrage). In the USA, the 19th Amendment, ratified on August 18th and certified as law on August 26th of 1920, technically granted women suffrage although the fight for the right to vote was far from over for Black women in America.

In 1918, Marie Stopes’ controversial best selling book Married Love or Love in Marriage openly discussed methods of birth control, and it wasn’t just married women who read it. However it wasn’t until the economic depression of the 1930s that birth control gained wider acceptance. In his brilliant book The Great Depression 1929-1939, Pierre Berton writes that “after 1930 it began to be obvious that ignorance of birth control methods was causing hardship among the poor, who couldn’t afford large families. Deaths from illegal abortions, many self-induced, were on the rise.” As a result, the United Church formally endorsed birth control in 1936, with Rev. John Coburn stating that “every child had the right to come into the world wanted.” In Ontario, Canada, birth control advocate and social worker Dorothea Palmer, who was arrested – and later acquitted – in 1936 for canvassing the homes of impoverished mothers and asking them if they would like information on birth control, publicly stated that “a woman should be master of her own body. She should be the one to say if she should become a mother.”

Working girls. Voting rights. Birth control. The first wave of the women’s revolution coalesced with a new phenomenon: the movies. Mary Pickford. Clara Bow. Josephine Baker. Joan Crawford. Suddenly working class girls had something other than a man to pin their dreams on. Thanks to the validity of the movies and their wildly popular female stars, make-up was no longer “just for prostitutes” – plenty of “nice” girls now rouged their lips and painted their faces. Skirts were shorter and morals were looser…well, sort of.

Continue reading ““Come on baby, what are you afraid of?”: The Bad Boy Gangster Was the Femme Fatale of 1930’s Pre-Code Cinema”

Guest Post: Frank Capra, a Master of Comedy and Social Awareness by Jeff Cottrill

Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934)

Editor’s Note: Jeff Cottrill is a talented writer and spoken word artist. We met over a decade ago, as youngsters making our way in Toronto’s open mic scene. A fellow film buff, Jeff is one of my favorite people to talk movies with. So when he approached me about writing a guest post for the Soda Fountain, I knew it would be a great fit. Jeff’s debut novel Hate Story is being released from Dragonfly Publishing (Australia) in March 2022 and I was honored to read an ARC. Hate Story is a fresh, funny and original telling of the dark side of social media and internet shaming. Its heroine happens to be a movie blogger so the novel is sprinkled with lots of great references to classic and contemporary films. Read on for Jeff’s essay “Frank Capra: A Master of Comedy and Social Awareness”.

I wouldn’t give you two cents for all your fancy rules if, behind them, they didn’t have a little bit of plain, ordinary, everyday kindness. And a little lookin’ out for the other fella too.

James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

When many people hear the name Frank Capra today, chances are the only title they think of is It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). This movie is a timeless holiday favourite, but it’s a shame its reputation now outshines the rest of Capra’s filmmaking career – especially his pre-World War II movies, which are arguably better. Capra had a streak unmatched by any other director in the 1930s, winning three Academy Awards while helming classics like Lady for a Day (1933), It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Lost Horizon (1937), You Can’t Take It with You (1938) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).

Frank Capra is my favourite director from this era – or maybe tied with Charlie Chaplin. There are two important traits Capra and Chaplin have in common: their impeccable comedic timing, and their passionate social conscience. Many critics have dismissed Capra as a corny sentimentalist, but it’s really the comedy that brings his work to life, propped up by the wit of screenwriter Robert Riskin and the sharp delivery of actors like Jean Arthur, James Stewart, Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Thomas Mitchell, Lionel Barrymore and many others.

Take the whip-smart repartee that Gable and Colbert lob at each other in It Happened One Night. As Gable’s cynical reporter buses and hitchhikes across America with Colbert’s spoiled runaway heiress, the pair bicker and debate hilariously about everything from dunking donuts to piggybacking, with a speed and timing that surely influenced later romcoms. On the surface, the characters have nothing in common – but the energy they devote to each other reveals a deep connection, one of shared intelligent sarcasm, and you can’t help rooting for them to hook up.

Arthur and Stewart play off each other in a similar way in You Can’t Take It with You and Mr. Smith, and Arthur had a knack for portraying jaded professional women with a hidden compassionate side. In both Mr. Deeds and Mr. Smith, Arthur’s character starts off mocking and patronizing the naive title hero – but once she gets to know him, she not only falls in love with his sincerity, but also becomes his number-one supporter. It sounds like an implausible fantasy, yet Arthur makes it work by staying smart, funny, fast-talking and worldly even while yielding to her inner sentiment. She’s no pushover; she thinks for herself and owns full agency over her decisions, in a way that may surprise modern viewers who expect dated sexism.

All Capra’s best movies centre on the theme of an ordinary man (the “Little Guy”) winning out against the big guns of the establishment. This theme was especially potent during the poverty and social upheaval of the Great Depression, but I think it’s even more relevant now – in the wake of the recent Occupy movement, and in an era of high wealth gaps and billionaires playing space tourism. Every Capra classic features a relatable lone hero who stands up for bedrock moral values against the corruption, egotism and greed around him – the kind of hero people wished for in the ’30s, and the kind we could use now.

Continue reading “Guest Post: Frank Capra, a Master of Comedy and Social Awareness by Jeff Cottrill”

Pre-Code Film Review: Ladies They Talk About (1933)

Listen, don’t think you can walk in here and take over this joint. There’s lots of big sharks in here that just live on fresh fish like you.

Susie (Dorothy Burgess), Ladies They Talk About

On the silver screen of the 1930s, beauty and talent counted for some but personality was worth a lot more. Lucky Barbara Stanwyck had all three – and how! One of the most quintessential actresses of the Pre-Code era, Stanwyck could be both tough-as-nails and vulnerable at the same time, as showcased in two of her best movies from this time period, Baby Face (1933) and Ladies They Talk About (1933). In both movies, Stanwyck plays the “good bad girl”, a term coined by Henry James Forman in his 1933 book Our Movie-Made Children to describe a leading female character who combines “sweetness” with “loose morals”.

If there were any doubts that Depression-era audiences adored the “good bad girl”, the trailer for Ladies They Talk About casts them aside, exclaiming:

Men called her BEAUTIFUL! Women called her BAD! Police called her DANGEROUS! You’ll call her WONDERFUL!

Released on February 4th, 1933 and starring Stanwyck as Nan, a “beautiful gun moll” who helps rob a bank and gets sent to the slammer, Ladies They Talk About was Warner Bros’ feminine take on the prison film, a genre that was incredibly popular in the early 1930s. In 1932, Warner Bros. released the hard hitting classics I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, although both movies were predated by RKO Radio Pictures’ Hell’s Highway (released in September of that year; Fugitive followed in November and Sing Sing in December). The success of Ladies They Talk About encouraged Warner Bros. to do for the gangster flick what Ladies did for the prison movie, with the surprisingly feminist Blondie Johnson (1933), starring Joan Blondell as an organized crime boss.

Pre-Code Hollywood loved gangsters and the feeling was reciprocated. The infamous Bonnie Parker adored the movies and, like many poor and working class girls of her time, saw in them a way out of drudgery and poverty. In March 1930, Parker hid a gun under her dress to help her boyfriend Clyde Barrow escape from jail. It was April of 1933 however when the two bank robbing love birds became household names: when authorities investigated the Barrow gang’s hideout, they found rolls of unprocessed film containing posed images of the couple that were soon splashed across newspapers nationwide. It was the photos of Bonnie that captured the public’s imagination the most: tight sweater, gun at her hip, cigar wedged between her lips: women like this had only ever existed in the movies. Until now. Did Bonnie see Ladies They Talk About and was she influenced by it? It’s certainly plausible.

Continue reading “Pre-Code Film Review: Ladies They Talk About (1933)”

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”

Even Santa Could Use Some “Filthy Sugar” in His Stocking: Inanna Holiday Sale On Now!

“The 1930s come alive in this novel” – From Historical Novel Society review

Looking for the perfect gift for the vintage lover on your list? My publisher Inanna Publications is currently having a holiday sale: use the coupon code HOLIDAY20 at checkout and receive 30% off my debut historical novel Filthy Sugar.

Set in the 1930s, Filthy Sugar follows the adventures of my voluptuous redheaded heroine Wanda Whittle who finds fame on the burlesque stage at the Apple Bottom theatre as “Wanda Wiggles”. Shady coppers, coke-snorting temperance ladies, cowardly boxers and dime-store bootleggers: Wanda will encounter them all on her journey from rags to riches and back again as she discovers that a girl doesn’t need a lot of sugar to be sensational!

“Filthy Sugar is so delicious it’s positively sinful! Wanda Wiggles will take you to another time and place, but a place where love, lust, greed, sex and power are just as heartbreaking and complex as they are today”. – Lisa de Nikolits, author of The Occult Persuasion and the Anarchist’s Solution and The Rage Room

Support small businesses and local authors this Christmas and get your hands on some Filthy Sugar here.

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”

St. Louis Blues (1929), Baby Face (1933) and the Desire of a Woman

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(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.

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(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”

Filthy Sugar: An Excerpt

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My debut novel Filthy Sugar is now available with Inanna Publications! I thought I’d share a short excerpt with you on this lovely Friday morning.

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“Highballs and hard times! Diamonds and breadlines!”

Clad in his trademark checked suit and comedy derby, Brock belts out “Highballin’ Hard Times,” a song he wrote to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition. A row of chorines dressed up as nineteenth-century saloon girls dance the can-can as I bathe centre stage in an elephantine cocktail glass filled with real champagne.

Humming along with Brock’s booze tune, I joyfully kick my legs out towards the Apple Bottom’s newly installed mirrored ceiling.

“My pockets are empty but my honey’s got money!”

I dunk my head under the golden liquid, not caring if my hair gets sticky.

“As long as I’m with her all my days will be sunny!”

I take a generous gulp of fizz water before coming up again for air. Happy and dizzy, I shake my tassels at the mirthful audience, who roar their approval. I wonder if Mr. Manchester is in the theatre tonight. Just the thought of him watching me like this, with my wet, near naked body glistening under the hot lights, excites me. I have only ever known one man “in the biblical sense”: Guy Bacon, a rather plump banker, eleven years my senior, whom I had met while taxi dancing. I had not found Guy particularly handsome or interesting, but he was very persistent; I was kind of bored. So, one evening, after he had spent all of his tickets on me, I agreed to go for a ride down to the lake in his cherry-red Chevrolet Sports Cabriolet. Continue reading “Filthy Sugar: An Excerpt”

Crashing the Party: “Our Modern Maidens (1929)” and the Inevitable Ticking of the Clock.

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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.”

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”