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”

Riot Against the Machine: Review of Speedy (1928)

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By Heather Babcock, 2019

A few years ago I was waiting in line at my neighborhood independent dollar store; an elderly woman was in front of me and as the cashier (a young man in his twenties) was handing over her change, he wished her a good day. “I’m 85 years old,” the woman replied. “It’s never a good day for me, all my friends are dead.” The young man reached over and held out his hand to her. “Listen,” he said kindly, “I’m your friend. If you ever feel like you need a friend, just come down here and see me.”

I have thought about this interaction often, as I see more and more self-checkout machines taking the place of human beings. I think about how – when it comes to technology – it is not just about what we gain but also about what we lose, in this case the simple pleasure of human interaction. I thought about this again as I watched Speedy (1928), a Harold Lloyd silent comedy about a habitually unemployed young man named Speedy who makes it his mission to save New York City’s last horse-drawn trolley-car, owned and driven by his girlfriend’s grandfather, Pop.

The delightful comedy follows Speedy as he loses job after job. Pop explains the problem: “Speedy gets plenty of jobs – but he’ll never keep one while his mind is full of baseball.”  Indeed, Speedy’s only requirement of his employers is “that their store be within phoning distance of the Yankee stadium.” After his baseball-on-the-brains obsession causes him to be sacked from his job as a soda jerk, Speedy shrugs. “Aw Jane,” he says to his flapper girlfriend, played by the fetching Ann Christy, “Why worry about losing a job on a Saturday when we can go to Coney Island on Sunday? Besides you know I always get a job on Monday.”  This in turn leads to a dazzling extended sequence at Coney Island’s Luna Park. I’ve never visited Coney Island and have no idea what it’s like today but the fun park is featured prominently in plenty of 1920’s movies, notably Clara Bow’s It (1927) and Lonesome (1928) (the latter boasts one of the most beautiful early two-strip Technicolor scenes I have ever seen). Wearing heels and a swell dress, flapper Jane doesn’t care if you can see her underwear as she joins Speedy on the “Human Roulette Wheel”, the “Double Dip Slide” and the “Revolving Drum”, giving modern viewers a lesson in the fabulousness of 1920’s women’s undergarments.

Adding to Speedy’s time-capsule appeal is a hilarious cameo by Babe Ruth, whom the title card announces as “the idol of American boys – little and big.” Hailing a cab to take him to Yankee Stadium, the Babe has the misfortune of getting picked up by Speedy, in his latest stint as a cab driver. Beside himself with excitement, super fan Speedy gushes: “Even when you strike out, you miss ‘em close!” Sweating in the back seat as Speedy narrowly avoids crashing into oncoming traffic, the Babe replies “I don’t miss ‘em half as close as you do!”

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It isn’t all fun and games for Speedy though: upon finding out that a streetcar magnate is trying to railroad Pops into giving up his horse-drawn trolley tracks, Speedy organizes their blue collar friends and the film climaxes with a literal class war between the “little guys” and the evil streetcar corporation.

Watching Speedy through the lens of 2019 is interesting: the film was released in April of 1928 – just over a year and a half before the Wall Street Crash of 1929. You can almost hear the ticking of the clock: in just a few years, during the height of the Great Depression, Speedy’s carelessness towards employment would seem more ludicrous than charming. Yet even if Speedy might have seemed dated to Depression-era audiences, its central themes are completely in touch with today: like Speedy and Pop, many of us are feeling the anxiety associated with modern technology. With more and more human jobs being replaced by machines (“Office jobs are the next to go in the AI revolution”, the Financial Times recently predicted), a war between the robots and the humans is looking less like a Will Smith action movie and more like reality. Smart phones, Alexa, automated checkouts, self-driving cars: it’s amazing how blasé – and even gleeful – human beings are participating in their own extinction.

Yet Speedy shows that these anxieties surrounding technology have been around since at least the turn of the twentieth century.

In my novel Filthy Sugar (to be released in May 2020 with Inanna Publications), my protagonist Wanda’s daddy is a milkman who “doesn’t trust the automobile” so “when the other milkmen traded in their horses for trucks, Daddy doggedly held on to his beast; a gentle white and grey mare named Sadie”:

“Ya can’t trust anything that doesn’t need ya,” Daddy explained to me one day, as he filled Sadie’s feedbag with oats. “This girl needs me as much as I need her. Now what mess of steel and rubber is goin’ ta beat that?”

I think Speedy and Pops would agree with him.

Heather Babcock, 2019

The Public Enemy (1931) and the Real-Life Pain of Losing a Sibling

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1931 could arguably be summed up as “the year of the gangster”: the newspapers were full of ‘em: stories of “bloody bootleg rackets” and “bootlegger bandit death trysts” dominated the headlines and, thanks to the Warner Brothers studio, the silver screen as well. The studio, which only a few years earlier had revolutionized the industry by ushering in sound with 1927’s The Jazz Singer, began 1931 with a bang when they released the gangster talkie Little Caesar, a film so popular that theaters had to keep it running 24 hours a day just to satisfy audience demand. Riding the wave of gunfire, Warner Brothers followed Little Caesar with The Public Enemy, released in April of 1931. Considered one of the most influential gangster films of all time, The Public Enemy starred firecracker James Cagney, shooting his words out quicker than bullets from a Tommy gun as Tom Powers, a nasty bootlegger bending Prohibition – and the streets of Chicago – to his will.

For all of its violence, guns (and grapefruit), The Public Enemy is at its core a movie about family. The script was adapted from Kubec Glasmon and John Bright’s novel Beer and Blood and that title sums up all of Tom’s world: his “beer” family of bootleggers and his “blood” family, played here by Beryl Mercer as his naïve, loving mother and Donald Cook as his conservative big brother Mike.

The relationship between brothers Tom and Mike is interesting. It is complicated and intense in the way that relationships between real-life siblings often are. Tom Powers may thumb his nose at Mike’s responsible lifestyle (“He’s too busy going to school – he’s learning how to be poor”) but the hard-core gangster – who can literally shoot a man in the back before calling his moll up for a date – doesn’t defend himself when his disapproving brother gives him a sock in the jaw (and the punch was reportedly real – Cook hit Cagney so hard that Cagney cracked a tooth).

No matter how many times I have seen it, the ending of The Public Enemy always shakes me to the core. A repentant Tom Powers reconciles with his mother and Mike. He is in the hospital after a violent shoot-out and he vows to leave the gangster lifestyle behind and return home to them.  His mother and Mike jubilantly prepare for his homecoming just as Tom is kidnapped by rival gangsters. In the film’s final scene, Mike opens the door, expecting Tom, only to be greeted by his brother’s mummified corpse being tossed onto his mother’s living room floor. In shock and pummeled with grief, Mike slowly lurches toward the camera as the needle on a phonograph scratches over a now forgotten record.

This scene hits me on a personal level because that is exactly how it feels to lose a sibling: it is a record that never stops skipping. It is a song that never plays out.

Two years after I lost my sister and long before I ever saw The Public Enemy, I wrote a long poem titled “Making Words” as both a tribute to her and also as a way to work through my bereavement. I too used the image of a broken record as a symbol for my grief:

I was the one who had to make it into words for Mom.  You know that.  You were there, sitting on top of her stereo, hiding behind her cat and thinking that I couldn’t see you.

You were the one scratching the needle over the record; the song was Daydream Believer and it started skipping.  The Monkees stopped dancing.  Mom’s heart opened up and swallowed the words and I couldn’t reach her anymore.

That’s what gets me too about the ending of The Public Enemy: knowing that Mike will have to be the one to tell Ma that her baby is never coming home.

I know how that feels and this is why The Public Enemy is such a personal film for me. Like Mike and Tom, the relationship between my own sister and I was rocked by sibling rivalry but anchored with love.

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)”