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)”

(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