A Trio of Woman’s Pictures Directed by Ricardo Cortez

By Megan McGurk

During the scene in Norma Shearer’s powder room for The Women (1939), director George Cukor suggested a bit of business for Rosalind Russell. First, she hooks a chair with her ankle, sits down, and shares a choice piece of gossip with Phyllis Povah about the man of the house, who had been carrying on with a shopgirl under his wife’s nose. After they cackle, Roz has a moment by herself at the sink over guest soap and towels with cheap embroidery. Roz looks in the mirror, pulls back her lips, and examines her teeth. In her memoir, she recalls questioning Cukor’s instructions. The director pointed out that women make up one way in front of one another, but they did it another way when they were alone. Small details like baring her teeth made it possible for Rosalind Russell to steal the picture. Cukor put his finger on small moments that build character and set a mood.

Ricardo Cortez probably isn’t the first name you think of when it comes to films about women, because he’s better known in front of the camera than behind it, but he shares the same integrity in telling women’s stories as better known directors such as George Cukor. In 1938, Cortez signed a deal with 20th Century Fox to act, write, and direct. In two years, he directed seven ‘B’ pictures for the studio. Dan Van Neste, in his biography, The Magnificent Heel, notes that Cortez ‘approached the direction of the ‘B’ movie as if he were about to helm Citizen Kane’. Cortez was meticulous in his set ups and paid attention to detail. He applied decades of experience in front of the camera for coaching cast members through a performance. In 1940, Cortez directed three woman’s pictures back-to-back which rival the quality of more prestigious ‘A’ productions.

City Of Chance, lobbycard, from left, Donald Woods, Lynn Bari, C. Aubrey Smith, 1940. (Photo by LMPC via Getty Images)

Like Cukor, Cortez sensed the dramatic potential of a powder room setting, where women share secrets behind closed doors. At first, City of Chance (1940), seems like a standard potboiler about the gambling rackets. Fifteen minutes into the picture, top-billed Lynn Bari arrives, playing a reporter who assists a police investigation to close a fancy casino run by C. Aubrey Smith and Donald Woods. The racketeers have the usual gadgets, such as pool tables which convert for playing ‘21’, dice, and roulette, along with a rigged telephone booth that has an office extension for eavesdropping. But the real plot intrigue occurs in the powder room, far away from the prying eyes of men. Ricardo Cortez stages covert exchanges between women, giving the viewer a real sense of what women do when men aren’t around. 

Three women find respite for a moment in the powder room and trade in sass mouth economics. They ask the cocktail waitress, Beulah, played by Theresa Harris, if she will exchange their chips for cash. Beulah asks for a promise that they won’t tell, because she says she knows the club owners wouldn’t like it. One of them settles the bargain at ten percent off the top for Beulah. The women hand over $200 combined in gambling chips. Theresa Harris scoops them into her pocket and dashes off to the counter. All the while, Lynn Bari observes with saucer-eyes. Cortez paces the scene so that it rolls along as smooth as a woman applying lipstick or combing her hair. Women have figured out a sure-fire way to beat the house and make a date profitable. Really, it’s a feminine art that only counts as cheating as much as a push up bra and spritz of perfume. Women in the powder room cut to the chase, rather than gamble, or waste time with role play, as say Jean Harlow did when she pretended to lose her purse so she could squeeze rent money from Stuart Erwin in Hold Your Man (1933).

Cortez shows viewers a smart system women use to make ends meet. The odds favour men—why throw away good money on rigged games? When their dates hand out chips to play with, women take the sensible option and convert them to the cash. Lynn Bari seems more impressed watching this deal than the one by a gangster who wages a hostile takeover of the gambling den. Frankly, so am I.

Another woman in the powder room hatches a practical scam which Lynn Bari strains to overhear. A woman admits to a friend that her husband is on a losing streak. In an earlier scene, downstairs at the crap tables, she had begged him to call it quits. He brushed her off, dug his heels in, convinced he could turn it around. She takes a pair of fixed dice from her evening bag and tells her friend she’s going to switch them for the real thing. Someone will notice and shut the game down for a house fix. If she can’t stop her husband, she’ll close the joint. By necessity, a harried wife collects a slew of tricks to keep a reckless husband in line. I would have preferred the whole picture set inside the powder room.

In the last two pictures Cortez directed, he locates the action in The Sherrington Hotel for women, where men are not permitted beyond the lobby. Fox studio planned a trilogy that began with Linda Darnell’s film debut, when she was only fifteen years old, in Hotel for Women (1939). Directed by Gregory Ratoff, Darnell is bolstered by Ann Sothern and a cameo by celebrated hostess, Elsa Maxwell. But the hotel feels two-dimensional compared with the intimacy of the setting when Ricardo Cortez followed up with Free, Blonde and 21 (1940) and Girl in Room 313 (1940). Ricardo Cortez presents the hotel as though it were a Russian doll, a series of nested rooms hidden in private recess.

In the opening scene of Free, Blonde, and 21 (1940), a drunk man offers an excuse when he’s stopped at the entrance of the Sherrington that a friend told him to stop there. The doorman replies that he fell for the oldest gag in the city—the Sherrington is reserved for women—and turns the man away. Cortez frames exterior and interior spaces as a fortress of layers, which ultimately lead to the inner sanctum of rooms that are women-only and off limits to men. The street front revolving doors, rear service entrance, the lobby, elevators, corridors, and rooms, grow smaller, and blockade pick up artists, men on a bender, and cheating husbands.

Joan Davis, playing one of the chambermaids, watches over the residents. She mends clothes, wakes them when they fall asleep wearing hair dye, loans money they never pay back, and monitors how many sleeping pills they have left on a nightstand. Right from the start, Davis lets us know how men rate when she slugs her boyfriend in the back alley because he demanded a kiss. The men are more dress dummy than swoon merchant. Surrounded by stuffed shirts and ham-fisted dopes, the women are left to run away with the picture. One particularly dim son of Adam, a physician played by Henry Wilcoxon, seems aghast that Lynn Bari lives in the Sherrington. He doesn’t understand why she would choose to live in a women’s hotel rather than her own apartment, Lynn Bari explains ‘it’s like watching the same review that never gives quite the same show twice’. She’s drawn to the characters and their stories, just like an audience watching a picture. The dormitory spaces are as unique as the women who occupy them.

Lynn’s room is decorated with tasteful furnishing and drapes, rather than the basic folding tables of the girls just starting out on their own. Bari’s room is a testament to an independent working woman—she has the room of one’s own that a million dames strive for when they ride the subway each morning. Lynn Bari was only 21 years-old when she made the film, but she looks like she could mentor younger girls in the hotel. She carries the poise of experience earned over many years since her first film appearance, when she was only 13, as a chorus girl in Dancing Lady (1933). As Bari put it, she played the heavy in ‘A’ pictures for 20th Century Fox while she was heroine in ‘B’ pictures.

In Free, Blonde and 21 the platinum Mary Beth Hughes leaves a note before she overdoses on sleeping pills, which she hopes will make front page news to shame a man who did her wrong. Lynn Bari rides along in the ambulance. On the gurney, Hughes is supposed to be knocked out cold, but erupts into a sneeze. Had she really taken a bottle of pills, she would have been oblivious to the sniffles. Bari, as a worldly sophisticate, realises the girl staged the whole thing. Cortez takes full advantage of a small intimate moment between women to get the real story. Before they reach the hospital and official men take charge, Lynn Bari already has an accurate diagnosis.

Ricardo Cortez retains the sense of intimacy he created in the Sherrington for the last picture he directed. During one scene in Girl in 313, Mary Treen plays a maid who teases residents with a juicy tale about a gun moll who just checked into the hotel. The girls are busy with more pressing matters, such as soaking her dancing feet in the tub. No one bites on the gossip, including a woman who writes racy stories for magazines. They are big city gals who have heard everything. The scene illustrates how quickly information circulates through the halls. 

Florence Rice plays a jewel thief (or is she?), who swipes a $50,000 necklace during a glamorous jewellery show during the opening scene. She arrives at the Sherrington without a reservation, but offers an excuse about an abusive husband, which gets her a room and no questions about the absence of luggage. Mary Treen knocks on the door to help the new resident unpack and notices a pistol in the new gal’s handbag. Safe inside the hotel for women, Rice contacts Kent Taylor, a smug insurance agent, to broker a deal for the return of the valuable necklace. She asks for $10,000. In a phone booth, she sets up the rendezvous for exchange in the Sherrington lobby. She tells the man he will know her by a white lace hat with two white feathers—the hat she just so happens to be wearing.

The confection on her head is something else. It’s more the idea of a hat than an actual hat. It looks like a few yards of stiff lace with a grosgrain ribbon to secure it on a brimless crown. In front, it boasts two enormous white feathers poking out. Rather than a fashion statement, it’s a sartorial gag designed for men who wouldn’t have the faintest idea about the variations of millinery. Florence Rice does not expect men to know a Eugenie from a halo, a pillbox from a toque, a tam from a beret. She keeps it simple for the pair of goons who will no doubt swoop down on the pigeon in white lace and feathers. In the Sherrington’s lobby, the camera shot picks up woman wearing the white number while she tucks her dainty legs under a chair. Two bulls grab her by the arms, and take her down to the station, but he woman isn’t Florence Rice.

At the bar, Kent Taylor assumes his job is done until Florence Rice sidles up next to him wearing the white lace and feathers on her head. She answers his bewilderment with a coy excuse, that the saleswoman assured her it was the only one like it in town. Then she admits she paid an old friend to wear it and play decoy. Cortez executes a scene that shows how easy it is to fool men. Men may have badges or titles but women have learnt to outsmart them. I’m a sucker for a fashion plot twist and this one is as sweet as they come.

In 1931, Ricardo Cortez, born Jacob Krantz, was a washed-up ‘Latin’, an imitation Valentino left over from the silents, when Warners cast him to support Bebe Daniels in a film initially titled All Woman and then changed to Woman of the World. During production, the script revisions favoured the detective rather than the glamorous criminal. Once the film premiered, under the title The Maltese Falcon, most of the praise went to Cortez. The role gave Cortez a chance to shine as a distinctly pre-Code American leading man. He’s a charmer whose eyes were clouded with dollar signs. But he made an impression as one of the most durable leading men in woman’s pictures. He was present for whatever the story needed. Onscreen, in woman’s story, he was a lifetime supply of brilliantine—the slickest trick on celluloid—as either a swoon merchant or a total stinker.

Ricardo Cortez was primed to direct woman’s pictures after years of giving faithful support next to stars such as Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Helen Twelvetrees, Kay Francis, Barbara Stanwyck, Mary Astor, Loretta Young, Bette Davis, Claudette Colbert, Mae Clarke, Carole Lombard, and Irene Dunne. Even when he played a scoundrel, he often assisted his leading lady in a significant way, such as when he had burnt an incriminating letter from Kay Francis before he was shot by a father avenging his teenage daughter’s honour in Transgression (1931) , or when he disposed of his own body for Kay Francis once he had sold her to a pimp in Mandalay (1934). Cortez knew the real from the fake as intuitively as a man in the rackets knows loaded dice on green felt–after years it was in his blood.

‘Says me. In a big way, sister’: Barbara Stanwyck’s lipstick in Night Nurse (1931)

By Megan McGurk

In 1928, Harry Cohn sent Frank Capra to replace Irwin Willat on the location shoot for Submarine. Although Capra was reluctant to take over for an experienced director who had the loyalty of cast and crew, he accepted the assignment once the studio head guaranteed that he could reshoot the entire picture. When Capra had reviewed Willat’s rushes, he recoiled at the way the leading men, Jack Holt and Ralph Graves, were made up. In his memoir, The Name Above the Title, Capra recalled how the actors were painted with a heavy hand, with overly drawn faces that lacked realism, which detracted from the story. Holt and Graves wore exaggerated eyeliner and lip rouge that would have been better suited on a vaudeville troupe, rather than face a camera close-up.

Capra argued with Holt that the fussy hairpiece he wore made him look worse and that went double for the face paint. Eventually Holt and Graves were convinced, but only after they viewed the footage Capra shot of them bare faced and with a natural hairline compared to their original makeup. Capra vowed to himself ‘as soon as I was important enough I would get rid of makeup, come actors, come cameramen, come all the Westmores’. He complains about makeup during several passages in his book.

Two years after the Navy picture, Capra directed Barbara Stanwyck in her star vehicle, Ladies of Leisure, and held firm to his anti-greasepaint principle. In her study of Barbara Stanwyck’s career, Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Ella Smith includes  an interview with cinematographer Joseph Walker, who photographed Ladies of Leisure. Walker had been advised by studio boss Harry Cohn to make sure that Stanwyck looked glamorous, in line with what the major studios did when they shot the stars. Capra disagreed with how she should be photographed, and stressed his anti-makeup agenda with Walker:

             ‘Yes, she does look wonderful—but I feel we are losing something. I think she is potentially a great actress, a unique personality, but we are not getting it on the screen. I want to shoot the sequence over with no make-up, no glamorous portraits—just show her as she really is and I think she will be great’.

Whenever Capra shows Stanwyck wearing cosmetics in a scene during Ladies of Leisure, it’s not applied in a glamorous style. In her first scene, Stanwyck steps out of a row boat, with a torn dress strap and smudged mascara, suggesting a narrow escape from rowdy men.

In another scene, Ralph Graves peels off Stanwyck’s false lashes and wipes off her makeup, decades before James Mason washed makeup from Judy Garland in A Star is Born (1954). The society artist Graves plays thinks Stanwyck’s makeup obscures her true essence, a quality of innocence and hope that he hopes to capture on canvas. Stanwyck’s character wonders why he wants her to look homely, because she equates makeup with the nature of femininity, but since he’s paying by the hour, she submits.

Only briefly did Capra indulge the pleasure of cosmetics during a great scene for Barbara Stanwyck in The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), when Toshia Mori opens an ornate dressing table full of ornate bottles and jars to assist a woman in the seductive arts. Even then, Capra depicts makeup as a false masque she must assume to please the warlord character played by Nils Asther.

As Capra notes in his autobiography, during their first time working together, Stanwyck cringed at the sight of herself on a big screen when she had an emotional scene. Capra realised that after she watched the rushes, she adjusted her reactions to look more conventionally attractive on the screen. Stanwyck’s biographer Victoria Wilson, in Steel True, reports that Stanwyck didn’t like the way her mouth pulled to one side when she spoke quickly, nor did she enjoy seeing veins pop out on her throat, or the way her hands looked. Capra chose the most expedient solution and told Stanwyck to stay out of the screening room and avoid of the rushes.

Capra’s attitude about makeup is frustrating because it seems like a lack of vision from a man who was an innovator in many respects. Skilled makeup artists use a palette of shades just like a cinematographer uses light to paint a scene. The anti-makeup position that Capra takes sounds like arguments about female purity. The idea of a ‘pure’, natural, or unspoiled woman has all the hallmarks of a backward and regressive worldview. Capra’s aversion to face paint is so easily debunked with any number of Barbara Stanwyck pre-Code pictures where makeup enhances her performance.

Stanwyck once told an interviewer that Frank Capra taught her that acting is all about the eyes. The actor thinks and makes it real for the audience with their eyes. Often though, in the early part of her film career, Barbara Stanwyck shows us plenty with her mouth, and more so when she wears lipstick. The sound of her voice giving out to a man brings me pure joy, especially at a time when it’s easy to feel like life is nothing but chaos and injustice. Stanwyck referred to the moment in her pictures where she detonated onscreen as the ‘Get Outs’. For Stanwyck, the ‘Get Outs’ were the scenes where she shouted abuse at a man and showed him the door. In her pre-Code pictures, before Stanwyck absorbed lessons about studio acting, she was an emotive dynamo waiting to release pent-up frustration.

In her early films, Stanwyck didn’t care how she looked when she was angry. In a scene where she meets with lies, bully tactics, or the smug resolve of someone in a position of power (usually a man), her thermostat rises. When she reaches a boil, her mouth blasts open and contorts on the right side. During a ‘Get Out’, Barbara Stanwyck snarls a five-alarm tirade which always delivers a satisfying moment of truth. Whether she faces men who try to push women around or spoilt rich dames, Stanwyck puts them on notice with a fiery blast.

Sass Mouth Dames Film Club Series 14

Series 14 of Sass Mouth Dames Film Club screens four outstanding Bluebeard pictures, a theme which developed from a 17th century French folktale about a nobleman who killed multiple wives. During the post-war era, while men in film noir explored paranoid fantasies about two-timing dames, woman’s pictures gave an audience a chance to imagine their deepest fear about husbands who had murder on the brain. Women kept the home fires burning, but when men returned, did they wonder: Who was the trained killer in their bed?

Megan McGurk introduces the pictures, Thursday in March.

Brooks Hotel Cinema, Drury Street, Dublin.

Popcorn is free!

Tickets are available 13 February through Eventbrite.

Undercurrent (1946)

5 March

Nearly every star of woman’s pictures during the 1930s made a Bluebeard story—even Katharine Hepburn. Initially content to run her father’s house, Hepburn’s character becomes overwhelmed with desire for a suave inventor sporting a chiselled widow’s peak and sad eyes from the war, played by Robert Taylor. What she mistakes for a romantic disposition turns out to be something much more sinister. Bob Mitchum turns up as Taylor’s ‘bad boy’ brother, making traditional ideas about ideal masculinity even more complicated.

Secret Beyond the Door (1947)

12 March

Just like many of us, Joan Bennett’s character prefers to sleep until eleven, and needs three cups of coffee before she can feel conscious in the morning. On holiday in Mexico, she becomes aroused watching two men throw knives, fighting over a woman. Ripe for a fling with a handsome stranger (Michael Redgrave), she gives way to passion, which leads to a trip down the aisle. Once she’s installed in his family home as the new missus, Bennett faces a brutal truth that she married a total stranger who has a macabre hobby.

Too Late for Tears (1949)

19 March

Although Lizabeth Scott’s husband does not try to kill her, he does attempt to keep her from spending a bag of money they find one night, which is a cut too deep, especially for a woman with dreams of mink. Soon enough, she’s in grave danger when Dan Duryea attempts to recover the loot and delivers one of his best sleazy characters—a gangster who takes pleasure in threatening women. Lizabeth Scott is not easily deterred from her plan to buy things. Impressed, Duryea realises that he hasn’t stumbled upon an average housewife.

Sudden Fear (1952)

26 March

Joan Crawford enjoys an independent life based on inherited wealth and a successful career as a playwright at the beginning of the film. During rehearsals for her new theatre production, she sacks an actor (Jack Palance), because from every seat in the house, at any angle, he was not what she considered to be a swoon merchant leading man. On the train home to California, she meets up with the disgruntled actor and succumbs to his charms. After a hasty exchange of vows, Joan discovers her new groom wants her dead, so that he can cash in and run off with a mistress, played by sexpot Gloria Grahame.

(Original Caption) Look Who’s Selling Tickets! New York: Delightfully surprised, these early customers buy their tickets from film actress Joan Crawford, who out put in a personal appearance at the New York movie theater where her latest film, Sudden Fear, held its world premiere. Not only did the glamorous Miss Crawford sell first tickets, but she passed out photos of herself and shook hands with thousands of fans. After all that, she almost passed out herself.

If you want to cancel your ticket, I will send a refund up until noon on the day of the screening.

Use the cancel/refund option on Eventbrite.

Thanks so much for supporting the film club!

Sass Mouth Dames is a non-profit venture.

Sass Mouth Dames Film Club Series 13

Pick any year out of a hat between 1929 and 1959, and you could draw an impressive list of films that put women at the centre of the narrative universe. The five pictures from 1949 selected for series 13 feature juicy plots, outstanding performances, and exquisite production values.

Megan McGurk introduces each film in the Brooks Hotel Cinema, Thursdays in January.

Tickets available from Eventbrite.

The Heiress (1949)

Screens 2 January

As fortune hunters go, you would be hard pressed to find a bigger swoon merchant than Montgomery Clift. Olivia de Havilland won the Best Actress Oscar for her role as Catherine Sloper, a woman who is psychologically battered by her father, played by Ralph Richardson. Dr Sloper believes his daughter plain and lacking grace, so he assumes that a dashing rogue with coxcomb hair only cares for her inheritance. Scene stealing minx Miriam Hopkins turns up to build the drama.

Beyond the Forest (1949)

Screens 9 January

Bette’s character Rosa Molina wants her heart’s desire in hot sex with David Brian, rather than settle for a safe marriage to Joseph Cotten. During a scene meant to clarify ‘the problem with no name’, Bette delivers one of her most quotable lines: ‘What a dump.’ But the line has no exclamation mark. Bette’s discontent and fury are so palpable that some prefer to read it as camp. Make no mistake, Bette plays for keeps through withering glances and acid-laced retorts while she gathers kindling to launch a scorched-earth campaign for independence.

My Foolish Heart (1949)

Screens 16 January

Adapted from J.D. Salinger’s ‘Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut’, from his collection Nine Stories. Julius and Philip Epstein improve upon the original story with dimension for Susan Hayward’s tragic dame. The Epstein brothers create empathy for a woman whose life went off the rails. How does a gal in the wrong dress meet the right guy at the wrong time? Susan Hayward received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress in a role which reminded audiences that women suffered and made sacrifices during the war—and they weren’t given medals or ticker tape parades.

Flamingo Road (1949)

Screens 23 January

Joan Crawford re-teams with Mildred Pierce (1945) director Michael Curtiz and co-star Zachary Scott to play a carnival cooch dancer who decides to put down roots in a quiet town. As the local political big wig, Sydney Greenstreet decides she isn’t fit to wait tables, and frames Joan for solicitation. Thirty days in the cooler give her plenty of time to figure out the next move. Joan Crawford looks every bit the business when she applies true grit to occupy a home in the best address—Flamingo Road.

A Letter to Three Wives (1949)

Screens 30 January

Joseph L. Mankiewicz wrote and directed the picture that everyone went to see. He earned two Oscars for his efforts. The following year, Mankiewicz made Oscar history when he won the same awards for All About Eve. In his huge success in 1949, three husbands sing the unqualified praises of a suburban siren, Addie Ross. The ‘queen in a silver frame’ sends a letter addressed to three wives: Ann Sothern, Linda Darnell, and Jeanne Crain. Addie’s letter includes a bit of a shocker by way of farewell, when she confesses that she’s run off with one of their husbands. Thelma Ritter and Connie Gilchrist play two hardboiled sass mouth dames who steal every scene they’re given.

Please note the new refund policy: you can request a refund on your ticket up to noon on the day the picture screens. But after that, I don’t have enough time to re-sell the ticket, so it’s up to you to find a taker.

Thanks very much! See you with the dames.

Sass Mouth Dames Film Club Series 12

Sass Mouth Dames Film Club Series 12: Fashion Behind the Scenes.

Megan McGurk introduces four outstanding woman’s pictures.

Tickets through Eventbrite

Neptune’s Daughter (1949)

Thursday, 7 November

Esther Williams looks as comfortable wearing a power suit and glasses behind a desk as she does performing water ballet in a turquoise pool. Esther plays a canny swimsuit designer who balances performance with style for a competitive market. Aside from the executive-level challenges, will she be able to keep her man-hungry sister (Betty Garrett) out of trouble?

A Life of Her Own (1950)

Wednesday, 13 November

On her way up as a cover girl, Lana Turner takes advice from a former top model played by Ann Dvorak. At the cusp of forty, Dvorak’s character now only receives the brush-off from men who are always in search of the next fresh face. Lana remains wary around a bossy agent and men who try to get her into bed. She intends to halt her career trajectory for Ray Milland, but is he worth it?

I Can Get it For You Wholesale (1951)

Thursday, 21 November

While Susan Hayward works as a mannequin modelling frocks for department store buyers, she builds a competitive portfolio of original dress designs. She poaches the best tailor and the best salesman for her team and opens a budget dress brand. Once their venture becomes successful, George Sanders enters the house like the snake in the garden, whispering promises of her name on haute couture. Does she jettison her partners for high fashion ambition?

It Started in Paradise (1952)

Thursday, 28 November

Eve Harrington looks like a veritable candy striper devoted to good works compared to the ruthless backstage machinations of a prestige fashion house in London. What happens when Jane Hylton is keen to develop her own style, except the old-fashioned name on the label expects her to produce more of the same? Drama in high fashion runs on cycles much in the way of florals for spring. The new Elizabethan Age fashion show is not to be missed.