Salon Devine

Do you like stories about women who get what they want?

Listen back to an original podcast series set in a Broadway salon during 1933.

Beauty operators and showgirls make their way through the Depression with wit and style.

Will Mae lose the shop?

Does Polly hit it off with Bennett Cerf?

What happens when Cora thinks a circus party means trapeze artists?

Will Ruby get a studio contract?

Is June’s ‘rafter romance’ going anywhere?

Listen to part one here

Listen to part two here

Listen to part three here

Starring:

Clara Higgins as Mae Devine

Jennifer O’Meara as Polly Trainor

Jeanne Sutton as Cora Smith

Olympia Kiriakou as Ruby Dawn

M. Shawn as June Winter

Megan McGurk as Mimi Stone/Mrs Howard

Salon Devine was written and directed by Megan McGurk

Art Design by Clara Higgins

Sound Editing and Effects by Dan McAuley

‘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 11

Megan McGurk presents four pre-Code smashers from 1932, Thursday nights in September, 2019.

Tickets available through Eventbrite

Blondie of the Follies (1932)

5 September

As Blondie McClune, Marion Davies has only one dress to her name. Although she saves money for a new one, her mother needs the cash to pay rent. Blondie’s oldest friend, Lurleen Cavanaugh, played by Billie Dove, lives in the same cold-water tenement, but soon moves into a penthouse after she lands a spot in the Follies, thanks to her ability to wear a skirt made of pearls. Lurleen changes her name to Lottie and develops notions. The story by Frances Marion and dialogue by Anita Loos captures a passionate rivalry between women who want to shed their origin. And Marion’s impression of Greta Garbo is not to be missed.

Barbara Stanwyck, Adolphe Menjou, Ralph Bellamy, Dorothy Peterson

Forbidden (1932)

12 September

In his memoir, Frank Capra described his goal as a director: ‘I would sing the songs of the working stiffs, of the short-changed Joes, the born poor, the afflicted. I would gamble with the long-shot players who light candles in the wind, and resent with the pushed-around because of race or birth. Above all, I would fight for their causes on the screens of the world.’ Capra also included the pushed-around Janes of the world in his pictures. He made five of them starring Barbara Stanwyck. In Forbidden, Capra’s answer to Back Street (1932), Stanwyck plays a small-town librarian. Tired of dull routine, Stanwyck longs for adventure. She cashes in her savings for a new wardrobe and lavish cruise, where she hooks up with a married man. Will she be content as a mistress?

Merrily We Go to Hell (1932)

19 September

Dorothy Arzner’s cautionary tale shows women why they should avoid a hasty marriage to a random lad from a party. Arzner’s picture scuppers the romantic myth that women can save men from themselves. Sylvia Sidney stars as a socialite who falls for a dissolute writer, played by Fredric March. Each time he proves unworthy, she ignores the facts. What happens when she agrees to a modern marriage on his terms? James Baldwin once wrote that Sylvia Sidney ‘was the only American film actress who reminded me of reality’. Sylvia Sidney bore her share of troubles onscreen with an angelic grace that was the antithesis of hardboiled dames from the pre-Code era.

Shanghai Express (1932)

26 September

Series 11 closes with the fourth film Marlene Dietrich made with Josef von Sternberg, which was the top-grossing film from a stand-out year for pre-Code woman’s pictures. Nominated for Best Picture and Best Director, it won for Best Cinematography from Lee Garmes. In an elaborate feathered costume designed by Travis Banton, Marlene looks like an exotic bird who longs for wings fast enough to carry her away from men. You can’t beat Dietrich and von Sternberg for style, mood, and dramatic atmosphere. Anna May Wong gives a standout supporting performance.

Sass Mouth Dames Film Club Series 8

Join Megan McGurk for a sterling collection of Pre-Code woman’s pictures. Let’s revisit an era when Hollywood took women on the screen and in the audience seriously.

Sass Mouth Dames Film Club Series 8 meets each Thursday night in January at 7.00, in the Brooks Hotel Cinema, Drury Street, Dublin.

Only a tenner in!

Tickets through Eventbrite.

Our Blushing Brides (1930)

3 January

In woman’s pictures, a reliable formula presents a cautionary tale of three women who seek to make their fortune. Set in a department store among women who work behind a counter, or model clothes as ‘mannequins,’ they pool resources in flat shares and skip lunches to afford clothes. Joan Crawford, Anita Page, and Dorothy Sebastian bide their time on stingy wages while they fend off a pack of society wolves. Joan Crawford tries to keep her friends from falling for the cheap lines pick up artists use. The picture includes fashion show sequences featuring swoonworthy designs by Adrian.

Safe in Hell (1931)

10 January

Next time you hear someone make a sarcastic comment about ‘Hollywood endings’, as a shortcut for saccharine fade outs, point them in the direction of Pre-Code Hollywood pictures like Safe in Hell. In one of the most notorious Pre-Codes, Dorothy Mackaill protects herself from a customer’s assault, and afterward, hides out in a Caribbean bolthole to avoid extradition. At first, she thinks boredom is her worst problem. When she accepts an invitation from the men who loiter in the hotel lounge, they compete for her as though she were a roast chicken at the end of forty day fast. William Wellman’s production reminds us that women are never safe when men are around.

 

Vanity Street (1932)

17 January

Helen Chandler, tired, hungry, and homeless, smashes a window so she can at least have three hots and a cot in prison. A police detective (Charles Bickford) takes pity on a woman down on her luck. He offers a meal and his sofa, and then gets her a job in a chorus line. The real star of this picture though is Mayo Methot, better known for being the third Mrs Bogart. Mayo Methot had a gift for playing characters who learn difficult truths about things like inconstant lovers and the fleeting nature of youth and fame. She lays bare the emotional contours of women who have been tossed aside. Not to be missed.

Ladies They Talk About (1933)

24 January

During a bank heist, Barbara Stanwyck gets pinched. She doesn’t squeal on her boyfriend’s criminal rackets. She hopes to gain the influence of a popular radio preacher she grew up with, and have the sentence suspended. The plan doesn’t work, so she joins the women’s prison as a ‘new fish’. Stanwyck proves a quick study for how to manage a dame looking for a fight. The scenes behind the walls resemble a sorority house more than the hoosegow. Despite a carceral effect, women on the inside mitigate their grim plight with decorative touches applied to their uniforms and jail cells. You can’t keep a good dame down, even when she’s behind bars.

Heat Lightning (1934)

31 January

Where do you go after you’ve had enough of men and life in a chorus line? If you’re Aline MacMahon, you get as far away as possible–the Mojave desert. She opens a filling station and café with her younger sister, played by Ann Dvorak. Wearing overalls, with her mermaid tresses tucked under a bandana, MacMahon limits her worries to heat, rattlesnakes, and keeping her sister out of trouble. Then one day an old flame (Preston Foster) shows up, on the run from the law. Suddenly the great big desert is too small. Cornered, with a siege mentality, a resourceful dame does what she must. To lighten the drama, Glenda Farrell and Ruth Donnelly trade barbs. Director Mervyn LeRoy doesn’t waste a moment in this 63-minute gem.

SASS MOUTH DAMES FILM CLUB SERIES 7

Megan McGurk presents a brand-new series of Pre-Code woman’s pictures.

Series 7 may be abbreviated, but three platinum blonde sass mouth dames provide a cure for what ails you. And I’ll return to screening five films for Series 8, each Thursday in January, 2019.

Join me in the Brooks Hotel Cinema.

Seating is limited, so book in early.

Tickets available through Eventbrite.

 

As You Desire Me (1932)

8 November, 7.00

You may be tempted to roll your eyes at the idea of amnesia used as a plot device, but Greta Garbo teases out subversive possibilities from a familiar trope. Without the encumbrance of memory and identity, a woman might become a bit reckless. She can turn platinum, sing on stage, demand more champagne, and juggle a retinue of admirers. Chief among the men who queue for Garbo is Erich von Stroheim, playing one of his all-time best scoundrels. Out of nowhere, Melvyn Douglas appears and claims to be Garbo’s long-lost husband. Does she trade a life of independence and intrigue to settle down with a dashing man in a uniform?

 

Blonde Venus (1932)

29 November, 7.00

Often imitated yet never equalled, Marlene Dietrich’s opening nightclub act still has the power to shock and enthral audiences. Wearing a platinum afro wig, with an African American chorus line, Dietrich’s playful revue mocks stereotypes about race and gender. The nightclub routine provides relief from Dietrich’s day job as wife and mother. After her husband (Herbert Marshall) suffers a health crisis, Dietrich struggles to be the sole provider for the family and pay for expensive medical care. She makes the ultimate sacrifice by having sex with Cary Grant for money. Nice work if you can get it.

 

I’m No Angel (1933)

6 December, 7.00

Mae West saved Paramount Studios from bankruptcy with racy hits such as Night After Night (1932) and She Done Him Wrong (1933). Box office receipts gave West the clout to develop the stories she wanted to tell. In this case, for her third picture for the studio, she indulged a life-long fantasy to play a lion-tamer. Before West graduates to snapping a whip in a cage around magnificent beasts, she plays a cooch dancer. While the men watch her shimmy, she takes stock of their jewellery. After the show, West stages a one-woman clip-joint to collect rings, tie pins, and other baubles that catch her eye. The picture includes the immortal line, ‘Beulah, peel me a grape’, a request which inspires micro-level pampering for ambitious sass mouth dames.