‘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.

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.