Ava Gardner plays a petulant beauty who toys with men for kicks until James Mason appears in this lush romantic fantasy. The gorgeous cinematography by Jack Cardiff is a sight for sore eyes.
The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956)
Run out of town on a morals charge, Jane Russell sails to Hawaii, turns brick top, and finds a lucrative loophole that brings financial independence and freedom from the small minds of men.
Bells are Ringing (1960)
Judy Holliday played the switchboard operator who works miracles for her clients over 1000 times before she faced the camera for this seratonin-boosting Metrocolor musical. Each little bit of business she performs is as fresh as a daisy.
Madame X (1966)
Lana Turner proves that when a star falls to pieces on the big screen, she still has an inner reserve of strength from years of studio training. Deep in her cups, at her lowest point, Lana’s character retains the MGM walk. She gives an exquisite performance from start to finish.
Be sound and wear a mask. Bring your vaccine cert.
Primrose Path (1940)
Ginger Rogers is supposed to follow the women in her family who work in the world’s oldest profession. She hides out in tomboy duds until one day she falls for Joel McCrea. Ashamed of her family, she tells a whopper about being thrown out of the house to hasten their nuptials. Trouble follows when he learns the truth. Director Gregory La Cava had an eye and ear for sass mouth dames–he was always on our side.
Screens 4 November
The Seventh Veil (1945)
I bet you can name at least a dozen pictures about a male genius and the woman who loved him. How many can you think of where the woman is the genius and the man devotes his life to serving her art? Ann Todd and James Mason flip the traditional script in a gorgeous tale about the collision of art and desire with some psychological twists.
Screens 11 November
Sleep, My Love (1948)
Claudette Colbert can’t figure out how she woke up on a train without having any memory of getting there. Nor can she account for other foggy recollections or why she’s sleepwalking on her balcony. Could it have anything to do with the strange man in thick glasses who scratched up her upholstery? Is it because of another strange man who seems so solicitous? Or is her handsome husband, played by Don Ameche, with that pillow talk voice, the one responsible? Douglas Sirk goes full Bluebeard.
Screens 18 November
Technically, this isn’t a woman’s picture. But there would be no other reason to watch it but for the sublime acid tongue, unabashed greed, and self-absorption of star Audrey Totter. If they had assembled 90 minutes of Audrey Totter scowling at men, I’d still be watching it. And Cyd Charisse is along for the ride.
Joan Crawford has her pick between a troubled veteran (Henry Fonda) and a smug married man (Dana Andrews). Does she want the man who has good lines (‘The world’s dead and everybody in it’s dead but you’) or does she stay with the same old masculine lines (‘It won’t be over til we’re dead’)? Crawford looks good in the back street as well as the sunshine, thanks to the poetic photography of Leon Shamroy, who believed that every light had to be justified ‘like words in a sentence’.
Career gal Joan has a cute flat, the freedom to lose herself in work, and a great wardrobe by Charles LeMaire. I’m not sure why she wants a husband, but my interest in woman’s pictures is always seeing a woman who gets what she wants.
Catch up with podcast episode 85 on Daisy Kenyon (1947).
If you’re looking for more podcast episodes on Joan Crawford, step this way—>
In episode 60, I talk about Sadie McKee (1934) , the gold standard Crawford picture. It has everything I desire: Joan absorbs the slings and arrows of unworthy men, triumphs over their low opinion, has the support of a dear friend (Jean Dixon), and parades in exquisite designs by Adrian. And it has a scene set in the Automat, which is what I use to centre my best intentions each time when I sit down to write. Joan has a few coins in her pocket, but fortified by a smart wool topper and hat, she uses great style as a shield against pity and misfortune.
For episode 50, I talk about how Joan Crawford just wants to be left alone in her beach house. She foils the plot of a rough trade grifter and his backers, sidestepping the fate of women of a certain age.
In episode 36, Joan stars in a fabulous spy caper to defeat the Nazis.
Matt Harris, archivist and fellow Joan Crawford obsessive, joins me for episode 20 to talk about Joan in Flamingo Road (1949) and in episode 66 for Queen Bee (1955).
In episode 77, I admire the way Adrian develops his signature metallic look for Joan Crawford in No More Ladies (1935). The picture evades the usual tropes about a woman driven witless by a cheating husband. Joan turns the tables on Bob Montgomery until he sobs in her arms and begs forgiveness.
In episode 4, I talk about how watching Joan Crawford in Torch Song (1953) as she tries to do nothing on a Sunday leaves me with white knuckles.
Although Louella and Hedda are more famous for their long-running feud than for the power they wielded in the studio system in Hollywood, they had a lot in common. Both women struggled as single mothers. Each woman forged a career in highly competitive fields when most women did not work outside the home. By telephone, their weapon of choice, Louella and Hedda could drag moguls out of bed, make producers sweat through a charvet shirt, and interrupt a star in the middle of filming a scene. When there were no less than 400 writers competing for stories in the film colony, Louella and Hedda had the largest readership for their daily columns. Their success inspired jealous hit-pieces and even physical attacks from men.
Louella and Hedda forged an indelible impact on celebrity journalism that remains visible today. Each time you read a profile on a film star, their imprint lingers in the subtext.
Catch up with my six-episode series:
Part One looks at Louella’s early dreams of being a writer, her rise as a film scenarist in Essay Studio, and her rise as one of the first daily film columnists. She gathered interviews from stars during train station layovers, and developed modern ways to market her skill set, pitching ideas to editors and publishers. The episode concludes when she nearly died of tuberculosis after she logged too many hours working for William Randolph Hearst in 1926.
Part Two covers Hedda Hopper’s early years as a workhorse in her father’s butcher shop, to runaway chorus girl, to wife of a Broadway star, and her success in silent pictures as the stylish dame who outshines the star. Hedda divorced a cheating husband and flourished in Hollywood, until she lost everything in the 1929 Crash.
Part Three traces the rise of Louella’s influence as a columnist in Hollywood. During the transition to sound, studios feared a negative item about one of their stars from Louella, and gave her a 48-hour exclusive. For more than a decade, she was the first to report breaking news on the stars. Louella made a splash in radio by booking free talent for the sponsors. The Screen Actors Guild mobilised against her power to get the stars to work without pay.
Part Four examines Hedda’s struggle to maintain a film career once MGM let her option expire. She became a Jane of all trades, in real estate, as a talent agent, as a beauty operator for Elizabeth Arden, and a voice coach–anything to pay her son’s tuition bill and keep a roof over her head. When Hedda was past 50 and considered a failure by everyone in the film industry, she reinvented herself as a columnist.
Part Five looks at Louella’s resilience when she lost her studio exclusive, and watch her rival catch the big stories, starting with Lombard and Gable’s wedding. After Hedda appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1948, Louella stayed in bed for days. But Louella closed the decade by breaking two of the biggest stories of the postwar era–Rita Hayworth’s Cinderella wedding to Prince Aly Khan and the truth about Ingrid Bergman’s love child with director Roberto Rossellini.
Part Six notes the accelerated speed of Hedda’s success as a daily columnist. She didn’t just cover the stars–she used her column as a platform to argue that Hollywood was unfair to women. Hedda called for the end of severe diets, and more women as screenwriters, producers, and directors. Hedda’s right-wing politics became an overwhelming preoccupation after the Time magazine cover. She encouraged the HUAC investigation, led boycotts against so-called pro-Communist sentiment in Hollywood, which inevitably led to the Blacklist.
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 ofLeisure, 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 isBorn (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.