Megan McGurk introduces the holiday classic Christmas in Connecticut (1945).
Barbara Stanwyck plays a popular magazine columnist who shares recipes and extols the virtues of living the simple life on a farm with her family. In reality, she’s a single woman in the city who can’t so much as boil water. Stanwyck lives the dream (mink coat included) until her publisher invites a wounded veteran to spend Christmas at the fictitious farm. Will Stanwyck be able to carry off the housewife ruse? Or will she be exposed as a fake?
Benjamin Franklin kept a checklist of 13 virtues that he monitored each day to reflect on his growth as an upstanding citizen. By contrast, Stanley Timberlake, played by Bette Davis, keeps a scorecard of vice. She runs off with her sister’s fiancé then drives him to commit suicide. She’s manipulative, greedy, reckless. For the coup de grâce, she pins a homicide on an innocent Black man. Olivia de Havilland, as Stanley’s unfortunate sister Roy, holds her own with a steady underplay. In one scene, Olivia takes her time putting on a hat, which is enough to tell the audience she’s no doormat. John Huston’s Southern Gothic melodrama reaches a steady boil.
MY REPUTATION (1946)
Before Douglas Sirk exposed narrow-minded views about widowhood in vivid Technicolor with All That Heaven Allows, Curtis Bernhardt painted a stark monochrome portrait of a community who expects a woman to put herself in mothballs once she loses her husband. Barbara Stanwyck’s character shares the same fate as many other women after the war. Should Jessica wear black, stay single, and avoid gossip? Or should she follow the advice of wing woman Eve Arden and see what happens with George Brent?
THE GHOST AND MRS MUIR (1947)
Gene Tierney takes her adorable daughter (Natalie Wood) and trusty housekeeper (Edna Best) to live in a cottage by the sea. Unlike past occupants, she refuses to leave when she learns it has a resident ghost, a former ship’s captain played by Rex Harrison. Instead of rattling chains or disturbing her sleep with a repertoire of sea shanties, the mariner allows the women to stay and even strikes a bargain: Gene can write his salty memoirs and make herself financially independent.
DAISY KENYON (1947)
Joan Crawford stars in a three-cornered romance, caught between a cynical married man (Dana Andrews), who has strung her along for years and a battle-scarred veteran (Henry Fonda), who rushes to commitment one minute and disappears the next. Otto Preminger fashions a postwar melodrama about hot-and-bothered men who upset the placid life of a successful career gal.
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.
Roommates Barbara Stanwyck and Marie Prevost pay the bills with sex work. One night after a narrow escape from a party boat, with smeared mascara and a torn dress, Stanwyck’s character meets a rich man who drives her back into the city. Ralph Graves plays an artist with his own roof top studio. He offers her a job posing for a portrait. Stanwyck assumes that it’s only a matter of time until he proves himself to be after only one thing, like every other man she has met. Despite her misgivings and his society name, she falls for the guy. Things look swell until his mother attempts to thwart the romance. Can Marie Prevost protect her dearest friend from disaster? This is the first of four pictures that Stanwyck made with director Frank Capra.
Dancing Lady (1933)
A huge hit for MGM, this picture has everything. Joan Crawford performs in a burlesque show that’s raided by police for offence against public decency. Franchot Tone (Joan’s future second husband) sees her in court, pays her fine, and takes her out for a bite to eat. Despite the condescending note he sends the next day (along with fifty dollars) to buy a dress without zippers and shoes without bows, in a snobbish appraisal of her current wardrobe, she falls for the rich man. Crawford’s Janie Barlow dreams of a part in a Broadway show. To speed up the process, she stalks Clark Gable, who plays a big-time producer. They enjoy more than a little bit of sexual tension. Crawford and Gable flirt in a scene set in a gym that’s one of the best onscreen seductions. Other highlights include Fred Astaire in his screen debut as Joan’s dancing partner. The Three Stooges join the cast.
The Girl from Missouri (1934)
Anita Loos (mother of all sass mouth dames) wrote the script about a chorine gal-pal team on the hunt for men with deep pockets. Only Jean Harlow could pull off a woman who waits for her wedding night without suggesting a virginity fetish. Harlow’s so over-sexed, clearly gasping for it, that you can’t blame her for waiting until he puts a ring on it. One night after dancing in a club, Harlow and Kelly finagle an invitation to perform for a private party attended by rich men. Harlow’s character puts the moves on a man with considerable assets, who makes a present of some jewelled cufflinks, right before he puts a gun in his mouth. The gals add suspected of murder to the list of their problems. Patsy Kelly steals the show, like always, by playing the wisecracking loyal friend. She also makes up for her friend’s chastity by giving every man she fancies a tumble.
The Devil Is a Woman (1935)
The last of seven pictures Marlene Dietrich made with Josef von Sternberg, this one has the best tone and aesthetic. Marlene is a glorious nut-buster throughout the picture as a woman who works in a tobacco factory and later becomes a sensation singing in nightclubs. Although not technically a Pre-Code, von Sternberg’s picture has all the hallmarks of the era when women could prioritise their own pleasure at the expense of men without suffering consequences. Dietrich fleeces a self-important army captain (Lionel Atwill), while she juggles other men including a bullfighter and a dashing young Cesar Romero. In each scene, Dietrich is dressed by Travis Banton in show-stopper ensembles, with every fabric in creation, embellished with countless veils, fans, gloves, jewellery and accessories. This picture will cure what ails you because it proves that sass mouth dames need take no prisoners.
William Wyler spins a modern fairy tale from an age-old nightmare about a young woman among wolves. Margaret Sullavan exchanges her drab orphanage smock for a hussar hat and cape when she accepts a post as a cinema usherette. On her first day, she meets a waiter who extends an invitation to an opulent ball. Instead of Prince Charming, she meets a rape-minded butcher. To forestall his attack, she invents a husband, a random name she picks out of the phone book. In a winsome script by Preston Sturges, Sullavan takes initiative and acts like a good fairy for her pretend husband, played by Herbert Marshall. When the world seems especially bleak, The GoodFairy helps restore your belief in common decency.
These Three (1936)
Production code censors demanded no mention be made of Lillian Hellman’s play TheChildren’s Hour in the screen adaptation, nor that the script include any reference to repressed lesbian desire between schoolteachers, as in the stage production. Although the film develops a heterosexual triangle between Merle Oberon, Miriam Hopkins and Joel McCrea, Hopkins gives such a nuanced performance, that viewers could interpret her desire for either Oberon or McCrea. Bonita Granville steals the picture as a hellion who fabricates gossip about her teachers. Granville received an Oscar nomination for the role when she was only fourteen.
Marked Woman (1937)
Bette Davis stars in this film based on a true account of sex workers who joined together to appear on the witness stand against Lucky Luciano, a notorious gangster known for his violence against women. Davis leads a group of clip joint hostesses who balance demands from the mob and the district attorney played by Humphrey Bogart. Marked Woman looks and feels like a Pre-Code, in a story about women who speak truth to power and resist exploitation when they’re doing level best to survive the Depression. Bette Davis fought for realism and refused to accept the studio’s makeup treatment for a scene that involved a brutal attack. She had her personal physician dress her character’s injuries for the camera.
The Mad Miss Manton (1938)
Barbara Stanwyck’s character discovers a dead body during a late-night dog walk, then faces accusations from a cop and a reporter, who charge her with filing a falsified report for larks. Since the men in charge are inept, as they often are in any solid woman’s picture, Stanwyck’s Miss Manton enlists a crew of socialites to clear her name and solve the case. Stanwyck and company accessorise a battle against male authority with lipstick, sumptuous fur and bouncy hair. Their combined wit and power of deduction run circles around the men in charge. A classic screwball comedy, TheMad Miss Manton stands out for the multiple times society dames beat the living daylights out of Henry Fonda (who totally has it coming).
The Women (1939)
Anita Loos and Jane Murfin adapted Clare Boothe Luce’s Broadway hit for the screen. An all-women cast of 135 assemble for a story about a shopgirl mantrap (Joan Crawford) who steals a husband from a Park Avenue socialite (Norma Shearer). Although the tag line promises ‘it’s all about the men’, the ladies may as well be arguing over a new designer gown, because they change husbands as frequently as they do their wardrobe. Rosalind Russell steals the show as the scandalmonger who stirs up trouble and gets plenty in return. George Cukor’s The Women rates the gold standard woman’s picture. It continues to hold influence over how women’s relationships are depicted on-screen, especially when there’s conflict. Adrian, who produced between 50 and 75 sketches daily throughout his tenure in MGM, designed more than 230 gowns, many of which appear in a short technicolour fashion show sequence. This one’s not to be missed.