Gene Tierney’s Poor Appetite in Dragonwyck (’46)

By: Megan McGurk

Among the bits of business that actors must do on camera, eating proves one of the most difficult, far above the physical dexterity necessary for set pieces that include some athleticism. Maybe only love scenes appear more gruelling. When you’re wrapped up in the electric jolt of performance, something simple as the ability to chew and swallow seems nauseating, if not nerve wracking. I can’t stomach anything to eat before I give a lecture, so there’s no way I could handle a plate of food in the middle of one. No one eats better than George Sanders on film though. He somehow manages to take huge, gusty mouthfuls of food, which he enjoys unabashed, yet he never looks like a slob or a rabid beast, nor does he skimp on delivering his lines with customary caddish panache. He savours a chicken leg in Rebecca (1940) with so much elegance that you can almost see Laurence Olivier turn ashen at the sight of someone stealing the scene—all with a chicken leg stuck in his kisser. When Sanders plays a hedonist based on Gauguin’s biography in The Moon and Sixpence (1942), he takes a hefty piece of rack of lamb with his hands and strips the meat from bone in a few bites. It surpasses the culinary trick of peeling an orange in one piece, because fatty roasted lamb proves a great deal more slippery and juicy. He cleans the bone in seconds without pause or splattering his face and clothing. Had most actors tried that they would have resembled what viewers imagine Ty Power did to the chicken as the geek in Nightmare Alley (1947). Otherwise dapper men like Cary Grant take as few bites as possible in a meal scene. During the luncheon when he hosts the police inspector in To Catch a Thief (1955) he puts his napkin and utensils at rest after maybe three bites of quiche.

During the Depression, audiences saw plenty of women onscreen who sat with an appetite at table, who tucked into dinners they savoured when the next one was uncertain. Amid widespread hunger that culminated in bread lines and soup kitchens, circumstances permitted heroines to eat onscreen without censure. In Thirty Day Princess (1934), not only does Sylvia Sidney steal food from the Automat by slamming her hand against the display case holding a turkey leg and all the trimmings until it opens, she later uses a knife to shovel food in her mouth, much to the horror of straight-laced Cary Grant. For a woman with ‘prospects as high as the gutter’, she doesn’t have time to pay attention to table manners. She’s penniless and starving. She can’t get her fill fast enough.

After the 1930s viewers see fewer depictions of women enjoying food and more pretend eating in film. Marilyn Monroe wrestles with a candy bar in Clash by Night (1952) making it seem as though she’s taken a huge bite and has a cheek stuffed with chocolate, when it really appears to vanish in her mouth with just her tongue standing in for the treat. Instead of chewing the candy, she concentrates on licking her fingers, because I suppose men in the audience find more interesting. Monroe’s boyfriend echoes male displeasure at seeing women enjoy food when he first plucks the chocolate from her hands and warns ‘you’ll spread.’ Perhaps the worst fake eater award falls to Audrey Hepburn’s character in Charade (1963). She’s supposed to play a woman who eats her feelings, but meanwhile, it looks like she chokes and gags on each bite in an anorectic revulsion. Her arms rival match stick silhouette and her throat stretches paper thin from want. She’s the least likely binge eater in cinema.

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Constance Bennett: A Star is Born on the Stairs in What Price Hollywood? (’32)

By: Megan McGurk

By 1932, hundreds of girls arrived in Hollywood each week looking for the opportunity to make a screen test. While they cooled their heels, George Cukor gave them the playbook for how to nail one in What Price Hollywood? In his first masterpiece, Constance Bennett plays Mary Evans, a waitress in the Brown Derby, an ambitious woman who scans the glossies for style tips between Garbo impressions and fine-tuning her glamour-puss poses. When she finagles a plum director’s table, she not only scores a noteworthy entrance to a film premiere, she also wheedles a coveted screen test—through yodelling, rather than any tawdry manoeuvres under the sheets.

Mary’s screen test serves as a masterclass in acting craft. Every aspiring starlet in the balcony should have been taking notes. Lowell Sherman plays director Max Carey, a seasoned Hollywood hit-maker. He offers bare bones direction for Mary to descend from the middle of a staircase and deliver two simple lines to the actor standing at the bannister: ‘Hello, Buzzy. You haven’t proposed to me yet tonight’. Then she’s supposed to look and notice a dead body on the floor. To Mary and the audience, it seems like a snap. Do three little things (walk, speak, react) and then sign a contract.

Like Mary, the audience overlooks how many controlled actions need to dovetail with timing for a solid performance. An actor dilutes many isolated components down to one fluid gesture to appear natural. When Mary first attempts the scene, her shoulders graze earlobes they’re so hunched; stiff forearms hold clenched fists; heels pound each stair like a spade in parched soil; finally, two lines collapse into one, delivered at breakneck speed. Mary executes instructions without perception. Max’s pained expression tells the audience what they already know: she stinks.

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Barbara Stanwyck’s Sleuth in The Mad Miss Manton (’38)

By: Megan McGurk

When I suspect a potential convert to the church of the sass mouth dame, my missionary zeal homilises pleasures manifold in woman’s pictures, from watching women installed in rewarding careers, to those who clawed their way from poverty, left an unsatisfying home life, women who boosted each other to make dreams reality, along with women who made short work of men who stood in their way, while draped in exquisite clothes. You have settled for the false goddess of lowered lids and slinky gown vestiary in classic film, I preach, but has she fortified your interior life? Has a sexy dame ever bolstered your core sense of self in an hour of need? I want to submerge them in the restorative powers of woman’s pictures from the 1930s, when we flourished in stories beyond secondary love interest roles, boner management, a noir virgin/whore coin toss, or a bad reputation as deadlier than men twice our size packing guns.

Let me guide you to the promised land, oh my sister, where it’s all about us for a change, when glamour proved a safeguard, a method of protection from ransack and humiliation that awaited us in a man’s world. Votaries of woman’s pictures experience an epiphany that reveals keen seductive skills waste precious time. Sass mouth dames know how to save face and how to fight back—they use lipstick in a lionhearted way to meet the firing squad (Dishonored 1931) rather than roll a tube of lippy toward the feet of an unwitting dupe (The Postman Always Rings Twice 1946).

Barbara Stanwyck channels the sass mouth dame’s fondness for lipstick as a handy exclamation mark when she delivers a spirited warning to bothersome men from the press and police force in The Mad Miss Manton (1938). Backed by her crew of socialites, Stanwyck’s Melsa Manton vows to Henry Fonda’s reporter and Sam Levene’s officer:

You made liars and social parasites out of us. Now we girls are going to collect that million dollars from you. And as for you Inspector Brent, false arrest is a very serious charge and we’ll have your badge before we’re through with you. We’re going to make you all feel pretty small and silly. Who’s got a lipstick?

Their agenda includes crime solving and public vindication, but a lipstick reserve sets a boundary for poise, self-control, and a reminder that a lady upholds standards, even when dragged through the mud by a pack of blockheads. Glamour rituals remain the province of women; male preference never enters the picture. Stanwyck’s lippy acts as a battle cry.

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Sylvia Sidney’s chicken in Merrily We Go To Hell (’32)

By: Megan McGurk

Of all the rotten things Fredric March does to Sylvia Sidney’s character—and there are many—the worst occurs when he ruins her chicken for a dinner party. Any woman under the sun would have grabbed him at the belt and tossed him out the window for that offence. But Sylvia Sidney, with a face like a Valentine, heart shaped and bow-lips, absorbs every indignity he dishes out. She’s the type of woman who’s won over so easily, viewers can only lament that she thought so little of herself. Fredric March, at the one-eye-squint stage of inebriation, nearly legless, woos her at a cocktail party with a vapid ditty:

First she gave me gingerbread and then she gave me cake. Then she gave me crème de menthe for meeting her at the gate.

As society heiress Joan Prentice, the simplicity of the song appeals to Sylvia Sidney’s character. She thinks it’s winsome when she should regard it as a metaphor for their terrible relationship. March’s Jerry will take and take from her without giving anything in return. During their first meeting, there are other signs she should have noticed, especially his assurance that he could talk about himself for hours. Or when he quips ‘all the signs point to three stars’ on the bottle of Hennessy cognac. By the end of their first conversation, he so pie-eyed, he ceases recognition and threatens a bellicose drunkard’s ‘Who’re you?’

Further evidence of how much he’s a scoundrel presents itself during their second meeting. Invited for tea, he arrives after everyone’s gone home and left poor dejected Joan alone, who had assembled gingerbread, cake, and crème de menthe like it was her heart on a plate for him to ignore and then smash. He says he doesn’t like women and ‘prefers the company of men’. Later, when engaged, he goes off the rails on a bender and passes out. Joan’s so humiliated that she leaves the engagement party rather than return without her finance. At the wedding, he has lost the ring and slips a pocket cork screw on her finger. At least he admits ‘I ought to be shot’ for losing it. As the plot progresses, he crawls back in the bottle and then in bed with another woman.

On every level, Jerry should be beaten, shot, buried, then dug up and set on fire for good measure. Yet amidst his narcissistic transgressions, the incident with the chicken remains most exasperating. On a platter for guests, golden brown and carefully dressed, the chicken represents the daily labour of an average wife. Above other dishes, the roast chicken signifies a hallmark of competent housekeeping.  Roast chicken isn’t fancy or expensive, but not everyone can turn out a tasty one. It must be seasoned, kept moist and browned perfectly. When done well, roast chicken demonstrates the cook’s probity through rustic, wholesome fare. If you bring a bad chicken to the table, you’re unlikely to succeed with anything more ambitious. I haven’t eat meat since Clinton’s first term in the Oval Office and I still make a darn good roast chicken. Poor Joan washed the bird, patted it dry, sprinkled it with salt and pepper and rubbed pats of butter under and over the dimpled skin. She kept an eye on it, probably basted it, filled the house with its comforting aroma. Her stomach growled when she thought about carving it at table. Joan’s skill and care baked into the little bird.

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Joan Crawford in The Damned Don’t Cry (1950)

By: Megan McGurk

From the pages of dialogue you could extract from Joan Crawford’s pictures to parallel her own biography, perhaps the closest match occurs in a scene from The Damned Don’t Cry (1950), when Joan’s character, Ethel Whitehead, secures a lucrative side deal for the mealy-mouthed bookkeeper played by Kent Smith. He insists that she accept a percentage of the take, since she initiated the negotiation.

I wouldn’t have the nerve.

Joan replies: You don’t need it. I’ve got enough for both of us.

Crawford’s resolute grit surpassed the designs of husbands and leading men—except Clark Gable. Gable was her true equal. Once she placed a chiselled shoulder behind a project, she mustered a singular focus honed from observing an early crossroads marked with arrows leading toward either agency or oblivion. If not for Crawford’s ambition and fortitude, she would have languished in her mother’s laundry service. From various incarnations as chorine, flapper, WAMPAS baby star, Pre-Code sass mouth, queen of the box office, fashion maven, glamour puss, grand lady, box office poison, Oscar-winner, come-back queen, Crawford had backbone in spades.

Crawford’s moxie flouted the industry trend of diminished romantic leading roles for women of a certain age, as she ripened in her forties and delivered a string of juicy performances with verve and style. She’s surefooted, confident and wholly in command of the craft for Harriet Craig (1950), Sudden Fear (1952), This Woman is Dangerous (1952), Johnny Guitar (1954), Queen Bee (1955), Female on the Beach (1955) and Autumn Leaves (1956). Even in a bit part as Amanda Farrow in The Best of Everything (1959), Joan appears so vital she could turn the cheap imprint into a Penguin-level publishing house, if men with cask-soaked noggins occupied with little more than clumsy overtures toward girls in the typing pool, such as former co-star Brian Aherne, here as Mr Shalimar, would only kindly exit the building. Crawford reaches the height of her acting prowess for The Damned Don’t Cry, where she built upon the industry’s validation with an Oscar win four years earlier for Mildred Pierce.

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