Sass Mouth Dames Film Club: Series Two Pre-Codes

 

Join us for a film series from when Hollywood made films for women.

Hosted by Megan McGurk

We’re screening five Pre-Code woman’s pictures from 11 January-8 February

Get your tickets.

See you in the Denzille.

What Price Hollywood? (1932)

Screens 11 January

Constance Bennett plays a waitress in the Brown Derby who gets a renowned Hollywood director in her section and finagles a ticket to a big premiere and then a screen test. George Cukor’s picture gives women the playbook on how to become a star on the stairs. Considered the earliest version of A Star is Born dynamic about a woman whose career rises as a man’s falls, What Price Hollywood? examines the price of fame, while it also offers one of the best behind-the-scenes view of the motion picture industry.

Three on a Match (1932)

Screens 18 January

Director Mervyn LeRoy’s economy of storytelling leaves not a moment wasted. In 63 minutes, he traces the fortunes of three schoolgirls as they grow up. What happens to the bookish girl (Bette Davis) who went to business college? Or the bad girl (Joan Blondell) who skips class to smoke cigarettes with the boys? Or the rich girl in a boarding school (Ann Dvorak) who reads bodice rippers aloud after lights out? As adults, the trio struggle to make their own way. Ann Dvorak seems to have made an ideal match to a rich lawyer (Warren William) but everything leaves her cold. The picture also includes one of the frankest depictions of cocaine addiction in the Pre-Code era.

Bonus: Humphrey Bogart in an early role as a rough trade gangster.

Gold Diggers of 1933 

Screens 25 January

Another hit from Mervyn LeRoy and the best of the Busby Berkeley musicals, Gold Diggers combines glitz, glamour and a whole lot of wisecracks from sass mouth dames. Aline MacMahon, Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler and Ginger Rogers star in a Broadway show about the Depression. When the high-steppers are off-stage, they wage class war on a pair of rich men who declare them ‘cheap and vulgar’. If you ever wanted to learn how to get men to foot the bill for dinner or a new hat, Joan Blondell and Aline MacMahon have you covered. Don’t miss the spectacular musical numbers ‘Pettin’ in the Park’ and ‘Remember My Forgotten Man’.

Ann Vickers (1933)

Screens 1 February

Once upon a time, Hollywood could imagine a scenario with a woman who has an abortion and still goes on to have a happy and rewarding life. Irene Dunne plays a social worker who falls for a heel. Luckily, she has a dear friend who happens to run an abortion clinic in Cuba. Afterwards, she takes a job as warden in a woman’s prison. When Irene Dunne attempts to improve dire conditions, the men in charge frame her and threaten a scandal unless she leaves. She writes a bestselling expose about her time in prison. At a party a judge (Walter Huston) professes his admiration for her work. Unfortunately, he’s soon in the middle of his own scandal. Will Irene Dunne stand by her man?

Design for Living (1933)

Screens 8 February

Miriam Hopkins stars in Ernst Lubitsch’s masterpiece about a woman who picks up two men on a train, arranges a ‘no sex’ agreement, which she then abandons at the first opportunity. As an advertising executive, more successful than the two starving artists, Miriam mentors the painter (Gary Cooper) and the playwright (Fredric March). When things become complicated, she takes the easy way out in a marriage to straight-laced Edward Everett Horton. Will Miriam settle for monogamy or will the three-way romance win out?

 

Why We Need Sass Mouth Dames, Woman’s Pictures 1929-1959

 

Our current cinema stinks.

Instead of settling for crappy re-boots or second string roles, we should embrace the time when Hollywood believed that a film could only profit if it appealed to women.

Join the new Sass Mouth Dames Film Club: Series One, Pre-Codes. Dublin 12 Oct-9 Nov.

Get your tickets.

Here’s the Foreword from my book on woman’s pictures:

Sass Mouth Dames: 30 Essential Woman’s Pictures 1929-1939

By Megan McGurk

A punchline from Howard Hawk’s Monkey Business (1952) echoes into Charlie Wilson’s War (2007), the last film directed by Mike Nichols. In the original screwball classic, Cary Grant appears puzzled by Marilyn Monroe as a secretary who pleads with her boss for another chance at typing. Charles Coburn, as the boss, tells her no, that it’s very important, and to get someone else to do it. Crestfallen, Monroe accepts the sheet of paper and leaves to find a typist. The men watch Monroe wiggle out of the room. Coburn deadpans an explanation: ‘Anybody can type’.

Wynn Everett, listed in the credits as receptionist ‘Charlie’s Angel #1’, delivers the revised line in Charlie Wilson’s War.  She responds to a similar query from a visitor about the bevvy of centrefold-grade office staff employed by the Texas Congressman (played by Tom Hanks) in her boss’s knuckle-dragger wisdom: ‘You can teach ‘em to type, but you can’t teach ‘em to grow tits.’ Perhaps they felt the line wouldn’t seem as terribly sexist if it came from a woman. The original was funny because it need not state the obvious, while the updated version feels ugly and crass. ‘Grow tits’ has an odious ring to it, particularly when women are named in the cast after the man they happen work for, which recalls the grim totalitarianism of Ofglen and Offred from The Handmaid’s Tale. Who needs a name when you have great breasts, I suppose the logic follows.

Continue reading “Why We Need Sass Mouth Dames, Woman’s Pictures 1929-1959”

Charles Boyer, Eyes Wide Open in Love Affair (1939)

By:Megan McGurk

Irene Dunne’s gift in a dramatic scene often pronounces itself in an utter disavowal of self-pity. Whether she was bereft with loneliness in Back Street (1932), blind in Magnificent Obsession (1935), saying a final farewell to the man she loved in When Tomorrow Comes (1939), or raising a baby alone in Unfinished Business (1941), she never succumbed to a woe-is-me wallow. She was too concerned with empathy for another player or how to best carry on. She has a line that drops from the remake, which makes the final scene more devastating. When Charles Boyer figures out what happened on the day she failed to meet him and starts toward to bedroom to find the painting and wheelchair, Dunne leans forward and asks him what time his boat sails in a light voice, as one last attempt to spare him the truth and allow him to leave her dreary apartment none the wiser. She’s not so preoccupied with her own situation that she loses sight of what the truth will do to the man she loves. For some reason, Deborah Kerr omits this bit of business in the remake and remains placid on the sofa, waiting for Cary Grant to discover the tell-tale sign of her tragic accident.

In an interview with James Bawden in 1974, Dunne recalled watching the film in a retrospective, and that afterward she rang Boyer to tell him how much she had enjoyed his performance. He replied so you finally saw me! He spent much of his career supporting women onscreen. Dunne shared a memory of how Boyer used to joke that it was time to get a haircut when he was in a picture co-starring with a lead actress. He said that the camera always lingered on the back of his head during a clinch, so he had to make sure it was tidy. Boyer’s masterclass underplay may have been easy to miss for a co-star, but no one in the audience could miss his deeply affecting performance of a man who had loved and lost.

The script for the final scene of Leo McCarey’s Love Affair (1939) remains almost identical in the director’s remake, An Affair to Remember (1957), but the scenes vary dramatically in each leading man’s delivery. As Nicky Ferrante, Cary Grant plays the scene in an altogether different emotional pitch from Charles Boyer’s Michel Marnet. Close up, there’s little to recommend Grant’s vanity-riddled performance over the rich emotional panoply Boyer gifts to viewers. Grant renders elevator music from Boyer’s grand symphony.

Continue reading “Charles Boyer, Eyes Wide Open in Love Affair (1939)”

Irene Dunne’s Unfinished Business

By: Megan McGurk

Robert Montgomery usually trades upon breezy gin-marinated smarm in his romantic roles, such as the louse he plays in The Divorcee (1930), a man who takes advantage of Norma Shearer’s marriage trouble to wheedle sex, or the department shop heir who watches Joan Crawford undress after she appears in a fashion show in Our Blushing Brides from the same year. Rich boy with entitlement issues was his character pigeon-hole throughout the 1930s. He wore a groove in celluloid as louche playboys more comfortable handling a cocktail shaker than a leading lady. He’s a bit of a surprise in Gregory La Cava’s Unfinished Business (1941), because for the first time, he drops the detached bravado long enough to register empathy for a woman. Montgomery’s Tommy Duncan observes what escapes everyone else in the room: Irene Dunne’s humiliation. For a man who has enough privilege to buffer any acknowledgement of human suffering, he nonetheless catches Dunne’s emotional agony. And he applies a balm of comfort.

What leads Irene Dunne’s Nancy Andrews to table side humiliation begins when she joins the ranks of screen heroines who leave domestic obligations and claim a right to their own adventure. Garbo in Susan Lenox, Crawford in Possessed, Lombard in No Man of Her Own, Stanwyck in Baby Face, Crawford in The Damned Don’t Cry, rank among a legion of women in film who exchange traditional family roles for independence.

Once Irene Dunne’s Nancy watches her younger sister marry, she’s free from her mothering role, and able to leap headlong into a plan to become ‘unsettled’. Although the newlyweds extend a room for her in their house, by way of compensation for her sacrificed youth, Nancy decides to become a professional singer in Manhattan. At 43 years-old, Irene Dunne looks at least ten years younger, so we understand her reluctance to occupy a rocking chair and sexless doom. Viewers may regard La Cava’s picture as an updated version of John Stahl’s Back Street (1932), where this time around, Irene Dunne’s character need not scurry around the margins of a man’s life for two decades.

On the train to New York, the likelihood of romance Nancy had wished for dissipates with the grim bargain struck between Preston Foster’s Steve Duncan and his friend Frank (played by Dick Foran) to find the prettiest girl on the train. Once they fan out at opposites ends to inspect the women to win the $100 stakes, there’s no possibility for human connection. Their pact somehow resists age or reason. You could stage the same exact wager between men today without losing a shred of plausibility. Yes, this is how some men pass the time, by hunting women, just short of bagging and tagging their prey.  La Cava underscores their creepiness, and spares us any degree of glossy boys-will-be-boys treacle.

Unabashed, the men indulge in bouts of howling catch calls, heads thrown back, yearning for cave fires and dragging women by the hair. Steve and Frank consider themselves heroic Casanovas, except they appear more recognisable for what they are–spoilt middle-aged lechers with an empathy deficit.

Continue reading “Irene Dunne’s Unfinished Business”