Sass Mouth Dames Film Club Series 3

 

Thursdays in March.

Hosted by Megan McGurk

Join me for another round of classic woman’s pictures.

Tickets available through Eventbrite

 

1 March

The Good Fairy (1935)

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 Good Fairy helps restore your belief in common decency.

 

8 March

These Three (1936)

Production code censors demanded no mention be made of Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’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.

 

15 March

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.

 

22 March

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, The Mad Miss Manton stands out for the multiple times society dames beat the living daylights out of Henry Fonda (who totally has it coming).

 

29 March

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.

 

 

 

‘You ought to do something about your eyes’: Miriam Hopkins in Woman Chases Man (1937)

Miriam’s signature pose in Men Are Not Gods (1936)

 

By: Megan McGurk

Among the scenes depicting a woman’s libido on film, Miriam Hopkins lolling around on a bed lamenting the fact that she’s not a gentleman should rank at the top. While she’s remembered for her sexpot role as Gilda in Design for Living (1933), where she plays a woman enjoying a luscious three-way romance courtesy of Ernst Lubitsch, Miriam gets lost in the shuffle in favour of other screen goddesses from the era. She did not announce her desire in the same way that other women did on the screen. Miriam didn’t lower her lids and hug the shadows like Marlene Dietrich; she did not fall into a swoon like Garbo; nor did she adopt a suggestive slouch like Jean Harlow; and she didn’t drape herself in luxe high fashion like Joan Crawford. Miriam, often buttoned up to her neck, with a sober bow laced under her throat, could make a prim skirt suit appear as seductive as a silk bias cut gown. Her trademark used splayed hands across her hips and abdomen, as if to hold firmly in place the seat of desire. Miriam never left you in any doubt when her characters were gasping for it, especially in Woman Chases Man (1937). Posters for the screwball gem label her a ‘she-wolf’ which may misrepresent the romantic dynamic, but she serves as proxy for women (and men) in the audience who want to ogle Joel McCrea. She’s hot-to-trot for him in every scene.

Instead of obvious touches with wardrobe or boilerplate mechanics of allure, Miriam creates a subtle version of a grown woman’s sexual appetite. Miriam also straddles the line between seduction and screwball antics better than anyone, Carole Lombard included. Not many women can shift from a George Raft impression (talking out of both sides of her mouth at breakneck speed) in one scene to salivating over Joel McCrea in the next. Her desire for McCrea knocks against the restraints of a genteel background to  obliterate distinctions between a lady and a dame. Miriam’s debutante accent announces cotillions, mint juleps on the veranda, boarding schools, and echoes those familiar rules about what nice girls do and instead blows them a raspberry.

As Virginia Travis, a struggling architect, Miriam conspires with Charles Winninger’s failed entrepreneur B.J. Nolan to take his son through the hurdles, so that Kenneth (McCrea) will shell out from his inheritance and fund an experimental social housing project. But she’s distracted from the plan to eradicate tenements once the tall drink of man-water arrives. Suddenly, the petite blonde looks like a wolf in grandma’s clothing when her eyes land on the son. Joel looks so delectable from his first scene when he’s introduced in a manner that’s usually reserved for a socialite character in film (Claudette Colbert or Barbara Stanwyck, for example). Since we are in woman’s picture territory, our gaze lingers over McCrea lounging ship deck wearing glamorous black sunglasses with all the other gorgeous rich folks. He looks good in a suit, too, when he turns up to lecture his father about fiscal responsibility.

Continue reading “‘You ought to do something about your eyes’: Miriam Hopkins in Woman Chases Man (1937)”

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?

 

Bette Davis & Miriam Hopkins: Rival Authors in Old Acquaintance (’43)

By: Megan McGurk

Sexual competition in Old Acquaintance (1943) distracts from the main event. Our primary order of concern regards the Bette Davis-Miriam Hopkins feud over book sales. John Loder seems like the type who asks for his slippers rather than whisper any racy propositions into the back of your neck. He’s too slow and measured; too reticent and mannered to arouse a lady’s blood. Stage the conflict around their ranking on the bestseller list, instead of who gets to change his pillowcases stained with black hair dye. Old Acquaintance rates at the top of the woman’s picture canon because of its plot about rival authors. No one gives a fig about who wins John Loder.

At the wrap party, Bette Davis presented director Vincent Sherman with a token gift to remember the production: a blown-up photograph of the director between his leading ladies set inside a boxing ring. As Sherman recalled in his memoir Studio Affairs, his position as director often reduced to referee, in keeping each woman in a separate corner. Long before Davis’ icy relationship with Joan Crawford snowballed into Hollywood legend, her grudge match with Miriam Hopkins traced back to a stock theatre company under George Cukor in 1928. Bette resented Miriam’s shameless promiscuity and felt Cukor encouraged it; moreover, she balked at the way he seemed to favour the southern belle. Later, Miriam didn’t like it when Bette had an affair with her husband (Anatole Litvak) during All This and Heaven, Too (1940). On set of Old Acquaintance, as Bette recounts in her memoir The Lonely Life, Miriam used little tricks to throw her co-star off or steal the camera, from leaning out of a shot to fidgeting and finding little bits of business to distract Bette. Maybe Miriam settled into an irascible mood because of her limited role as a petulant brat. Look for Miriam in the promotional posters–you’ll have trouble finding her. Jack Warner, studio head and executive producer, probably frog marched Miriam to play the heavy in a Bette Davis vehicle.

Anyone would rebel against a part limited to childish greed, and crappy bestsellers. Why should a woman who writes spicy bodice-rippers that sell like hotcakes fold into tawdry stereotypes, even in 1943? Miriam’s character somehow achieves success without any real depth or struggle. She just breezily pens huge volumes on a whim to compete with the high-brow novels that Bette’s character writes, but that no one reads or recommends. The high versus low cultural divide seems misplaced in a woman’s picture when the audience consumes both historical romance and serious literature. It’s a curious strategy to frame so much disdain for what your audience loves. What’s next, a treatise against hats?

Continue reading “Bette Davis & Miriam Hopkins: Rival Authors in Old Acquaintance (’43)”