A Star Was Born

Stardom. Love. Censorship.

Listen back to the new original series and meet the cast!

Part One:

In 1931, Warner Bros. star Cleo Longe tops the box office in pictures where she gets away with it: no strings sex or sending men to the morgue. One night at a party, she meets Richard Tulliver, a new contract player who is cast as the juvenile in her next production. Cleo coaches him through the part and suggests a new name for his screen billing.

Part Two:

Cleo finds a story for her next picture from an unlikely source. From the ground up, she builds the plot, takes a chance on a new screenwriter, casts the picture, and presents creative opportunities for her crew. Meanwhile, Cleo’s romance with Tully takes a serious turn.

Part Three:

Despite her success, Cleo discovers that having script approval in her contract is meaningless once the Production Code is enforced. Under the new rules, Cleo must argue over every page and justify her artistic choices to men who don’t care about the integrity of woman’s pictures. At the same time, Tully’s star rises.

A Star Was Born is a Sass Mouth Dames production written and directed by Megan McGurk.

Art design by Mot Collins.

Sound editing and special effects by Thomas O’Mahony

Meet the cast:

Clara Higgins plays box office star Cleo Longe. Clara is an Irish artist and writer perhaps better known as her pseudonym Mot Collins. Under this moniker, she creates illustrations, zines, and tattoos. Mot is interested in subversive expressions of femininity, sexuality, occultism, and comedy. She is highly influenced by pulp and punk culture. She can be found on Twitter as @heavydutywoman and @motcollinsart on Instagram.

Danny Reid plays actor Rick Tully. Danny is a librarian who lives in Western Germany with his yappy dog, adorable children, and perfectly splendid wife. He spent most of his adult life working in videostores and movie theaters, watching any movie he could get his hands on, eventually writing about old Hollywood at pre-code.com. He is also fond of potatoes. Danny is @PreCodeDotCom on Twitter and Instagram

Jeanne Sutton plays hair and makeup artist Babe Dempsey. Jeanne is a former journalist and occasional writer who has been published in Banshee, IMAGE, STELLAR and The Gloss. Her favourite movie scene is Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea sitting on that stoop in The More the Merrier. She publishes a newsletter and is @jeannedesutun on Instagram.

Olympia Kiriakou plays press agent Phyllis Blake.

Dr. Olympia Kiriakou is a film historian based in south Florida. Her research focuses on stardom, gender, and genre in classical Hollywood cinema, as well as contemporary fan cultures. She is
the author of Becoming Carole Lombard: Stardom, Comedy, and Legacy, an exploration of the star persona and career of the late star. Her work has also been published in Transformative Works and Cultures, Journal of Fandom Studies, In Media Res, and Film Matters. She has a website and is @thescrewballgrl on Twitter.

You can find Olympia’s book here: Becoming Carole Lombard

M. Shawn plays starlet Maxine Raymond. M. is a former television news producer, a writer, a researcher, an accidental homemaker, and a full-time Jean Harlow fan.  After a year in quarantine, her blood type is banana bread, and if people were allowed to be fictional characters in a past life, she’d be Blondie Johnson.

Peter Bryant plays agent/manager Hank Webber. Peter’s interest in classic Hollywood started—later in life than he would have liked—with the discovery of Preston Sturges comedies. This soon led to the Astaire-Rogers and Busby Berkeley musicals and much more. His latest avocation is writing about the career of Ida Lupino at his blog Let Yourself Go … To Old Hollywood and is @pmbryant on Twitter and @pmbryant_oldhollywood on Instagram

Matt Harris plays film director Carter Hilary. Matt is a Joan Crawford superfan and talented TV news archivist who lives in London. You can find Matt on Twitter (@Glamorous_Matt)

Megan McGurk plays wardrobe woman Edel Geary. Megan carries a torch for studio era woman’s pictures. She is the host of Sass Mouth Dames podcast and film club. In the past year, she has written and directed four original radio plays set in the 1930s (Salon Devine, Mannequins, Stenographers, and A Star Was Born). Megan is on Twitter @MeganMcGurk and @SassMouthDames and sometimes remembers to use Instagram @sassmouthdames

Thomas O’Mahony is a London based Irish Podcast Producer who specialises in storytelling and audio design. He hosts a tattoo history show called Beneath the Skin, and is passionate about how we can use audio to tell new and innovative stories. 
You can find Thomas on all social media @gotitatguineys or contact him for business related inquiries at thomasomahony.media

Tom’s podcast is here

Sass Mouth Dames Film Club series 20

Megan McGurk introduces five pre-Code woman’s pictures in another series of Dublin’s popular cinema club, Thursdays in September.

Tickets are available through Eventbrite

Please note that start times vary!

Applause (1929)

Screens: Thursday 1 September, 7.00

Burlesque star Kitty Darling, played by renowned torch singer Helen Morgan, tried to shelter her daughter April (Joan Peers) from backstage coarsening by sending her to a convent school. Once April has finished her education, Kitty plans a respectable career, but her manager and main squeeze Hitch Nelson (Fuller Mellish Jr) has other plans. Shot on location in New York, Rouben Mamoulian crafts a dazzling love letter to the city in his directorial debut.

The Divorcee (1930)

Screens: Thursday 8 September, 5.00

What do you do if your husband is unfaithful? In pre-Code pictures, a heroine like Norma Shearer doesn’t take it on the chin. She tells her husband (Chester Morris) ‘I’ve balanced our accounts’ after having a fling with Robert Montgomery. Shearer won the Academy Award for Best Actress for playing a wife who insists upon a single standard in marriage. Gowned by MGM’s Adrian, Shearer showed women in the audience how to cope with men in style.

Call Her Savage (1932)

Screens: Thursday 15 September, 8.30

After more than a year’s absence from the screen, Clara Bow makes up for lost time, firing on all cylinders. In the opening scene, Gilbert Roland suffers at the end of her whip. Bow’s just getting started. She collects big plotlines from the woman’s picture canon and wrings them dry: Her character is expelled from school, creates a society scandal, has broken love affairs, a syphilitic husband, and a sick baby, while living in a cold water walk-up. Clara Bow is not to be missed.

Beauty for Sale (1933)

Screens: Thursday 22 September, 7.00

Metro’s adaptation of Faith Baldwin’s bestseller presents a cautionary tale about three gals who seek their fortunes in a beauty salon. Una Merkel plays a hardboiled wiseacre who knows the shortest route to a man’s wallet. Florine McKinney is the innocent one who believes the rough lies men tell to get what they want. Madge Evans plays the pragmatic dame forced into work by the Depression. Hedda Hopper joins the cast as Madame Sonia, the salon owner, who rules over society clients and the beauty operators with ice-water in her veins.

Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

Screens: Thursday 29 September, 7.00

Although Glenda Farrell takes fourth billing, she owns this rare wonder in two-strip Technicolor from Warner Bros. Farrell plays an ace reporter who breaks a story about an actress’s suicide. Later, she happens upon a strange racket in the new wax museum in town and investigates. Fay Wray plays the roommate who has the misfortune to resemble Marie Antoinette. The special effects haven’t lost their wow factor over the years.

Refunds are available up to noon on the day of the screening.

Stenographers

A gold locket and a poorly written letter are clues to find a missing stenographer

Stenographers is an original podcast drama series set in Hollywood during December 1934.

A stenographer disappears after taking a fancy locket from a man she hardly knows. Co-workers in the steno pool try to find her and uncover a network of dangerous men.

Will they find her in time?

Meet the characters:

Terry Nolan (played by Clara Higgins) had planned on teaching literature, but soon learned that colleges weren’t interested in putting women at the front of a lecture hall. She fell back on her secretarial skills and opened the Nolan Executive Stenographers office.

Fiona Clarke (played by Jennifer O’Meara) comes from a family that raised horses. She worked as a stuntwoman in Hollywood, without receiving a contract or compensation when she broke her leg during production. Secretarial work pays the bills.

Margaret O’Donnell (played by Jeanne Sutton) gave up a job teaching at Katharine Gibbs, a prestigious secretarial school, to work for Hunt Stromberg in MGM. The studio grind took its toll, as did the lack of promotion.

Ivy Miller (played by Olympia Kiriakou) joined the U.S. Treasury department because they recruited women as ideal candidates for clerical positions, yet quickly discovered women could not advance beyond the steno pool.

Dolly DePeyster (played by M. Shawn) is a reporter with the L.A. Times. She rents desk space from Terry to get away from the lads in the bullpen, but also because she can’t type and relies on stenographers for meeting column deadlines.

Kay Carroll (played by Megan McGurk) believes every word she reads in fan magazines and romance stories. She wants nice clothes and a home to hang her apron.

Click here for Part One

Click here for Part Two

Click here for Part Three

Stenographers is written and directed by Megan McGurk

Art Design by Clara Higgins

Sound editing and special effects by Dan McAuley

Sass Mouth Dames Film Club series 15

Megan McGurk introduces a pre-Code woman’s picture Thursdays in September.

Tickets available through Eventbrite.

Be sound and wear a mask over your nose and mouth.

MADAM SATAN (1930) screens 2 September

Kay Johnson plays a long-suffering wife with a cheating husband (Reginald Denny). To win him back, she uses a fake accent and wears a smoking hot devil ensemble (by Adrian) for a costume ball aboard a zeppelin. Cecil B DeMille’s picture has one of the wildest party scenes in the pre-Code era.

JEWEL ROBBERY (1932) screens 9 September

Kay Francis plays a society dame who falls for a robber (William Powell) during a heist. She has an exquisite wardrobe by Orry-Kelly, including a velvet gown that defies gravity.

THIRTY-DAY PRINCESS (1934) screens 16 September

One minute Sylvia Sidney is stealing a turkey dinner from the Automat, and the next, she’s propositioned with a job to impersonate a visiting royal for a month. A nosey reporter (Cary Grant) smells something fishy. Sylvia looks super cute (poor or rich) in designs by Howard Greer.

BOLERO (1934) screens 23 September

Carole Lombard joins up with a taxi dancer (George Raft) who dreams of opening his own nightclub in Paris. In real life, Raft paid the bills by pleasuring women on and off the dance floor before he signed a Hollywood contract. Carole is draped in silk and satin confections from Travis Banton.

THE SCARLETT EMPRESS (1934) screens 30 September

Playing Catherine the Great, Marlene Dietrich finds herself trapped in a loveless marriage to a debauched idiot (Sam Jaffe) and lusts after Count Alexi (John Lodge). Josef von Sternberg attempted to match the scenery with perversity of the Russian court. Travis Banton swaddles Marlene in an orgy of fur.

‘Says me. In a big way, sister’: Barbara Stanwyck’s lipstick in Night Nurse (1931)

By Megan McGurk

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 of Leisure, 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 is Born (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.