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.
Series 14 of Sass Mouth Dames Film Club screens four outstanding Bluebeard pictures, a theme which developed from a 17th century French folktale about a nobleman who killed multiple wives. During the post-war era, while men in film noir explored paranoid fantasies about two-timing dames, woman’s pictures gave an audience a chance to imagine their deepest fear about husbands who had murder on the brain. Women kept the home fires burning, but when men returned, did they wonder: Who was the trained killer in their bed?
Megan McGurk introduces the pictures, Thursday in March.
Brooks Hotel Cinema, Drury Street, Dublin.
Popcorn is free!
Tickets are available 13 February through Eventbrite.
Nearly every star of woman’s pictures during the 1930s made a Bluebeard story—even Katharine Hepburn. Initially content to run her father’s house, Hepburn’s character becomes overwhelmed with desire for a suave inventor sporting a chiselled widow’s peak and sad eyes from the war, played by Robert Taylor. What she mistakes for a romantic disposition turns out to be something much more sinister. Bob Mitchum turns up as Taylor’s ‘bad boy’ brother, making traditional ideas about ideal masculinity even more complicated.
Secret Beyond the Door (1947)
Just like many of us, Joan Bennett’s character prefers to sleep until eleven, and needs three cups of coffee before she can feel conscious in the morning. On holiday in Mexico, she becomes aroused watching two men throw knives, fighting over a woman. Ripe for a fling with a handsome stranger (Michael Redgrave), she gives way to passion, which leads to a trip down the aisle. Once she’s installed in his family home as the new missus, Bennett faces a brutal truth that she married a total stranger who has a macabre hobby.
Too Late for Tears (1949)
Although Lizabeth Scott’s husband does not try to kill her, he does attempt to keep her from spending a bag of money they find one night, which is a cut too deep, especially for a woman with dreams of mink. Soon enough, she’s in grave danger when Dan Duryea attempts to recover the loot and delivers one of his best sleazy characters—a gangster who takes pleasure in threatening women. Lizabeth Scott is not easily deterred from her plan to buy things. Impressed, Duryea realises that he hasn’t stumbled upon an average housewife.
Sudden Fear (1952)
Joan Crawford enjoys an independent life based on inherited wealth and a successful career as a playwright at the beginning of the film. During rehearsals for her new theatre production, she sacks an actor (Jack Palance), because from every seat in the house, at any angle, he was not what she considered to be a swoon merchant leading man. On the train home to California, she meets up with the disgruntled actor and succumbs to his charms. After a hasty exchange of vows, Joan discovers her new groom wants her dead, so that he can cash in and run off with a mistress, played by sexpot Gloria Grahame.
If you want to cancel your ticket, I will send a refund up until noon on the day of the screening.
In woman’s pictures, a reliable formula presents a cautionary tale of three women who seek to make their fortune. Set in a department store among women who work behind a counter, or model clothes as ‘mannequins,’ they pool resources in flat shares and skip lunches to afford clothes. Joan Crawford, Anita Page, and Dorothy Sebastian bide their time on stingy wages while they fend off a pack of society wolves. Joan Crawford tries to keep her friends from falling for the cheap lines pick up artists use. The picture includes fashion show sequences featuring swoonworthy designs by Adrian.
Safe in Hell(1931)
Next time you hear someone make a sarcastic comment about ‘Hollywood endings’, as a shortcut for saccharine fade outs, point them in the direction of Pre-Code Hollywood pictures like Safe in Hell. In one of the most notorious Pre-Codes, Dorothy Mackaill protects herself from a customer’s assault, and afterward, hides out in a Caribbean bolthole to avoid extradition. At first, she thinks boredom is her worst problem. When she accepts an invitation from the men who loiter in the hotel lounge, they compete for her as though she were a roast chicken at the end of forty day fast. William Wellman’s production reminds us that women are never safe when men are around.
Vanity Street (1932)
Helen Chandler, tired, hungry, and homeless, smashes a window so she can at least have three hots and a cot in prison. A police detective (Charles Bickford) takes pity on a woman down on her luck. He offers a meal and his sofa, and then gets her a job in a chorus line. The real star of this picture though is Mayo Methot, better known for being the third Mrs Bogart. Mayo Methot had a gift for playing characters who learn difficult truths about things like inconstant lovers and the fleeting nature of youth and fame. She lays bare the emotional contours of women who have been tossed aside. Not to be missed.
Ladies They Talk About (1933)
During a bank heist, Barbara Stanwyck gets pinched. She doesn’t squeal on her boyfriend’s criminal rackets. She hopes to gain the influence of a popular radio preacher she grew up with, and have the sentence suspended. The plan doesn’t work, so she joins the women’s prison as a ‘new fish’. Stanwyck proves a quick study for how to manage a dame looking for a fight. The scenes behind the walls resemble a sorority house more than the hoosegow. Despite a carceral effect, women on the inside mitigate their grim plight with decorative touches applied to their uniforms and jail cells. You can’t keep a good dame down, even when she’s behind bars.
Heat Lightning (1934)
Where do you go after you’ve had enough of men and life in a chorus line? If you’re Aline MacMahon, you get as far away as possible–the Mojave desert. She opens a filling station and café with her younger sister, played by Ann Dvorak. Wearing overalls, with her mermaid tresses tucked under a bandana, MacMahon limits her worries to heat, rattlesnakes, and keeping her sister out of trouble. Then one day an old flame (Preston Foster) shows up, on the run from the law. Suddenly the great big desert is too small. Cornered, with a siege mentality, a resourceful dame does what she must. To lighten the drama, Glenda Farrell and Ruth Donnelly trade barbs. Director Mervyn LeRoy doesn’t waste a moment in this 63-minute gem.
If Clark Gable’s line delivery doesn’t make you gasp the way it does Barbara Stanwyck, you’re probably in the wrong cinema. Stanwyck proves why she’s Queen of the Pre-Codes in this gritty picture about injustice, corruption and the most vicious cruelty. When no one else cares or intervenes, Stanwyck charges the bullies full steam. She can’t go wrong with Joan Blondell on her side. This was the first of five pictures Stanwyck made with director William Wellman. He said of her ‘she not only knew her own lines but everyone else’s. I love her.’
Joan Crawford works in a paper box factory. She watches the train cars full of glamorous people on their way to New York one night after work, when a stranger in the caboose pours out her first taste of bubbles, and then tells her to run to the big city to be done wrong by. Crawford makes her way to New York and snags the first rich man she encounters—Clark Gable. In a love nest feathered by Gable, she does everything that becomes a lady. Without a wedding ring, society will always regard her as a chippy from the sticks. Joan made life-long fans among women for this tale about double standards and social climbing.
Thirteen Women (1932)
If only we had the fifteen minutes that were cut from the original picture. No doubt the edited sequences contained additional stylish revenge scenes. Myrna Loy plays a biracial girl who suffered untold misery from the privileged white girls in an exclusive boarding school. She was tormented by her classmates. All grown up, Myrna mesmerises a famed astrologer into sending horoscopes that she designs with the power of suggestion to bring about a series of gruesome tragedies. Irene Dunne plays one of the former pupils who denies the power of the star charts. This is the only horror picture I’ve included in the series so far. Not to be missed.
No Man of Her Own (1932)
What does a small-town librarian do for fun? Well, if you’re Carole Lombard, you hook up with a random dude (Clark Gable) one night after the library closes and parlay that into wedded bliss. Lombard soon learns what her husband really does for a living, which rocks her to the core. Can she make him go straight? This was the only picture that Lombard and Gable made together. Although their romance did not commence until the Mayfair Ball in 1936, they still generate enough heat to burn down the stacks.
Jean Harlow stars in a picture that borrows from Clara Bow’s life story. Beset by moochers who feed stories to the tabloids, Harlow’s character endures the studio’s demanding schedule, while she picks up the tab for a shower of freeloaders. Harlow strips the varnish off the glamour factory and shows viewers the grind behind the glitz. She’s at her snarling-best in this picture. Sass mouth dame all the way.
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 PostmanAlways 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.