Sass Mouth Dames Film Club Series 8

Join Megan McGurk for a sterling collection of Pre-Code woman’s pictures. Let’s revisit an era when Hollywood took women on the screen and in the audience seriously.

Sass Mouth Dames Film Club Series 8 meets each Thursday night in January at 7.00, in the Brooks Hotel Cinema, Drury Street, Dublin.

Only a tenner in!

Tickets through Eventbrite.

Our Blushing Brides (1930)

3 January

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)

10 January

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)

17 January

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)

24 January

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)

31 January

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.

Sass Mouth Dames Film Club Series 6

Join me on Wednesdays this autumn for another round of classic woman’s pictures from the Pre-Code era.

Screened in the gorgeous Denzille Cinema in Merrion Square for 19.00, 26 September-24 October.

Soda & snacks included.

Tickets available from Eventbrite.

Night Nurse (1931)

26 September

‘I’m Nick—the chauffer’.

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.’

Possessed (1931)

3 October

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)

10 October

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)

17 October

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.

Bombshell (1933)

24 October

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.

 

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 (’50)

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 (’50), 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 (’50), Sudden Fear (’52), This Woman is Dangerous (’52), Johnny Guitar (’54), Queen Bee (’55), Female on the Beach (’55) and Autumn Leaves (’56). Even in a bit part as Amanda Farrow in The Best of Everything (’59), 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 1935 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, which she built upon the industry’s validation with an Oscar win four years earlier for Mildred Pierce.

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