Sass Mouth Dames: 30 Essential Women’s Pictures 1929-1939
A new book by Megan McGurk
When Hollywood made films for women, known by studio executives and the people who made them as ‘woman’s pictures’, viewers could reliably find a female point of view in the cinema. Films made for women covered a wide range of topics from sex, employment, social mobility, female rivalry, and above all, the importance of friendship with other women as a ballast for life in a man’s world. Sass Mouth Dames presents 30 superior films from 1929-1939 as a reminder that women in the movies did not always play second fiddle to the leading man. Women were once the star attraction, billed above the man with brilliantined hair. Women such as Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Blondell and Irene Dunne drew women and men to the cinema see their latest challenge or adventure. Sass Mouth Dames celebrates extraordinary films that maintain their relevance for contemporary audiences. Films discussed include well known classics such as Gold Diggers of 1933, Baby Face, Stage Door, The Women and Love Affair as well as lesser-known gems such as Ladies of Leisure, Merrily We Go to Hell, Private Worlds, Heat Lightning and Havana Widows. Sass Mouth Dames highlights exceptional performances, storytelling, and design.
(AVAILABLE IN KINDLE AND PAPERBACK)
Find more of Megan’s writing on Old Hollywood on her dedicated website – sassmouthdames.com
Excerpt from the book:
Sadie McKee (1934)
One of the many survival lessons we can glean from Sadie McKee recommends avoiding self-pity at all costs. After fiancé Gene Raymond (who my podcast partner Danielle Smith describes as a ‘hamster’) runs off with another woman, leaving Joan Crawford’s Sadie alone in New York with a few coins, she tries to sneak off when she can’t pay the rent, but instead accepts help from fellow tenant Opal (Jean Dixon) and takes a job in nightclub floorshows.
The real relationship in Sadie McKee isn’t between Joan and Gene Raymond, Edward Arnold or even Franchot Tone. The male trio move the plot forward without any depth of emotional contour or development. Even before Raymond dies, we know he’s not really the love of her life, if he’s so inconstant that he runs off with a singer in the five minutes Joan’s Sadie steps out to look for work. Arnold’s vast fortune helps a little, but a sexless marriage amounts to a death sentence for a highly-sexed woman such as Joan, on of off-screen. The film ends with a suggestion of romance between Joan and Franchot as he visits the flat she shares with her mother and former neighbour and co-worker Jean Dixon’s Opal. Their happy pairing seems unlikely because earlier Joan had threatened that he was lucky she didn’t throw soup in his face. Franchot’s character was a man who had condemned a poor guy over the first course, who had called her cheap and predicted her failure at every turn. Sadie McKee could hardly return to the big house, presented to a pack of spoilt rich folk and suffer further derisive comments about how their golden boy married the help. No one high hats Crawford. All three men serve as mere foils for Joan’s plot trajectory.
In Sadie McKee, Joan Crawford experiences the most meaningful and rewarding relationship with Jeanne Dixon’s Opal. Friend, mentor, cheerleader, Opal detects the poverty and hunger Joan’s Sadie conceals when she attempts to run out on the rent one morning. Before that, when she was fresh in town with her ukulele-playing scoundrel, it was Opal who took them to her rooming house and secured a place to stay. Opal takes Sadie to the nightclub where she plays hostess and puts her in the floorshow. Up all night working, dead tired with sore feet, she still sits for hours in the court house, ready to serve as Sadie’s maid of honour, waiting for the warbling man to show up and fulfil his marriage promise. Opal brushes the bride-to-be off when the cad fails to show and helps Sadie determine how she can live by her own looks and wit rather than rely on a man.
Opal has the best lines in the picture, as an accomplished sass mouth dame. At one point Sadie confronts mantrap Dolly Merrick (Esther Ralston) backstage for taking away snub-nosed Gene Raymond. Dolly accuses Sadie of selling herself to the highest bidder. Sadie registers how thoroughly she disagrees with the statement by pushing Dolly into a prop trunk, her calves sticking up as though she were a mannequin for the magician’s trick saw. Opal meets Sadie outside the door and asks ‘Did you tell that gal her right name?’, a brilliant euphemism for cursing a blue streak of abuse at a man stealer. In a gesture worthy of a war-weary gladiator, Sadie clamps a hand on Opal’s front shoulder as she passes. During their shared moment of accord, viewers witness how much strength women draw from friendship with a quality dame. Joan Crawford has never looked better, either, with her hair slicked back, in Adrian’s metallic harness with an open back gown for the confrontation with Dolly Merrick.
Earlier, after Sadie married the millionaire dipsomaniac, she invites Opal to the house and into the luxurious bedroom suite she enjoys as the wife.
Opal: Lady, when you say, “I do take thee,” how you take him.
Opal: Got this all to yourself?
Sadie: Yep, all to myself.
Opal: Always all to yourself?
Sadie McKee: Yep.
Opal: Well, a whole lot of us do a whole lot more for a whole lot less.
Opal points out the benefits of a marriage bargain with customary verve. Rather than judge Sadie, or even encourage her to regard her situation or marriage as happy or ideal, something it’s not, Opal doesn’t push Sadie into delusion or gloss over her union’s basic economic function. She doesn’t try to build up the spirit-soaked husband to smooth over her pal’s nuptials. Opal reserves judgment, keeps a clear eye on her predicament and sticks by Sadie, as true friends do.
Sadie’s loyal streak extends to the men in her life, whether they deserve it or not. In the opening scene, Sadie and Franchot’s Michael re-enact their childhood ruse of Sadie distracting her mother the cook, by tearing up strips of newspaper while Michael steals doughnuts, treats he does not share with the help’s daughter, by the way. She stands up for Gene Raymond’s Tommy by offering to toss the first course in golden boy Michael’s face, thereby losing her job. And for whiskey-sodden husband, Jack Brennan (Edward Arnold), she does him the ultimate favour by putting herself between him and the bottle so he cannot drink himself to death. Sadie pledges to nurse him well because she doesn’t want his fortune, despite what Leo G. Carroll thinks when he refers to her as a ‘little tramp’. Michael threatens to send her to prison for marrying Jack for his money. She’s trying to live by her own sense of decency even if none of the men believe her. It’s woman’s pictures writ large.
Sadie McKee remains among my favourites for its photography. Beautifully shot, each scene captures a verisimilitude, whether of the rooming house, millionaire’s mansion, hot cake café (I could watch Joan follow the hot cakes flipping in the window on a loop) or one of the best art designs scenes by Cedric Gibbons, set in the Automat. Even though it clocks in at little more than forty seconds, the scene with Joan in the Automat captures an essence of character against the larger social conditions. Clarence Brown doesn’t need dialogue to convey Sadie’s desperate circumstances. He only needs a room full of food and Sadie with a sole nickel in her pocket for a cup of coffee that she can at least warm her hands around as she scans the room for leftovers. Many forlorn people did the same during the Depression. Even though she’s reduced to scavenging for food, Joan’s character still exhibits impeccable style.
In a simple wool topper with fake fur cuffs and an Empress Eugenie style hat pulled low over one eye, Crawford’s Sadie demonstrates how women of the era could gain a degree of privacy amidst hardship through a style buffer which protected them from scrutiny or further push to the margins. Style conceals the depths of Sadie’s despair, just as it did for Sylvia Sidney in Thirty Day Princess (1934) and Jean Arthur in Easy Living (1937). A well-dressed woman has a greater hope of catching a break or at least being left alone to find a meal among discarded plates.
At one moment, Joan claps eyes on a man pushing away a slice of lemon meringue pie and her eyes telegraph desperate hunger. She can taste the tart filling before he leaves the table. But then, in what may be a metaphor for the whole Depression, the Automat patron takes his cigarette and stubs it out in the stiff egg-white peaks of the dessert. He had taken one bite of the pie before he decided to use food as an ashtray. The haves torment the have not with an audacious degree of waste. Viewers will want to scream on Joan’s behalf.
Sadie McKee reminds its audience that women fare better when they pool their resources and stick together.