Norma Shearer (Source)
Hello, All. I feel like the last couple of weeks have been a blur. My dad is still in the hospital with pneumonia, but it looks like the antibiotics are working, and is slowly recovering. I went to see him on Monday, and it was hard. Wracked with fever, and unstable blood pressure rates, he didn’t even know I was sitting next to him. At a loss for words, I cried. I tried to pray but couldn’t. Finally, I said the “Our Father”. It was the first prayer he taught Joe, Jos and me. Praying to Heavenly Father for my earthly one.
His pressure has finally stabilized, though, so keep the prayers coming. Also pray for my stepmom Kathy, who spent every night since Monday sleeping in a chair in his room in the ICU.
Let’s get to the links. My last post looked at style and fashion (and more) for the women in the U.S. from about 1900 through the 1920s. Today we’ll take a look at the 1930s. I’ll be honest, I think the 1930s get short shrift in pop culture history. The 1920s are the glamorous Jazz Age, the Harlem Renaissance, the rise of skyscrapers and hemlines. It’s flappers and Silent Films, gangsters, Gatsby and booming business. The 1930s? The Great Depression, hunger, the Dust Bowl, the rise of fascism in Europe, and an all around sepia-toned sadness.
After breezing through Anne Helen Peterson’s “Scandals of Classic Hollywood“, I began Mick LaSalle’s “Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood“, so let’s begin with some reading. An excerpt from “Complicated Women”:
THROUGHOUT THE TWENTIES— AS it has, sporadically, throughout its history— the American film industry lived with a single great terror: federally mandated censorship. Back in 1922, in order to head off pressure from religious groups around the country for federal intervention, the producers had organized to regulate themselves. The moguls created a trade protection organization, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association, and appointed Will Hays as its director. Hays, a former postmaster with unimpeachable conservative credentials, encouraged wholesome entertainment and developed guidelines for screen content. But there was nothing Hays could do to arrest the inevitable movement within the industry toward increased sophistication and license. The religious epic Ben- Hur (1926), for example, featured naked nymphs (in long shot) strewing flower petals in the path of the hero.
In the twenties, there were censorship boards in eight states: Florida, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Every time these local censors made cuts, it cost a studio money for replacement prints and re- shot intertitles. And by the mid- twenties, the censors were making lots of cuts. Hays believed that if the studios would eliminate censorable material from their scenarios before they were filmed, not after, the industry could save itself money, not to mention a lot of grief from reformers and busybodies. To that end, in 1927, Hays created the Studio Relations Committee, a group that had two purposes: 1) to review scenarios and finished films, in order to advise the studios on what might be considered objectionable; and 2) to get the films by the state boards unscathed. Jason Joy, a former executive with the American Red Cross, was put in charge of the committee. The SRC had little power. It could not prevent the release of a picture, and it could not force a studio to remove risqué material. The group had even less power as the talkies came in. Hollywood was importing looser standards from Broadway— light profanity, suggestive language. The film industry was moving in the direction of increased openness, not less.
LaSalle has set the scene for the spate of films that would be released through 1934- films full of sex, dirty words, gangsters, kept women and affairs. The infamous Pre-Code movies would propel actors such as the bigger-than-life Mae West, the gorgeous Greta Garbo and girl-next-door beauty Norma Shearer to super stardom.
If like me, you know the names West and Garbo but are drawing a blank at Shearer, allow me to introduce you to the woman who was at one point, the Queen of Hollywood. From Wikipedia:
Edith Norma Shearer (August 10, 1902 – June 12, 1983) was a Canadian-American actress. Shearer was one of the most popular actresses in North America from the mid-1920s through the 1930s. Her early films cast her as the girl-next-door, but for most of the Pre-Code film era (beginning with the 1930 film The Divorcee, for which she won the Academy Award for Best Actress), she played sexually liberated women in sophisticated contemporary comedies. Later she appeared in historical and period films.
Unlike many of her Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer contemporaries, Shearer’s fame declined steeply after retirement. By the time of her death in 1983, she was largely remembered at best for her “noble” roles in The Women, Marie Antoinette and Romeo and Juliet. Shearer’s legacy began to be re-evaluated in the 1990s with the publication of two biographies and the TCM and VHS release of her films, many of them unseen since the implementation of the Production Code some sixty years before. Focus shifted to her pre-Code “divorcee” persona and Shearer was rediscovered as “the exemplar of sophisticated [1930’s] womanhood… exploring love and sex with an honesty that would be considered frank by modern standards”.
Simultaneously, Shearer’s ten-year collaboration with portrait photographer George Hurrell and her lasting contribution to fashion through the designs of Adrian were also recognized. Shearer is widely celebrated by some as one of cinema’s feminist pioneers: “the first American film actress to make it chic and acceptable to be single and not a virgin on screen”. In March 2008, two of her most famous pre-code films, The Divorcee and A Free Soul, were released on DVD.
LaSalle describes The Divorcee in “Complicated Woman”:
THE DIVORCEE IS ONE of the best American films ever made about the breakup of a marriage. The interaction between husband and wife and the ways each deal with the other’s infidelity remain authentic. A woman’s confusion, anger, and disgust at her husband are handled with an honesty that has been rare in American cinema. A few years later, when the Code came in, wives would wistfully smile at their husband’s infidelities— or at the very least bear all stoically. The Divorcee may be an antique, with some of the crudeness of an early talkie, but it tells the truth about men and women.
Check out that poster: “If the world permits the husband to philander- why not the wife! Here is a frank, outspoken and daring drama that exposes the hypocrisy of modern marriage.” Modern, indeed- so modern that it could apply today. Wiki has the plot, and here are some clips:
Ignoring the sound quality and the melodramatic tone and scripts, there’s no denying there is something very real and very fresh about this film, even nearly 85 years later. And of course, the fashion! The clean lines, slim silhouettes, the cool haircuts- those for both the guys and gals. From Retrowaste:
In the 1930s, women wore dresses. It didn’t matter if they were at work or at home, it was very important to wear a dress. And ensembles that included an overcoat were very popular as well. Women did not show much skin. In the mid 1930s some women also decided they were no longer going to wear hats. Patterns were all the rage and nice, flowing, flowery dresses were the most popular item a woman could wear. Fur was still quite popular, although during the depression most women were still making their own clothing. Actresses were seen wearing glamorous gowns and their hair was kept very close to the head.
The following photos are all from Retrowaste:
That last photo reminds me *so much* of Madonna in the “Take A Bow” video! The deep red lips, the black kohl-lined upper lids, the neatly pinned up-do topped off with a hat, and the nipped-waist suit and gloves- it’s all very glam, and very much of the late 1930s.
Madonna in the 1994 “Take A Bow” video which was set in 1940s Spain. (Source)
While I was doing research for this post (yeah, it’s not the research of say Senior Seminar term papers, but actually, compiling Some Saturday/Sunday posts like this does actually take a little bit of research), I couldn’t help but see how the idealized female form of the 1930s was in a way, a little masculine. While the 1920s flapper had a very straight figure- small breasts, waists, hips- the 1930s woman had broad shoulders, small breasts, tiny waist and narrow hips. She’s pretty tall, too. And of course, for mainstream American culture, she was Caucasian.
Nina Mae McKinney (Wikipedia)
For millions of African Americans during that time, there were stars that looked like them, even if they weren’t so celebrated or even known. Josephine Baker had already become an international sensation, Lena Horne was garnering accolades on stage at the Cotton Club and on radio, and Nina Mae McKinney became known as the “Black Garbo”. From Black Past:
Nina Mae McKinney, one of the first African American leading actresses in Hollywood, was born Nannie Mayme McKinney in 1913. The Lancaster, South Carolina native was reared by her great-aunt, Carrie Sanders on the Estate of Colonel LeRoy Sanders, where her family had worked for many generations. She attended Lancaster Industrial School until the age of 13 before relocating to New York to live with her mother, Georgia Crawford McKinney. As an early teen, McKinney performed in Harlem’s nightclubs and eventually on Broadway in the Lew Leslie musical review, Blackbirds of 1928.
Her celebrity began at the age of 16 when director King Vidor, impressed by her vitality in Blackbirds of 1928, hired her to parlay her multi-talented abilities as an actress, dancer, and vocalist in the musical film, Hallelujah (1929). McKinney’s effervescent performance as the seductress, “Chick,” brought her immediate success. Yet despite rave reviews for her vivacious performance and a resulting five-year contract with MGM, McKinney’s career faltered during an era when Hollywood declined to position black actresses in dignified roles.
Determined to break barriers in acting, McKinney immigrated to Europe where she performed in cabarets in Budapest, Dublin, London, and Paris; and appeared in the British films, Congo Road (1930), and Sanders of the River (1935) both opposite Paul Robeson. In between promoting her career abroad, she briefly returned to the states where she appeared in independent films Pie, Pie, Blackbird (1932) and Kentucky Minstrels (1934). Though she had minor roles, she was also involved in other Hollywood films such as Safe in Hell (1931), and Reckless (1935). Her last significant Hollywood role was that of a fierce antagonist in the 1949 film, Pinky.
Such a cutie. Nina, via IMDB.
Like Josephine, Nina traveled overseas to further a career stalled by racism in her homeland, and sadly, like Dorothy Dandridge two decades later, despite having beauty, talent and drive, that racism would prevent her from reaching the heights of stardom. Dreams deferred.
Jean Harlow (Max Factor)…
There’s so much more I have to add on this decade, too much for just one post. So I’ll continue this later. For now, here’s No Doubt with “It’s My Life” with Gwen Stefani giving so much Jean Harlow-tease. Later.