The original Hollywood Bad Girl, Mae West. (IMDB)
Hello All! Another week flew by, and I feel like I’ve barely done much. I’ve got most of my Christmas shopping done, and my father-in-law is here from Trinidad, so things are at least falling in place.
My dad has improved so much that he’s going to be released from the hospital. The doctor doesn’t want him going back to the nursing home just yet, and we’re praying he’ll be allowed back into the subacute nursing center he was in a few months ago. It’s only ten minutes away compared to the nursing home which is over an hour away. So keep up the prayers.
Alright let’s get back to the 1930s, which I started discussing in the last “Some Stuff” post. I made a point about how the 1930s female body ideal seemed to be a bit masculine, with broad shoulders and narrow hips. But… then there was Mae West.
This year, we’ve seen a pop culture obsession with the behind by way of Nicki Minaj, Amber Rose, Blac Chyna, Kim Kardashian, a seasoned Jennifer Lopez, and (the currently Annonymous-threatened) Iggy Azalea. It seems to be cyclical, with curves being in during the 1950’s with Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield being larger than life, only for model Twiggy and her teeny frame to be all the rage in the 1960s.
Even still, sometimes an “It Girl” will step out from whatever is “in” and make her own trends (I doubt Pam Anderson was concerned much about the Kate Moss/Heroin chic- look of the 1990s). So amidst the slim Norma Shearers and trim Joan Crawfords, there was Mae West, who made her curves part of her act. First on the stage on Broadway, and then before the cameras in Hollywood, Mae wore hip-hugging gowns and slinked around with her cleavage on display. And she made no apologies.
Let’s go back to Anne Helen Peterson’s excellent “Scandals of Classic Hollywood” for more:
She spoke with a nasal, all- knowing tone, her words brimming with innuendo— she couldn’t even say “good morning” without it taking on a devious double meaning. When she entered a room or a conversation, she always did it with her hands casually on her hips, an intoxicating nonchalance to her utter dominance of all, especially men, who crossed her path. West’s body, with its so- called dangerous curves, along with the turn- of- the- century fashions she clothed it in, inspired an entire trend against “reducing” (read: dieting)…
After a meteoric rise to rival that of Valentino, her films were so successful that they were credited with “saving” Paramount from its Depression- era slump. Her body was different, her attitude was different, her humor was different— but they were what American audiences craved, at least for a brief period of time. But West, along with Harlow, Barbara Stanwyck, and other stars featured in the cycle of “kept woman” films in the early thirties, was also a “blonde menace” whose on- screen actions were thought to threaten the moral fabric of the nation at large. Contrary to popular history, Mae West was not, in fact, personally responsible for the industry- wide crackdown on the depiction of sex, violence, and other illicit activities. But her films appeared at the crest of the wave of objectionable films and provided a rallying cry for those clamoring for renewed censorship efforts. Suddenly, West’s body and humor— the site of so much pleasure— became something to be contained…
Her 36- 26- 36 frame— naturally, the purported measurements of the Venus de Milo incited a craze for curves. In “Curves— Hollywood Wants Them, and So Will You!” the author proclaimed that the “boyish” lines of Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, and Marlene Dietrich were emphatically out . As one fan exclaimed in the “letter of the month ” to Motion Picture , “She deserves a great BIG hand for making those half- starved ingénues self- conscious about their scrawny figures.” Of course, attitudes concerning a desirable body always communicate a tremendous amount about a society’s desires and anxieties— so it was no coincidence that the voluptuous figure of West came into vogue at the height of the Depression, when economic conditions made the emaciated female frame a daily reality and reminder of poverty.
Reading through the chapter on Mae got me wanting to watch one of her movies. While I’d seen plenty of clips of her performances, and knew some of her most infamous lines, I had never actually seen an entire Mae West film. I decided on “I’m No Angel“- released in 1933 on the heels of another one of her early hits, “She Done Him Wrong“. Like “Wrong”, she’s paired with the handsome Cary Grant, and she is witty, funny and at forty years old, decidedly sexy. But don’t take my word for it; judge for yourself:
Bare with me as we do a time jump to a couple of months ago and focus on the final season of the HBO show “Boardwalk Empire“. Staring Steve Buscemi as Atlantic City gangster Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, these final episodes were set in 1931, a major change from the four earlier seasons that took place in The Roaring Twenties.
It was fun for me to see the change in wardrobe styles (especially when the show did flashbacks to depict Nucky as a child in the late 1800s and as a young man around the turn of the century). My favorite looks were worn by Patricia Arquette in the role of Sally Wheet. Sally becomes Nucky’s girlfriend/business partner in the fourth season, and I, like Nucky, fell in love with her. Much like Mae, Sally wears her short bob very blond with curls or deep waves. She is an accessory queen- rings, necklaces, hats and earrings. She has a penchant for wearing her dresses cut low up top and tight all over.
I went through the final season and collected my favorite outfits, not just worn by Sally, but other “Boardwalk” stars as well. Check it out:
Clad in a white suit to beat the Cuban heat, Sally donned a pair of gold rimmed circular sunglasses, a thin knit green beret and a necklace that tied the whole look together.
Wearing the white suit again, Sally switches the green for a sunny yellow blouse/knit beret combo and adds a fun ocean blue beaded necklace for a pop of color. In the two smaller pics, we can see how the skirt hugs the hips but flares at the knee. It’s also high-waisted with a matching thin belt. Her shoes are adorable white and tan oxford heels. Apologies on not being able to get a closeup of them, but the scene was actually a far long shot, and once I zoomed or cropped it, the image becomes very blurry. But they look like a closed-toe version of these but with the colors reversed. Very cute.
At Sally’s Havana nightclub, she did some Salsa dancing with Nucky while wearing a fluttery tan dress covered in red roses. It had, as standard for Sally, a plunging neckline, and short sleeves. She skipped the hat and went for a red beaded necklace. In all of her scenes, she wears a vampy shade of red lipstick, and I noticed her cool manicure which looks like a sexy take on the french manicure using red polish instead of pink or nude and adding a white half moon shape at the nail bed.
Next I wanted to focus on Kelly McDonald’s Margaret Thompson, who over the course of the fourth and fifth seasons, really came into her own. Margaret, estranged wife of Nucky, managed to make her way to Manhattan, land a job as a secretary to a big whig at a Wall Street stock trading company, secure an apartment in a nice neighborhood, and raise her two kids- all without Nucky’s help. But, well, things fall apart, and she re-enters Nucky’s life wearing the deep red belted number on the left. Like Sally, she wears her hair bobbed with lose, deep waves. In the picture on the right, Margaret stays in autumnal colors, wearing an orange dress with an angular crimson detail. There’s a small matching belt here and deep red lips.
Lastly, a trio of lady loves: Margot Bingham as Daughter Maitland (left); Nisi Sturgis as June Thompson (top right); and Christiane Seidel as Sigrid. Daughter’s frock is an example of popularity in the early 30’s of patterns, also evident in the angular pattern of June’s dress/jacket. Sigrid’s knit sweater is also full of patterns when seen upclose, and all three ladies are wearing colors quite appropriate for autumn, just like Margaret. Traditional June also wears cream gloves with a pretty, brown close fit hat. Also notice the deep waves, although with Sigrid (and I think the other two as well), unlike Sally and Margaret, her hair is not cut but tucked neatly under the waves.
I didn’t write any closing thoughts on “Boardwalk Empire” the way I did after binging on “The Wire” or when “Treme” wrapped last year. I’m not quite sure why because I really do think it is a very good series. There were some missteps, such as spending so much of this final season with boy Nucky, and the “surprise” reveal of who [SPOILER ALERT] kills Nucky in the end (I unfortunately guessed it half way through the season but hoped my imagination was in overdrive). Still, the show has so many, many, many startlingly good moments. Jack Huston as Richard Harrow was the heart of the show. He’s brilliant in pretty much every storyline. Michael K. Williams as Chalky White… my goodness. Just as he became a hit character on “The Wire”, he proved again with Chalky, that bad guys can be loving and loveable.
In his final scene, [SPOILER ALERT], he bravely faces his death by firing squad, Narcisse’s goons. In those last moments, Chalky, ever scowling, closes his eyes, replays his lover Daughter’s rendition of “Dream A Little Dream of Me” in his mind, and then, ever so slowly, smiles.
That look right there, the small upturn at the corners of his lips, set in a mouth lined deep with sadness and pain… well, this girl burst into tears as the scene cut to black as shots rung out. As Daughter’s voice is cut, replaced with a sound of record playing no music. Beautiful.
So farewell, “Boardwalk”, I’ll miss you. Perhaps one day I’ll give a whole post over to you.
Part of Al Capone’s FBI file.
Lastly, one of the major characters featured on the based loosely on actual history “Boardwalk” was one Al Capone, murderous, infamous Chicago gangster, and both the real and TV versions were locked up in 1931. I decided to look up his case, first in the IRS database, then a rundown at the FBI. Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), there’s a ton of info available online if you have some patience and time. Here’s some excerpts from an FBI article:
In the “roaring twenties,” he ruled an empire of crime in the Windy City: gambling, prostitution, bootlegging, bribery, narcotics trafficking, robbery, “protection” rackets, and murder. And it seemed that law enforcement couldn’t touch him. The early Bureau would have been happy to join the fight to take Capone down. But we needed a federal crime to hang our case on—and the evidence to back it up. In those days, racketeering laws weren’t what they are today. We didn’t have jurisdiction over prohibition violations; that fell to the Bureau of Prohibition. Even when it was widely rumored that Capone had ordered the brutal murders of seven gangland rivals in the infamous “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre,” we couldn’t get involved. Why? The killings weren’t a federal offense.
Then, in 1929, we got a break. On February 27, Capone was subpoenaed at his winter home near Miami, Florida, to appear as a witness before a federal grand jury in Chicago on March 12 for a case involving a violation of prohibition laws. Capone said he couldn’t make it. His excuse? He claimed he’d been laid up with broncho-pneumonia for six weeks and was in no shape to travel. That’s when we got involved. We were asked by U.S. Attorneys to find out whether Capone was on the level. Our agents went to Florida and quickly found that Capone’s story didn’t hold water. When he was supposedly bedridden, Capone was out and about—going to the race tracks, taking trips to the Bahamas, even being questioned by local prosecutors. And by all accounts, his health was just fine.
On March 27  Capone was cited for contempt of court in Chicago and arrested in Florida. He was released on bond, but from there on, it was downhill for the notorious gangster: Less than two months later, Capone was arrested in Philadelphia by local police for carrying concealed weapons and was sent to jail for a year.
When he was released in 1931, Capone was tried and convicted for the original contempt of court charge. A federal judge sentenced him to six months in prison. In the meantime, federal Treasury agents had been gathering evidence that Capone had failed to pay his income taxes.
Capone was convicted, and on October 24, 1931, was sentenced to 11 years in prison.
When he finally got out of Alcatraz, Capone was too sick to carry on his life of crime. He died in 1947.
Yup. So what took Capone down? Not paying those taxes! Alright, I’m going to bow out, but I have more to share about the Dirty Thirties, so there will be a part three. For now, here’s Margot Bingham with that beautiful version of “Dream a Little Dream of Me”. If I don’t get a chance to post, Merry Christmas!