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  • Writer's pictureGeorge Seminara

George's Wild, Wild World of Ladies!

Clara Bow

A little something about the ladies. The girls. The women.

Let's start the new year with a little female-centric history lesson. I'm not an expert, expert. I'm a movie fan with a lot of books. Luckily, I grew up in a time of dollar movie theaters that showed double features galore. Classic films that were often paired thematically or by the star. Yes, like fine wine and cheese. I was also taught by two remarkable men, William K. Everson and Al Kilgore, in film school. (Besides writing books and cartooning, those guys were founders of the Sons of the Desert, the Laurel and Hardy International Fan Club... Hmmm? Laurel and Hardy? Talk to the management.) Yes, I went to film school. I started as a painting major in art school. And I don't have time for that tale today. Let's get on with it!

On August 26, 1920, American women won the right to vote with the passage of the 19th Amendment. (Okay, white women were guaranteed the right to vote in all 48 states - until the 1965 Voting Rights Act guaranteed the vote for everyone in all 50 states.) Not only that, but women in droves began to seek employment. They broke with social mores by cutting their hair, smoking cigarettes, and shortening their hemlines. Pop culture began to reflect society and began to hasten its transformation. The fun-lovin' Flapper hit the ground running. 

Jumping further back in time for a quick second. One of the movies’ most famous stars of the early era, pre-1920, was America's sweetheart, Mary Pickford. With her wide-eyed innocence and long blond curls, she played all sorts of girls that had an air of innocence. Pickford was the ingénue archetype. She depended on the men in her life to rescue her from danger, and the stories often ended with Mary and her hero falling in love. Awww. 

And then there were the serials, Perils of Pauline, the Hazards of Helen, the Dangers of Danielle, and the Jeopardy of Judy, okay, I made up the last two, but they could have been. Early Hollywood, then as now, was highly derivative and cannibalistic. These popular series would feature a young woman, Pauline, Helen, whatever, who has a large inheritance. A sleazy lawyer or private secretary would control their money. While the girls were out having adventures, the lawyer would plot their demise, and his agents would try and fail to dispose of her every week. (It was Helen who got tied to the railroad tracks.)

After women got the vote, representation changed, and fast! By 1925 those sweet marriage-prone ingénues were replaced by the Flapper. The independent career girl who has set off to plot her own course. The Breadwinner! Armed with a cute bob, she threw her bustle in the trash, drank hooch in a speakeasy, and danced the night away. (After a full day at the office!) Clara Bow, the "It" girl, arrived on the scene. In a movie called, It. (I've said it before, and I'll repeat it: "Hubba, Hubba.")

The screenplay was by Elinor Glynn based on her novel, It. Imagine if50 Shades of Graygot published in the 1920s. People lost their minds. It had its birth in the pages of Cosmo, and publishers started knocking on her door. Elinor Glynn was considered the sex-pert of the time. She wrote several racy novels and articles, which is how she found herself in Hollywood. The big question was, who would play the hot tamale in It?

(I am purposefully using antiquated terms in this essay. I am not in any way besmirching delicious Mexican food or the Mexican people. If there are any hurt feelings, it was not my intention.)  

There was a young actress from Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. (Just a stone's throw from the Staples Center in one direction and Prospect Park in the other.) Clara Bow was the complete opposite of the ingénues of the past. What was "It?" You know. (Wink) Or at least you think you do. (Nudge, nudge.) Whatever it was, audiences liked it, and they clamored for more of it. Oh boy, did Clara Bow have it! Clara had so much of it that she was considered the first movie star to get created by the audience's desire to see her. 

If you read my posts, you know how I feel about the movie Babylon. (Loved it!) Margot Robbie sort of plays Clara Bow in that film. Sort of. But Ms. Robbie has "It." She's a good example.

Like the pre-mentioned Flapper, the "It" girl would definitely smooch you on the first date and maybe go to second base, but that's it! (You must wait for the second date, but the promise is there.) Which was plenty in the mid-1920s! The "It" girl and her sisters were sexual beings with desires and needs, though satisfying too many needs would usually end in tragedy if she did not score a husband by the end of the film. (Damn those Puritans!)

(Please let the management know if you want to learn more about Clara Bow.)

These career gals were nice girls. A little rambunctious, perhaps, but nice. To quote the Cindy Lauper song, "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun." But then, Hollywood doubled down and gave us The Vamp. She was not nice in any way. The Vamp was dangerous. She brought the image of the red-hot momma, the tramp, the cougar, and the floozy to the screen. Vamp was shorthand for vampires. She oozed sexuality in direct proportion to the excesses of the Roaring Twenties. (So, quite a bit.) She was exotic and mysterious. She said, " If you could find a secret spot somewhere, who knows what trouble you and I might get into?" The Vamp was a man-eater who used men and threw them in the trash. She would probably be dead by the end of the picture anyway. She didn't care!

These archetypes, the innocent ingénue, the fun 'It" girl, and The Vamp, quickly became stereotypes of characters that we still get bombarded with today! The movies like to mix them up and keep them fresh. Let's take Risky Business. Unbelievably, Tom Cruise takes money out of his trust fund and calls a service, and they send over Rebecca De Mornay. What? If I did the same thing, I'd get Quasimodo, "Sanctuary! Sanctuary! Ohh! Hello big boy!" When we meet Rebecca, she is an “It” girl/Vamp. In the second act, she is 100% Vamp, and by the end, she's an “It” girl 100%. Or?

I'm still shaking my head about it. I can't believe she gets saved from a career as a prostitute/furniture thief by Tom Cruise. Of course, if you do the math, you will come to the same conclusion, Rebecca De Mornay becomes the innocent (who am I kidding? I know this is a stretch) ingénue at the film's end. One actress blazes through cinema's three main archetypes of female representation. We only miss The Mom, The Matron, and The Sassy and Single Friend/Aunt, who can throw a ball just like a guy. 

But in the early days, Hollywood tried to tell stories in new and exciting ways. They experimented, mixing and matching. The writers just threw the pasta against the wall and made a film about whatever stuck. That brings to mind Daring Days, an early Universal production. Starring Josie Sedgewick. Ms. Sedgewick made 50 films from 1917 to 1932. Her last film was a Bob Steele Western, where she played Shotgun Mary. After that pinnacle, she retired from cinema and let that role speak for itself. (Okay, sometimes the lack of knowledge spurs me to make something up. Of course, I always tell you.) I would hate that Hollywood thought she was over the hill at 33. That wouldn't happen. Right?

Anyway, Josie was a star, not a big one. She was a headliner. Her twin, Eileen, was less successful playing leads in films that were suspiciously similar to her sister's films. Their big brother, Edward, had an act as a nutty baseball player. That got him into the movie business, where he became a director of modest fare. He was surprisingly prolific and was considered an expert in staging baseball sequences for other directors. Before he kicked the bucket, he managed to direct a few episodes of I Love Lucy.

And now Daring Days (1925):

Eve Underhill quits her job in the "want ad" department of a big city (San Francisco) newspaper and heads for Eden, Arizona, in answer to its advertisement for a lady mayor. Upon her arrival, the womanless town hails her as boss. They plop a huge yet somehow stylish cowboy hat on her head, and off she goes to do mayor stuff. Her first order of business is to initiate a cleanup campaign. Who knew she was a reformer?

A romance develops between her and Catamount Carson, mayor of the rival village of Catamount, who she meets when she visits her neighbors on a goodwill tour. Complications between the two towns revolve around the fact that they share the same water source. I know living in the desert, water is essential. Still, I would say that maybe the men of Eden being unable to get a date even in Catamount, which is strangely populated relatively evenly between the sexes, is a bigger problem. Or was it something else? 

Daring Days...Love and a Gun!

The gasoline on this smoldering issue gets exacerbated by the efforts of Catamount Carson's evil cousin, (“The Married”) Ambrose Carson, to inflame a dispute between the two towns over said water rights. (Before I continue with the plot, Ambrose? Maybe in 1925, Ambrose was a name linked to villainy. Ambrose the Merciless? Darth Ambrose?) As you might have figured, he's a bad husband to his wife. She is embodied by the surprising Zama Zomoria, who is only in one other film. I would have thought she would go far with a name like that. (The lack of talent might have had something to do with it.)

One of Eden's residents, Henry Sheldon, becomes jealous of Eve's attention to Catamount and is brought into the plot to be killed by Ambrose. (He's so bad.) Catamount pursues Ambrose, and they both fall from a canyon wall in a climactic fight. The quick-thinking Eve ropes Catamount's fast-disappearing foot, saving his life, but luckily, Ambrose falls to his death, splat. Though saddened by the end of his evil cousin, Catamount and Eve stare into each other's eyes, and love blooms. 

Romeo and Juliet, it ain't. It is just one of the thousands of films to skate along the edge of presenting the new female independence with the traditional love story. The twist is that she saves him, but ultimately we know she will marry him. 

Eve must have gotten the roping skills by magic. It must have something to do with Arizona and that huge cowboy hat. Which somehow manages to stay on her head and not over it as one might expect. Eve's from the big city, yet suddenly, she's a cowboy. I think it's the hat. 

Weirdly Daring Days is like the great grandma of modern films like Atomic Blonde. It's one of the earliest examples of a woman saving the day that I can find. This train of thought would carry on through the 1930s. Women were big stars and had parts crucial to the plot of many films of that period. Single women who are in charge of their lives but hoping for a "nice" match, followed by a wedding. No wedding? Some tragedy for not finding love.Death, loneliness, or ruin. After World War II, women in movies became homemakers, gamines, or the Femme Fatale, but that is for another day. 

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Greg Goodsell
Greg Goodsell
11 ene 2023

Great essay! To have the great William K. Everson as a professor! I am jealous --

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