I'll give you one more chance to get it right. It's spelled without a “y” but pronounced like there is one.
Bette Davis was born with the first name Ruth, but nicknamed Betty from childhood. As an actress she changed the spelling to Bette after Honoré de Balzac's La Cousine Bette, and people mangled the pronunciation routinely until she became a huge star. Speaking of letters, this promo photo is from her 1940 drama The Letter, based on a play by W. Somerset Maugham. Remember how we talked about how outward looking Hollywood was during its golden period, how it set so many films in exotic corners of the world? The Letter is another prime example. It's set on a rubber plantation in Malaya. Thanks largely to Davis's golden touch the film was nominated for numerous Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Score. It won nothing, but we assume the film is good anyway. We'll watch it and report back.
Sabrina covers her biggest assets.
Every once in a while we run across stories about Hollywood stars insuring their body parts. A couple of examples: Bette Davis was famous for her small waist and insured it against weight gain for the equivalent of $400,000; and 1920s comedian Ben Turpin, who was famously cross-eyed, took out a policy of similar value should his eyes ever straighten. National Enquirer insists on this cover from today in 1960 that British starlet Sabrina, aka Norma Ann Sykes, insured her breasts. The tabloid is in fact correct—she allowed her manager Joe Matthews to insure her endowment with Lloyd's of London for £UK100,000. In today's cash that would be about £2.4 million, or $3.2 million. You may think that's excessive, but when's the last time your boobs caused a riot? Unfortunately the weight she carried on her torso led to chronic back pain and a failed attempt at a surgical fix that left her in a wheelchair for the rest of her life. She died in obscurity last year. It was a sad ending for the former sex symbol. But once upon a time she was a one-name star—just Sabrina—and a global obsession.
Redhead risks serious sunburn to get a base tan.
Belgium's Ciné-Revue is one of the best film magazines of the mid-century era. It's also one of the hardest to scan. Not only do the pages need to be scanned in halves and joined via computer, but the tiny text makes lining the halves up a real challenge. We didn't think about that when we bought a stack of these in Paris several years back, and now the sheer effort involved causes us to doubt we'll ever get them all uploaded. But we managed to carve out a few hours, so today we have this issue from May 1975 with French actress Marlène Jobert doing a little topless boating on the cover, hopefully well slathered in sunscreen. Jobert also features in the beachy center spread wearing even less clothing (and theoretically more sunscreen), but the real star of this issue is Bette Davis, who receives a career retrospective with shots from seemingly every movie she ever made. You also get William Holden, Jane Birkin, Dominique Sanda, Sidney Poitier, Sophia Loren, Rita Hayworth, Agostina Belli, a feature on Steven Spielberg's Jaws, and much more, in forty-plus scans.
It's the cloche that makes the woman.
Bette Davis is wearing a cloche in this elegant promo shot, knitted in such a way that it looks a bit like a brain. At least to us. This is actually appropriate, because Davis was considered one of Hollywood's brainy set. It couldn't have been easy for her. She said intelligence was a hinderance for women in Hollywood—and the world in general—in the sense that it generated resistance from entrenched male authority. She commented in a 1965 interview that there was “deep resentment from the male side of the business.” She didn't let it stop her though, and became one of the industry's biggest stars on her own terms. We don't have a date on this image, but it's an early one, probably from around 1933.
Bette Davis tries to hang on to her freedom in a man's world.
This is a killer poster. You'd think Ex-Lady was a crime movie about a deadly femme fatale, but it'a actually a breezy little drama about a modern Manhattanite—played by a twenty-five-year old Bette Davis—who has always rejected marriage in favor of freedom and fun. She has a lover—made pretty clear in this pre-Code production—as well as a career as a commercial artist, but society and her father apply pressure for her to be conventional. Davis is fun in this, playing a woman who's smart and sweet, ambitious yet insouciant, and great with a quip. She's basically perfect, and this movie is an instructive artifact from the Jazz Age, a time when sexual mores went out the window and women began having sex before marriage. In fact, some data suggests the majority of unmarried women were non-virgins before tying the knot. Will Davis retain her independence? Will she marry and turn into Susie Normal? Can she and her boy toy Gene Raymond hang on to their love in this crazy mixed up world? We aren't telling. This is worth a watch, though some dialogue that's meant to be snappy comes across flat today. As a side note, though the film wasn't censored, several scenes would have been cut had it been released a few years later. See if you can spot them. You'll have to think like a Hays Code censor—i.e. a repressed, dirty-minded killjoy who sees filth in everything. Ex-Lady premiered in the U.S. today in 1933.
Romance between two musical geniuses hits a few unexpected sour notes.
Classical musicians separated during the chaos of World War II are reunited in New York City, but the woman neglects to mention to her fiancée that she's acquired a lover and sugar daddy who happens to be a world renowned composer. Bette Davis gives a confident turn as a gifted and successful pianist, while Paul Henreid as her cellist fiancée and Claude Rains as the jilter lover are both excellent. The latter two actors also featured in Casablanca, and Deception bears some similarities to that earlier film in two ways—Henreid is lost during war and presumed dead, leading his love to turn to another; Rains is a caustic smartass, something he does really well.
Another aspect of Deception we enjoyed was how much work went into making Davis and Henried perform like master musicians. In Davis’s case, she fakes it on piano just long enough to pass the eye test, while Henreid had a hidden cellist insert his arms through a modified jacket and play the parts blind. It’s an, um, deceptively simple solution that worked perfectly. Deception didn’t perform well at the box office when released in 1946, but time has been kind to it, and criticisms have waned. At the very least you may want to watch it to get a gander at Davis’s spectacular loft apartment.
Did she or didn’t she?
These two photos showing burlesque dancer Lili St. Cyr were shot today in 1951 for a Los Angeles Examiner story about St. Cyr’s legal difficulties. On 23 February of that year she had begun performing at Ciro’s supper club in Hollywood. It was a different type of club for her—it lacked the intimacy of her normal venues, and would sap some of the heat from her act, but the place was world famous and considered by the smart set to be classy. It had hosted Edith Piaf, Marlene Dietrich, Duke Ellington, and Dinah Washington. Of late it was facing stiff competition from Macambo’s, a Brazilian themed joint across the street, and owner Herman Hover wanted to make a splash with St. Cyr. He spent thousands refurbishing the stage just for her, and she would be the first burlesque dancer to transition from men’s clubs to L.A.’s most famous supper club.
On premiere night celebs such as Ronald Reagan, Nancy Davis, Franchot Tone, Barbara Payton, Lex Barker, Mickey Rooney, and Los Angeles mayor Fletcher Bowron watched her strip down to toned perfection as they ate dinner and sipped drinks. Other celebs that visited that summer included Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, and Clark Gable. During St. Cyr’s residency she varied her act, but a standard bit wasentitled "An Interlude Before Evening," and involved being helped from her clothing by her maid Sadie before slipping nude into a bathtub. But the nudity was an illusion, the cleverest part of her act, achieved through a combination of lighting, positioning, flesh-colored underwear, and sheer athleticism as she slipped quickly from behind a towel and into the sudsy tub.
On 18 October a group of Los Angeles sheriff’s deputies, who were trying to enforce a countywide ban against stripping, arrested St. Cyr and Herman Hover. The charges were the usual slate. St. Cyr called upon celebrity lawyer Jerry Giesler—an event the two Examiner photos at top are supposed to be illustrating—and Giesler proceeded to help turn what was already a media boon for St. Cyr into a full bonanza. Giesler was a showman, and he loved cases that had the potential to increase his fame. He made assorted sensational statements to the press, including one in which he promised to have his client perform her bath routine in the courtroom, and another in which he opined that putting together a jury of peers required empaneling a dozen strippers. He described St. Cyr as merely trying to improve her station in life, just an industrious woman trying to carve herself a piece of American pie. The press ate it up.
The trial was scheduled for early December in the Beverly Hills Courthouse. Giesler kept the jury—which wasn’t all strippers, but at least was mostly female—laughing with his continual antics. He introduced St. Cyr’s rhinestone encrusted bra and g-string as people’s exhibits A and B. He drew diagrams on a blackboard illustrating how different observers' vantage points toward the stage were blocked by St. Cyr's maid. He flustered police officials by making them discuss in detail such such terms as “bump,” “grind,” and “half-bump,” and followed that up by putting Herman Hover on the witness stand and having him demonstrate those moves. The sight of the portly Hover attempting burlesque sent ripples of laughter through the courtroom. Years later Giesler wrote: “I can honestly say I succeeded in having her case laughed into a not-guilty verdict.”
That may have been true, but St Cyr’s icy demeanor was also an important factor. The women found her elegant and remote—the opposite of what they had expected. And the cops did their part for St. Cyr's defense by being terrible witnesses. One claimed that she emerged from the tub completely nude (the normal conclusion to her Interlude, and just as illusory). Another said she wore undies but that he couldsee the outline of her “private parts,” which he discerned in enough detail to determine “were shaven.” The inconsistencies were epic. Some said she caressed herself, others weren’t sure. Another described her towel as “about twenty, twenty-four inches.” In reality it was three times that size. It was as if St. Cyr's dance had dumbfounded the cops.
The confusion has extended even to the present day. For a performance that lasted barely fifteen minutes, it has had an amazing amount of conflicting information attached to it. Columnist Army Archerd claimed St. Cyr was indeed nude that night (clearly wrong, according to multiple testimonies); Sheila Weller’s book Dancing at Ciro’s claims an “all-male” jury (it was mostly female) was taken to Ciro’s to see the act (Giesler tried, but the judge said no); some sources claim St. Cyr performed a reverse strip, beginning nude in the tub and emerging to be slowly dressed by her maid (indeed, that was an oft-performed variation, so it is certainly possible it happened that night). Who's right, and who's wrong? Short of using a time machine to return to October 1951 there's no way to tell.
At the end of the six-day trial the jury acquitted St. Cyr following a mere seventy-eight minutes of deliberations. There had been no indecent exposure. At least not that night. All St. Cyr’s biographers agree on this much—she was shy and regal offstage, but her performancesfreed her to inhabit different characters. Despite her assertions that she always wore at least a g-string and bra, she definitely performed topless on occasion, as shown by the above photo taken at Ciro’s during early 1951.
Sheriff’s deputies had gone to the club already intent upon arresting her based on what they had heard about the act, which may have influenced their testimony—i.e., they didn’t see her nude, but knew she had done it before. St. Cyr admitted in court she knew police were in the audience, thus she was especially careful that night. But what of other nights? Maybe Army Archerd did what columnists do—took an event he witnessed on one night and pretended it happened on a more useful one. Maybe St. Cyr, on occasions when she knew the cops were far away, flashed her audience to generate buzz. It’s likely we’ll never know what really happened, but that merely adds to the St. Cyr mystique. Did she or didn’t she? Only her maid knew for sure.
A perfect reflection of 1930s Hollywood.
This issue of the American film magazine Movie Mirror was published today in 1935 with Grace Moore on the cover, who was promoting her role in the film Love Me Forever, and later died in a plane crash with Prince Gustaf Adolf of Sweden. You may also notice the unusual sight of editor Ruth Waterbury giving herself standalone credit at upper left. We’ve never seen that before. Waterbury isn’t well remembered today, but she was a player in her time, one of America’s famous journalistic figures, and a staple in tabloids and gossip columns.
Movie Mirror billed itself as “Filmland’s most beautiful magazine,” and indeed its painted covers by the likes of John Ralston Clarke were among the most striking to be found on newsstands. In the late 1930s the magazine began moving away from painted covers to photo-illustrated fronts designed to evoke the same mood. In 1941 it merged with Photoplay and ceased to exist as a distinct publication. Below you see nine more covers, all from the 1930s, with Irene Dunne, Bette Davis, Claudette Colbert, Snow White, and others.
Happy days are here again.
Last week we did a post featuring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Today we have two covers of the British celeb magazine Film Pictorial, featuring the two stars circa 1932 and 1935. Joan looks a lot better when she isn’t frightened out of her wits, don’t you think?
Whatever happened to handpainted movie posters?
We’re rating these promo posters triple-A. They’re from the former Yugoslavia, circa 1962 and 1956, for the films Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Sudden Fear. Baby Jane co-starred Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in extremely creepy roles as washed-up actress/sisters living in an old mansion together, while Sudden Fear showcased Crawford in a standard noir set mostly on a New York to San Francisco train. The Baby Jane role earned Davis an Academy Award nomination, but Crawford more than held her own in the movie, and it’s her you see on both posters here. We have other incredible examples of Yugoslav art we’ll be sharing in the future.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1938—Chicora Meteor Lands
In the U.S., above Chicora, Pennsylvania, a meteor estimated to have weighed 450 metric tons explodes in the upper atmosphere and scatters fragments across the sky. Only four small pieces are ever discovered, but scientists estimate that the meteor, with an explosive power of about three kilotons of TNT, would have killed everyone for miles around if it had detonated in the city.
1973—Peter Dinsdale Commits First Arson
A fire at a house in Hull, England, kills a six year old boy and is believed to be an accident until it later is discovered to be a case of arson. It is the first of twenty-six deaths by fire caused over the next seven years by serial-arsonist Peter Dinsdale. Dinsdale is finally captured in 1981, pleads guilty to multiple manslaughter, and is detained indefinitely under Britain's Mental Health Act as a dangerous psychotic.
1944—G.I. Bill Goes into Effect
U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the Servicemen's Readjustment Act into law. Commonly known as the G.I. Bill of Rights, or simply G.I. Bill, the grants toward college and vocational education, generous unemployment benefits, and low interest home and business loans the Bill provided to nearly ten million military veterans was one of the largest factors involved in building the vast American middle class of the 1950s and 1960s.
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