February is the month of Valentine’s Day. A month to celebrate romance. A month to celebrate love. Typically, in lieu of the regular romance movie routine, I personally like to watch movies about obsessive love, like Leave Her to Heaven, where the antagonist, Ellen Berent’s only problem is that “she loves too much.” That’s putting it mildly. For this blogathon however, I’m going to go the more traditional route with a salute to my favorite movie couples. No, it’s not the most unique idea, but I hope that my selections are unique. These are the couples you hope will end up together. Even if they don’t, if the relationship ends on a satisfying note, it can still be a relationship worth coveting.
#1 Rick Blaine and Ilsa Lund- Casablanca (1942). This isn’t a unique choice. Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) are often held up as one of Classic Hollywood’s greatest romances; but for good reason. Rick and Ilsa’s goodbye scene at the airport is iconic. Who can forget Rick lifting Ilsa’s chin as she sobs, then delivering the iconic line: “Here’s looking at you, kid.” Yes he’s repeating a line that he says to Ilsa in Paris, but it’s this moment where the line is the most poignant. It’s the final callback to the passionate romance they shared before World War II changed their lives permanently. Yes, Ilsa was married to Lazlo (Paul Henried) while they were in Paris and she’s married to him throughout the film. But who cares about Lazlo? This is Rick and Ilsa’s romance. They fell in love in Paris. They were torn apart by the war when Ilsa discovers that her “dead” husband, Lazlo, is actually alive. They’re brought back together in Casablanca when Lazlo’s work with the French Resistance takes him to Morocco. Rick and Ilsa’s feelings for one another come back and it’s such a passionate romance, it’s almost a shame that they don’t end up together. But the ending allows Rick to be the bigger man and to find his place in the world, with Louis Renault (Claude Rains) by his side. It’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship, indeed.
#2 Harry Morgan & Marie ‘Slim’ Browning- To Have and Have Not (1944). I’d be remiss to forget about Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall’s iconic first film together. For not being known as a matinee idol, Bogart found himself part of many classic on-screen romances. In this instance, it was his appearance as Harry Morgan (Bogart), a fisherman working in the French colony of Martinique, a Caribbean nation. Because this takes place right after the Fall of France to the Germans during World War II, the island of Martinique is a mish-mash of Germans (due to the control possessed by the Pro-German Vichy France), sympathetic French, and other people trying to escape their lives. One of these people that Harry meets, is “Slim” (Bacall), a young American woman who is a bit of a wanderer and has found her way to Martinique. The sparks between Harry and Slim are obvious, especially after Slim teaches him how to whistle. Bogie and Bacall’s on-screen chemistry leapt off the screen and into real life as Bogie and Bacall fell in love and became one of Classic Hollywood’s most iconic couples.
#3 Frances “Gidget” Lawrence & Jeffrey “Moondoggie” Matthews-Gidget (1959). If there’s one type of movie I love, it’s the teen beach movie and Gidget is the all-time best teen beach movie, in my opinion. Part of the reason I love this movie so much is for Gidget (Sandra Dee) and Moondoggie (James Darren). In this film, Gidget (nicknamed bestowed upon Frances by the surfer boys, it’s an amalgamation of “girl” and “midget”) is a 17-year old incoming high school senior who feels inadequate next to her more physically developed, boy crazy girlfriends. At the beginning of the film, we see Gidget and her friends try to attract the surfer boys at the beach, with Gidget failing miserably due to her awkwardness. But there’s something endearing about Gidget. She’s genuine. She can’t muster up the ability to try and attract the boys, because it seems fake. She just wants to swim. She doesn’t want to play stupid games trying to get their attention. She ends up catching the attention of one of the surfer boys, Moondoggie. At first Moondoggie is standoffish, but it’s obvious that he’s doing so because he’s trying to keep up his “cred” with the other boys. But through being protective of Gidget and later having a chance to spend time with her one-on-one, he realizes that he really does like her. Gidget’s liked him the whole time. When they have a chance to be together, they are smitten. Frankly, they are adorable and I love them. In the end, Gidget’s friends are still single and Gidget’s hooked herself a hot college guy by staying true to herself. Get it, girl!
#4 Connie Milligan & Joe Carter- The More the Merrier (1943). Connie (Jean Arthur) and Joe (Joel McCrea) are adorable. They’re brought together by the meddling, Benjamin Dingle (Charles Coburn), a retired millionaire who sublets half of Connie’s apartment during the World War II housing crisis. When Sergeant Joe Carter shows up to answer Connie’s ad, Mr. Dingle sees an opportunity to fix the uptight Connie up with a nice young man. Mr. Dingle sublets half of his half of the apartment to Joe. After learning about Mr. Dingle’s arrangement, Connie is upset. Especially when the men start razzing her about her fiance, Mr. Charles J. Pendergast. Despite trying to impress the two men with Mr. Pendergast’s good points (he makes $8600/year and has no hair), it becomes even obvious that she’s matched up with the wrong man. By this point, Joe has a crush on Connie and wants to spend time with her. Later one evening, Joe and Connie find themselves alone together on the front stoop of their apartment building. What unfolds on the front stoop is one of the sexiest, romantic scenes in Classic Hollywood, and nobody had to lose any of their clothes. I love them together and hope that they lived happily ever after… without Mr. Pendergast.
#5 Nick and Nora Charles, The Thin Man Series (1934-1947). Nick (William Powell) and Nora (Myrna Loy) Charles are the power couple that everyone wishes they were. They are part of society. They have a beautiful home. They have an amazing dog, Asta. And, they solve mysteries together, thanks to Nick’s background as a detective. Nick loves the thrill of the mystery and Nora desperately wishes to be a part of the thrill. Nick tries to keep her at home and safe from the danger, but Nora always manages to horn her way in, by finding a vital clue or having an alluring thought about a potential suspect. At the start of the film series, Nick had retired from his detective career when he marries socialite Nora. Nick and Nora have such an amazing rapport and chemistry with one another, that the mystery almost takes a back seat to their relationship. William Powell and Myrna Loy are so amazing together, that one wishes they’d been married in real life.
Ruby Catherine Stevens (aka “Barbara Stanwyck”) was born 113 years ago, on July 16, 1907. She had a very difficult childhood. At the age of 4, Ruby lost her mother to a streetcar accident. A drunk pushed her mother, then pregnant, off a moving streetcar. She subsequently miscarried, and died from the complications. Two weeks after Ruby’s mother’s funeral, her father joined a work crew digging the Panama Canal, bailed on his children, and was never seen again.
Ruby and her older brother, Byron, were taken in and raised by their eldest sister, Mildred. When Mildred obtained a job as a showgirl, Ruby and Byron were placed in foster care. Ruby ran away often from the multitude of foster homes she was placed in. In 1916 and 1917, when she was 9 and 10, Ruby spent her summers touring with her sister Mildred. It was this period in her life that influenced Ruby’s decision to pursue acting. At the age of 14, Ruby dropped out of school and started working.
In 1923, Ruby started her career as a chorus girl at the Strand Roof, the club on top of the Strand Theater in Times Square. She also spent two seasons as a dancer in the Ziegfeld Follies. In 1926, through her chorus girl work, Ruby was discovered and asked to play a chorus girl in the upcoming Broadway play, The Noose. The Noose was very successful, running for over nine months! It was during this period when Ruby Catherine Stevens received her new stage name: Barbara Stanwyck.
After a couple years being a star on Broadway, Barbara screen-tested for the 1927 silent film, Broadway Nights. She did not win the leading part, but did make her screen debut, as a fan dancer, in the film. In 1929, Stanwyck appeared in her first sound film, The Locked Door. In 1930, Frank Capra selected Barbara for the lead in his film, Ladies of Leisure. This film served as the catalyst for Barbara’s film career. Between 1930 and 1933, Barbara starred in many memorable pre-code* films: Night Nurse (1931), So Big! (1932), and The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933).
*Pre-Code refers to the period between the advent of sound pictures (1929) and the implementation of the Hayes Production Code (mid-1934). Pre-Code films are known for their racy, controversial themes. Many of these films deal with premarital sex, abortion, promiscuity, violence, homosexuality, and many other themes.
In 1933, Barbara was on a roll, careerwise. This is the year she would make her star-making film, Baby Face. Just before Baby Face, however, Barbara appeared in one of my favorite pre-code films: Ladies They Talk About.
Full disclosure, I love movies about ladies in prison. Well, actually I should amend that to I love seeing older films about ladies in prison. Some of the newer, more exploitative women in prison films, I wouldn’t have an interest in. In Ladies They Talk About, Barbara plays Nan Taylor, the sole female member of a gang of bank robbers. At the beginning of the film, Nan poses as a regular customer and distracts the security guard while her accomplices rob the bank. She ends up being arrested by a cop who recognizes her from a previous arrest. Nan is sentenced to prison and placed in the San Quentin State Prison.
San Quentin State Prison is an interesting place. The women are housed on one side, the men on the other. There is only a wall separating the two groups. On the ladies’ side of the prison, the women are given cute uniforms. Nan’s prison uniform is of course tailored to her perfectly and shows off her great figure. The prison also gives each woman her own cell, which she’s allowed to decorate to her liking.
The ladies play cards, do each others’ hair, and pursue other activities to pass the time. Meanwhile, Nan’s accomplices, the men, are housed on the other side of the prison, directly on the other side of the wall. Lefty, one of the members of Nan’s gang managed to avoid arrest. Through their weekly visits, Lefty and Nan scheme to break herself and Don (housed in the men’s prison) out. Nan is tasked with drawing a map of the layout of the women’s prison and making an impression of the matron key.
Getting the impression of the matron’s key is absurdly easy, as the matron (Ruth Donnelly) basically does everything but make the impression herself. Nan talks the Matron up about her key ring and the Matron lets her see each and every key, and provides details as to which key goes to which lock. With all the necessary tools in place, Nan and Don are ready to make their escape.
This movie is a lot of fun. Besides the ridiculous women’s prison, you can’t go wrong with an escape from prison plot. Stanwyck is fantastic as are the supporting cast members. I also love the Matron’s cockatoo. This film isn’t nearly as stressful or sadistic as Caged! (1950), which I also loved. Donnelly’s Matron is an absolute saint compared to Hope Emerson’s portrayal that will come 17 years later. There is a scene where a woman prisoner sings a love song to a photograph of Joe E. Brown. Joe E. Brown!
This movie has a strange ending. I won’t divulge it here. After watching it though, you’ll think: “What was that ending?”
So far, this film only seems to be available on the 5th volume of the Forbidden Hollywood collection.
I’ll admit that Busby Berkeley isn’t one of my favorite figures from the classic era of Hollywood. While I recognize that his choreography is unique and very creative, sometimes I find it a little tedious when there is a lot of it present in one film. Some of the kaleidoscope numbers seem to just go on and on. However, in the terms of the modern movie musical, Berkeley is a pioneer. Not only for uniting song and visuals together, but also for his technical work when bringing the musical number to life on screen. As a choreographer, Berkeley didn’t just merely have the chorus girls tap out a syncopated beat and move left to right within the constraints of the stage. Berkeley had elaborate soundstages built to showcase his numbers. Other routines he created featured large winding staircases, large sets of risers to feature multiple layers of dancers, enormous fountains and more. Berkeley’s set pieces not only made use of the stage itself but all the vertical space above. The dance numbers are always over the top and very much in rhythm. Berkeley’s heyday was in the early 1930s, before the production code was enforced (this era is also known as “pre-code”). Many of Berkeley’s dance numbers can also feature some racy elements that many people may find surprising for an eighty-plus year old film.
One of Berkeley’s raciest pre-code films is undoubtedly 1933’s The Gold Diggers of 1933 and despite what I said about not being a huge fan of Berkeley, I love this film. Starring the usual Berkeley pre-code musical suspects: Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler, Ginger Rogers, Ned Sparks, and Joan Blondell, The Gold Diggers of 1933 features Powell as a songwriter who is hired to write the music for girlfriend Keeler’s new show. The opening number, “We’re in the Money” performed by Rogers, is pretty racy for a 1933 film as the girls appear to only be clad in a coin cape and bra with a large coin serving as a pair of panties. Rogers’ large coin is ripped off her after the number when the costumes and set pieces are repossessed. Despite the scantily clad dancers in this number, this is hardly the raciest production in the film–that honor goes to “Pettin’ in the Park.”
“Pettin’ in the Park” features Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler “on a date” with Powell reading an excerpt from the book, Advice to Those in Love. The main crux of the advice is that spending time outside with your partner is a sure-fire way to get them “in the mood.” Powell starts crooning a catchy tune while Keeler clomps around on stage (I don’t think she’s a good dancer, definitely not graceful). The song Powell is singing is a little ditty entitled, you guessed it, “Pettin in the Park.” Keeler joins in on some of the verses. It features immortal lyrics like this:
Pettin’ in the park…bad boy
Pettin’ in the dark…bad girl!
First you pet a little
Let up a little, and then you get a little kiss!
Suddenly a box of animal crackers (that Keeler had on her person for whatever reason) transforms into a zoo with a park scene. There are dozens of couples on screen “petting” one another.
Then, this is where the musical number gets bizarre. Powell starts really taking the petting advice from his self-help book to heart, and he gets a little too “handsy” for Keeler’s taste in the back of a car. She bails on him, on a pair of roller skates no less, and heads home. Suddenly a whole line of roller skating policemen emerge, along with a “baby” played by Billy Barty. He is wearing a big bonnet and sitting in a baby carriage. He then rolls through the scene while shooting spitballs. Barty is absurd, because it’s obvious he’s not a baby–but rather a little kid (Barty was born a dwarf. His full adult height was 3’9). The cops then go after the baby. They try to grab him, he ducks and they roll past him and away.
Next, we’re treated to a scene of this park as it progresses throughout all the seasons. We first see the chorus girls sporting winter fashions while they brave a snowstorm. Then the scene progresses into the spring and summer. We see all the petting couples lying on benches. The women are wearing flimsy white dresses. Everyone’s in blissful “Pettin’ in the Park” glee, until oops, it’s fall now. A rainstorm breaks out and the women run for cover, hiding behind a series of dressing rooms located behind one large curtain–it looks like separate rooms though.
The women remain in silhouette as they remove their wet clothing and get into something more comfortable. This is probably one of the most risque scenes that has ever appeared in a pre-code film. It is obvious that most of the women are topless or maybe even nude, as they change into something more comfortable. Lecherous baby Billy Barty is back, this time sporting rain gear. With a mischievous grin and shifty eyes, he raises the curtain. The ladies’ bare legs slowly come into view and they are now sporting sexy new outfits. Except the outfits are not sexy at all. All the ladies emerge from the curtain wearing metal clothing. Almost a literal chastity belt, if you will– the perfect outfit for any “pure” woman.
The men are understandably a little disappointed and perhaps are in a little bit of pain, physically. We’re back to Powell and Keeler, who is also now sporting metal clothing. Billy Barty is to the rescue however, as he hands Powell a can opener. The number ends with a suggestive shot of Powell cutting Keeler’s “dress” with the can opener.
This number would never be accepted today. With today’s intense focus on sexual harassment, consent, and women’s roles in society, this number would have probably spawned numerous boycotts, social media diatribes, statements from the filmmakers expressing regret for having ever conceived of the number, hashtags, and everything else that could be done to express rage or apologize. It is important to look at this number from a 1933 perspective, however. It is a perception that people used to be a lot more prim and proper “back in the day,” or at least until the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s and subsequent Women’s Rights movement in the 1970s. However, it is obvious that even in 1933, the ideas about sexual roles were around even then–men are the pursuer and the women are the ones being pursued. Sex was also on the forefront of almost any romantic couple’s minds. Were the couples that were “pettin’ in the park” married? Probably not. Powell and Keeler’s characters were not, yet off goes the chastity belt (though they marry by the end of the film). One of the great things about “Pettin’ in the Park” is that the film is so delightfully indiscreet when it’s putting on the guise of being discreet–the perfect quality in any pre-code film, in my opinion.
Pettin’ in the park… bad boy!
Pettin’ in the dark… bad girl!
Dad and mother did it,
But we admit it,
I’m pettin’ in the park with you.