Vixens, Vamps & Vipers

vixens vamps & vipers

I adore 1930’s – 50’s crime comics and even some costumed superheroes from that period…well, one at least: Batman. But it was a boys’ club, after all, and it takes some digging to uncover the era’s ‘stiletto gumshoes’, with not a lot to show for the search. Mike Madrid has done a lot of the digging for us, in his first book The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy And The History Of Comic Book Heroines, then Divas, Dames & Daredevils: Lost Heroines Of Golden Age Comics.

supergirls & divas

A year later, Madrid decided to give the villainesses their due, and rightly so, since it may be that crime and villainy were just about the only way mid-twentieth century women in comics could assert themselves, after all. Vixens, Vamps & Vipers: Villainesses Of Golden Age Comics is a handsome 250+ page book from Exterminating Angel Press and should be a must-read for fans of vintage comics, and in particular, anyone interested in women’s roles in mid-20th century pop culture. The book reproduces 22 different 1940’s-50’s comic stories along with well researched but very readable background information on the characters themselves, their superhero/crime fighter opponents, and the writers and artists who brought them to life. Notable female villains like Madame Doom, Veda The Cobra Woman And Skull Lady are here, but more prosaic crooks and femmes fatales were the most fun for me. For example, National Comics’ 1943 Idaho, who reminds me of a wisecracking Barbara Stanwyck in a 1930’s screwball comedy or crime caper. As the book states, these characters “both transcend and become ensnared in a web of cultural stereotypes”. Female superheroes and women crime fighters from the capes & tights variety (and demure little skirts, in most cases) to the plucky girl reporters, private eyes and DA’s were few enough. Perhaps the only way for female characters to be allowed to fully assert themselves alongside or against the era’s goody two shoes heroes was as villainesses, and there are some memorable ones in this book that’ll surely send you poking around online and digging in vintage comics bins for more.

madame doom

Femme Fatale: Sable Sin Cyr

femme fatale sable sin cyr

Pinups, Cosplay, art, fashion…model Sable Sin Cyr apparently has a diverse resume and portfolio. Here she is in an ominous photo tinged with imminent danger, titled “Femme Fatale” by Twilight Images.

Murder, My Sweet (1944)

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As planned, I knocked off Saturday night by 11:00 to hunker down with TCM’s weekly Noir Alley feature, hosted by ‘The Czar Of Noir’ Eddie Muller, for RKO’s 1944 Murder, My Sweet. Not unlike Warner Brothers’ 1941 classic The Maltese Falcon, many consider Murder, My Sweet a kind of ‘proto-noir’, exhibiting all the style, queues and characteristics we associate with film noir, even though it was made before the post-WWII period some scholarly types prefer to pinpoint as the noir era.

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Directed by noir-maestro Edward Dmytryk, the film’s a pretty faithful adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s 1940 novel Farewell, My Lovely, which had already been done without the Phillip Marlowe character as part of the Falcon film series in 1942’s The Flacon Takes Over. A few things are changed, some plot points downplayed or eliminated due to production code limitations, such as the key character’s obvious homosexuality (which remains hinted at none too subtly), and a narcotics operation. Early on when private eye Marlowe reluctantly starts his search for missing nightclub songbird Velma Valento, the bar is no longer a segregated African American club. Even Los Angeles’ infamous offshore gambling boat scene is discarded, not due to any censorship, but only because the studio didn’t want to offend the real-life gangsters in charge or the bigwigs who patronized them.

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The title change makes sense in hindsight. This film would re-launch actor Dick Powell’s career, and following an initial Minneapolis test screening under the novel’s Farewell, My Lovely title, it was decided that audiences would rightly expect a lightweight musical or romantic comedy with Powell’s name on the marquee. Powell (real name, born 1904) had been a very successful pretty boy singer/dancer throughout the 1930’s, but at age 40, it was time to reinvent his image. He’d actively campaigned for – and lost – the Fred MacMurray role in Double Indemnity. This was his big chance to start a whole new phase, and he acquitted himself well here, going on to star in a number of high-profile film noir classics and 1950’s crime melodramas, as well as taking over in the director’s chair.

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Murder, My Sweet was also intended to reinvigorate Claire Trevor’s stalled career. Trevor (born Claire Wemlinger in 1910) had recently been relegated to B-movies and westerns, and not always in the lead. But her performance here as the lusty trophy wife of a quirky but wealthy old codger pretty much steams up the screen. Even so, some say she was upstaged by former child star Anne Shirley (born Dawn Evelyeen Paria in 1918) as Trevor’s spoiled but feisty stepdaughter. Shirley sizzles in this film, which sadly was her last, choosing to retire at a young 26. But what a way to bow out.

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Dymtryk, later one of the infamous Hollywood Ten in the Red Scare era, is the brilliant director of films like Crossfire, The Caine Mutiny and Walk On The Wild Side. Here he deploys a bag of B-movie tricks to squeeze out every ounce of irony, sass and stunning visuals from the locations, sets and each actor’s performance. There are just so many memorable shots and sequences in this film, my own favorite coming early on when flashing neon sign lights make hulking thug Moose Malloy’s threatening reflection appear and disappear in the private eye Phillip Marlowe’s office window.

Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely was made again in 1975 with the real title, this time starring a world-weary Robert Mitchum as Phillip Marlowe, along with Charlotte Rampling and Sylvia Miles, and even a young pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone in a small part as a lovesick brothel thug.

Listening to…

lush life

Listening to: Might not all be period perfect, but right now at the keyboard, my head’s stuck in 1959, and I’m going with The Very Best Of Etta James, and Lush Life: Linda Ronstadt with the Nelson Riddle orchestra.

etta james

The Weather Outside Is Frightful…

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Oh, the weather outside is frightful…or so the 1945 Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne song Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow says.

Last weekend we had a winter tease ‘round here, with a good bit of snow, but manageable. This weekend we’re getting walloped, and it’s still going on as this is written. Once done, temps will drop, winds pick up and whatever was already cleaned up will just drift back into impassable hills overnight. Not whining, mind you, since it’s been winter-lite so far this season, with only one sorta-snowstorm in early November, and even November-December out of town travel into the frigid zones wasn’t too bad.

But I don’t mind a bit. For me, the most productive time of year is October through May when we’re driven indoors. There are fewer temptations, with no beaches, softball leagues, patio soirees, swimming pools, gardening or whatever warm weather pursuits might lure you away from the work you mean to do. When the shorter days and first snows send the bears into hibernation, a lot of us head to the sofa for Netflix binge watching. But for some, it’s the most opportune time to get things done, whether that’s painting your personal masterpieces in the apartment’s spare bedroom studio, building one of those insanely detailed toy train layouts in the basement, or finally starting that novel that’s been kicking around inside your head. Of course, there’s no better way to weather the – well, the weather – than to curl up in something cozy with a good book and your beverage of choice. Smarter folks may peek out the window to see the blizzards still blowing and simply choose to stay in bed. Which would be a pretty fun idea if there’s a bedmate by their side. After all, there’s no need for winter jammies when there are better ways to keep warm.

alexa mazzarello

Getting around on Saturday errands kinda sucked this morning, the snowplow drivers apparently breakfasting or loading their rigs with salt. But I’ve been in for a while now, with no plans to go back out till Monday morning, and once the week’s blog posts are scheduled, it’ll be time to hunker down over The Stiletto Gumshoe. The manuscripts-in-progress, not the website. A productive winter weekend of uninterrupted writing (or rewriting, as it happens) sounds good, with no plans to pause till evening. I expect the fingertips may be numb come 11:00 PM, at which time Eddie Mueller’s Noir Alley will beckon on Turner Classic Movies. 1944’s Murder, My Sweet is the film this week, with Dick Powell taking his first turn at reinventing himself as a hard-boiled noir favorite, and it was Anne Shirley’s last film. But it’ll be back to the keyboard Sunday, since the weather outside promises to remain frightful. But there are worse things than being warm inside when some productive work gets done. Agreed?

Montage: Roan Lavery, Meghan Elliott, Kate Williams; Still life: Alexa Mazzarello

 

Mitchum By Sean Phillips

sean phillips robert mitchum

Noir icon Robert Mitchum, by UK artist Sean Phillips. From the Sean Phillips artist blog (theartofseasnphillips.blogspot.com) at Sean Phillips website: seanphillips.co.uk.

 

 

Hard-Boiled Dames.

hard-boiled dames

Hard-Boiled Dames (1986), edited by Bernard Drew says it’s “A brass-knuckled anthology of the toughest women from the classic pulps”. This anthology features women detectives, reporters, adventurers and even a few criminals from 1930’s pulp fiction magazines. Marcia Muller notes in her preface, “Although the courageous independent female sleuth may have, for whatever reasons, gone somewhat out of fashion in the suspense fiction of the 1950’s and 60’s, she was very much in evidence in the pulp magazines of the 30’s and 40’s.”

21st century mystery/crime fiction fans of the more hard-boiled variety could easily think that the genre was populated with no shortage of female sleuths (the bad-ass ones, that is) all along. Not so, of course. Before things exploded in the early 1980’s, thanks to Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone and Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski and some others, there’d been nearly thirty years of ‘blonde bombshells’ like Honey West, Mavis Seidlitz, Marla Trent, and weirder still, Cherry Delight, The Baroness, The Lady From L.U.S.T. and other one-shots and series focused more on the protagonists’ looks and bedroom antics. While the 1940’s through the early 50’s had a decent run of smart, hard-fighting female private eyes, reporters, district attorneys and sundry cloaked/costumed crime fighters, it was relegated to comics much more than pulp fiction or novels. You really have to dial back to the 1930’s pulp era to uncover the female detectives and their associates, and some of the best are featured in this book.

I read my first Carrie Cashin story in Hard-Boiled Dames, and then went hunting for more. Carrie looks “like a demure brown-eyed stenographer in a tailored jacket and tweed skirt”, and in front of clients often defers to her “broad-shouldered assistant Aleck, to allay any clients’ concerns about a woman detecting”. But Miss Cashin is the head of the Cash And Carry Detective Agency, the first to leap into danger, and clearly the brains of the outfit. This anthology includes author Theodore Tinsley’s “The Riddle In Silk”, in which Carrie (with assistant Aleck in tow) investigates a bloody murder in a mansion on the requisite dark and stormy night, which leads them back into the city and ultimately to the waterfront docks on the trail of a stolen pair of silk stockings which “may mean the difference between peace and war in Europe”, the hose containing secret coded messages.

Lars Anderson’s Domino Lady is here too, in “The Domino Lady Doubles Back”, along with Katie Blayne, Trixie Meehan – 15 stories in all, each accompanied by 2 page introductions about the authors and their characters, and reproductions of the original pulps’ illustrations. If you see this book around, snatch it. It’s a good read, and a real eye opener about

 

Chris Clor

chris clor

At first, she just looks like a private eye’s secretary, perched on the gumshoe’s desk. But is she? And there are so many details to take in and wonder about in this darkly moody Chris Clor image: That the shadowy visitor’s briefcase is handcuffed to his wrist. What’s with the religious statue on the file cabinet, and why is one file drawer left open? Hey, just choosing purple shoes to go with a green dress is a puzzler.

Gorgeous stuff.

Colleen Moore

colleen moore

Silent film era mega-star Colleen Moore (1899-1988), who walked away from acting after a handful of films in the sound era, but went on to success in finance and other areas of interest, including indulging her passion for dolls and doll house collecting, including the famous multi-million dollar Colleen Moore Dollhouse exhibit at Chicago’s Museum Of Science & Industry.

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