The “Oomph Girl”

Ann Sheridan

Clara Lou Sheridan (1915 – 1967) came to Hollywood from Denton, Texas when she was 19, playing mostly bit parts and B-movie roles for Paramount throughout the 1930’s till she switched to Warner Brothers and the roles improved, including Angels With Dirty Faces, They Made Me A Criminal, Kings Row, They Drive By Night and The Man Who Came To Dinner, starring alongside Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Cagney, Gary Cooper, Errol Flynn and John Garfield. Along the way, she’d changed her name to Ann Sheridan, and Warner Brothers claimed that men voted her the actress with the most “Oomph”…and so marketed her as “The Oomph Girl”, a tag she loathed.

Ann Sheridan 1

Sheridan took a break from movies during WWII to do three grueling years on the road in USO tours, during which time she became one of the most popular service men’s pinups. She went right back to work after the war, but quickly grew frustrated with many of the roles she was offered. Just as noir goddess Ida Lupino began working behind the camera as a director, Sheridan wanted to produce, and she did just that starting in 1949, including the cult classic low-budget 1950 film noir Woman On The Run.

Ann Sheridan 2

In the late 1950’s and in the 1960’s, Sheridan worked mostly for television, and mostly in westerns, her final project the CBS comedy-western Pistols & Petticoats. It was during the 1966-67 season that she was diagnosed with both cancer and liver disease, passing away at only 51, an episode of her TV series airing that same night. Ann Sheridan’s not the first name that pops up when you think of the film noir and crime melodrama greats, but when an actress has gone toe-to-toe with George Raft, Bogart, Garfield and Cagney, and produced one of the classic period’s cult classics, I’d say her ‘noir cred’ is intact.

Ann Sheridan 3

Nora Prentiss

Nora Prentiss - Hnd Colored

Not sure if I’ll be home in time for TCM’s 11:00 PM CST Noir Alley with host, noir maestro Eddie Muller. Tonight it’s Vincent Sherman’s 1947 Warner Brothers film Nora Prentiss, shot by James Howe Wong with a Franz Waxman score, starring one of Hollywood’s hardest working actresses, Ann Sheridan. I’ve never seen the film and would like to, particularly with Muller’s always insightful opening and closing remarks.

You like your film noirs with syndicate bosses, mobsters, dirty cops and gun fights? Who doesn’t? But there’s an equally essential subset of classic film noir and crime melodrama focused on smaller stories that are equally dark and fatalistic, Nora Prentiss among them, considered by some as one of the best “women’s noir”.

Nora Prentiss - MontageKent Smith plays Dr. Richard Talbot, bored with his humdrum life and marriage, who begins an affair with seductive nightclub singer Nora Prentiss, played by Ann Sheridan. He fakes his own death in order to run away with her, relocating from the west coast to New York, where she goes back to work in the clubs. But it can’t go well, and Dr. Talbot grows increasingly paranoid once he leans that his faked death is now a murder investigation. Soon he’s bitter, jealous, combative and drinking too much, finally crashing his car. Disfigured from the accident, unable to identify himself, he’s actually accused of his own murder.

Nora Prentiss still

Though the film sounds like it’s Talbot’s story more than Ann Sheridan’s, it’s really not, at least based on what I’ve read. And Ann Sheridan rarely disappoints, especially when she gets a meaty role where she can play street smart with an undercurrent of vulnerability (though I suspect her husband-stealing songbird might not be particularly vulnerable). Well, in or out, that’s what DVR’s are for. I’m catching this movie one way or another.

Nora Prentiss poster

Writer’s Digest: Villains & Violence

 

Happy to see the July/August 2019 issue of Writer’s Digest magazine in my mailbox this past weekend. I’ve heard no further news about WD parent company F+W Media’s financial woes or the bankruptcy announced back in March, so I’ll keep my fingers crossed that management will find a way to reorganize and pay all creditors while keeping this vital writers’ resource going. I think 2020 is Writer’s Digest’s 100th anniversary, so it’d be tragic for the publication to vanish now.

July/August is billed as “The Villains Issue” and like many theme issues, it’s stretching things a bit to make some articles’ fit the theme. But that’s okay, since I found nearly everything in this issue interesting or useful. But my favorite was “Packing The Punch” by Carla Hoch, author of Fight Write: How To Write Believable Fight Scenes from WD Books.

Writers Digest July-August 2019

Many writers insist that sex scenes are the most difficult to write, and they may be right. Finding a comfort zone between steamy and merely icky can be challenging, particularly since every writer knows that readers will identify the roles and activities with the writer and the writer’s own ‘proclivities’. Maybe you don’t care, but you might if you’re a grammar school teacher or town council member writing lurid kink-filled scenes in your downtime.

But I’ll suggest that fight scenes – like any action scenes – can be every bit as difficult to craft as the squirmiest sex scene, if not more so. Both types of scenes have multiple participants (well, usually), there’s a lot of movement and action that must be choreographed, and then accurately attributed so the reader won’t be hopelessly lost. Who’s punching who? Who pulled the trigger, and who got hit? A sense of place has to be defined, pain has to be described and so much more, but unlike a sex scene, this has to be accomplished with an economy of words. Perhaps it’s fine to indulge in flowery prose and a languid pace for lovemaking. Fight scenes demand a finger-snapping staccato rhythm, moving fast but with pinpoint accuracy to keep the reader speeding through the words while still comprehending precisely what’s what. That’s a mighty tall order for pro’s and budding talents alike. As Carla Hoch says, “Sometimes, there’s nothing better than a good long sentence, pulsating with verbs and sutured with commas to grab your reader by the collar and drag them to the scene, because you will give them no other choice and there’s no leaving until you throw in the towel.”

By Bert Hardy

Some suggest that a writer should try to hear an imaginary musical soundtrack behind their words in order to guide their pace. (You know, that might even work well with reading?) Sex scenes? If all soft-focused slow-mo stuff, the soundtrack might be a romantic Debussy piece or a soft pop ballad. More rambunctious romps might demand club tunes with a relentless pulsing beat you can feel right in your belly (or lower). Depends on what kind of frolicking the fun-lovers are up to. What kind of soundtrack sets the pace for a fight scene? Well, it’s unlikely to be a waltz. A thrash metal song, maybe. Some bust-loose jazz jam or an AOR guitar-god head banger. Hell, it could be a pompous Wagnerian thing if the fight involved axes and chain mail. In my work, it’s most likely bare knuckles on skin, slugs flying from a .45 automatic, or when the Stiletto Gumshoe’s caught unarmed, there’s still a spike heel rammed down doubly hard on a thug’s wingtips.

Thanks to Writer’s Digest magazine once again for helpful how-to’s like Carla Hoch’s terrific piece. I’ll be watching my mailbox with my fingers crossed that the issues keep coming.

(No credits available for the found art illustrations above, but the photos are by Bert Hardy above and Richard Avedon below.) 

By Richard Avedon

 

Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered

Stay Sexy & Dont Get Murdered

“Fuck polite.”

That’s a phrase repeated in Karen Kilgariff’s and Georgia Hardstark’s dual memoir Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered – The Definitive How-To Guide.

Kilgariff and Hardstark, of course, are the co-hosts of the cult-hit podcast My Favorite Murder. Launched in 2016, their ‘Murderinos’ (the name their Facebook group members call themselves) number well into six figures. Shop for hundreds of My Favorite Murder t-shirts and memorabilia on Etsy. And now, buy the hardcover memoir. And I encourage you to do precisely that, because it’s a really good read.

They may be unlikely duo, and met only a year before doing the first My Favorite Murder podcast. Kilgariff is a TV writer and standup comic, Hardstark was a Cooking Channel cohost, both sharing a fascination with true crime stories, a sharp sense of humor and perhaps most important, sheer rage over the treatment of women (crime victims, specifically) in the mainstream media, the legal system and our culture at large.

Via Rolling Stone

“Fuck polite?” No mystery there. Young girls are so thoroughly indoctrinated to be polite and deferential that they continue to demur even when thrust into increasingly creepy and downright dangerous situations. You know, those utterly icky situations where something simply doesn’t feel ‘right’. Which is really the time to say no, to ignore politeness and the ingrained deferential response…to get the hell outa there. But all too often, it’s too late once they become victims of horribly inappropriate behavior (at best)  or (worse) abuse, assault, rape and murder. ‘Fuck polite’ simply means that there’s no need to be polite to that seemingly nice young man with his arm in a sling who asks for assistance, because he just might be the next Ted Bundy. There’s actually no need to approach the friendly old gent leaning out of his van and asking for directions, or to accommodate all the other repairmen, delivery men, parking lot attendants, cabbies, ride share drivers or even that evening’s date. It’s not mandatory to be polite or to give anyone the benefit of the doubt. What is mandatory is to do what you want to do so while staying safe…and staying alive.

And so…fuck polite.

Kilgariff and Hardstark’s book is a pretty quick read, full of funny bits and bittersweet memories side-by-side with biting rants and poignant memoir. In some ways, it reads like one of their podcasts committed to ink-on-paper…just with ‘more’. I read the hardcover. While I’m normally not an audio book fan, I realize this would’ve been one book to listen to instead. Check it out, and once you have, see if you don’t want to recite one of their Murderinos’ mantras: “Pepper Spray First, Ask Questions Later.”

Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark

(Live event photo via Rolling Stone)

 

Tu Bei’s Noir Series

Tu Bei 1

Tu Bei is a US concept artist and illustrator, with an array of gorgeous and diverse work to be viewed at Art Of Tu — artoftu.com. Here are just a few examples, above a character design concept, and below, three pieces from Tu Bei’s “Noir Series”.

Tu Bei 3Tu Bei 2Tu Bei 4

 

A Good Day To Die

good day to die polek holdova

A good day to die? Hmmm. Guess that all depends on which end of the gun you’re on.

“Good Day To Die”, by Lucem, from Polek Holdova.

The 1960’s Fifty Shades Of Grey?

Valley Of The Dolls 50th

A post or two back I referred to Renee Rosen’s novels as ‘guilty pleasures’, though was quick to point out that her books are far from fluff. Rather, for me, at least, they’ve been pleasant diversions from a steady diet of gangsters, gumshoes and gun molls.

For a real guilty pleasure – that is, a book you devour but feel legitimately guilty about — Jacqueline Susann’s 1966 Valley Of The Dolls is like a mid-sixties Fifty Shades Of Grey…similarly notorious, and notoriously popular in its time. Sprawling (to the point of rambling), sexy, melodramatic yet often awkwardly written, the book’s a compelling page-turner nonetheless. A legitimate publishing phenomena, Valley Of The Dolls was the biggest selling book in publishing history at the time of the author’s death in 1974 and has gone on to sell over 31 million copies to date. For any contemporary writer tracking single digit weekly orders for their Amazon Kindle and Create Space books, or praying that their small press’ 5,000 unit trade paperback press run will sell out someday, 31 million books is almost too much to grasp.

Segueing from Renee Rosen’s 2019 Park Avenue Summer to Susann’s Valley Of The Dolls was a natural, and I did just that. In Rosen’s novel, an Ohio ingenue and aspiring commercial photographer arrives in mid-sixties New York and promptly becomes iconic editor Helen Gurley Brown’s secretary right at the moment the magazine is about to be relaunched as the controversial girl-power monthly it quickly became. The novel’s heroine gets that plum gig via a referral from a family friend who’s an editor at the Dolls’ real-life publisher, Bernard Geis Associates.

Valley of the Dolls

Valley Of The Dolls the 1967 20thCentury Fox film starring Patty Duke, Sharon Tate, Susan Hayward and Barbara Parkins frequently pops up on both broadcast and cable TV channels, but if you’ve only seen the movie and never read the book, I encourage you to give the novel a try. The movie’s pure mid-sixties kitsch, but understandably had to sidestep or soften the novel’s more tawdry and saucy content. In fact, it’s said that original screenwriter Harlan Ellison insisted his name be removed from the credits due to the less downbeat ‘Hollywood’ ending reshot at the studio insistence.

Even if you haven’t seen the film or read the book, it’s enough of a pop culture touchstone that most people have some vague idea of what it’s about. Three New York friends in the entertainment business experience various highs and lows in their careers and love lives, succumbing to ‘Dolls’ (barbituates, and specifically, Seconals) along the way…enough to institutionalize one for addiction (Patty Duke in the movie) and be the weapon of choice for another’s suicide (Sharon Tate in the movie). But the novel’s very different from the film, most notably in its more sprawling 20 year time span from 1945 to 1965. (The film seems to be set almost entirely in the 1960’s.) There are more complex backstories, complications and relationship woes, it being a rambling sort of soap opera. And the sex is notably more explicit. Keep in mind that in 1966, sleaze publishers like Midwood and others were still pumping out ‘sexy’ paperback originals to be sold exclusively ‘under the counter’ at most stores. Frank dialog about menstruation, abortion or contraception was pretty rare. Explicit sex scenes (well, relatively so) in a mainstream novel? Even more scandalous, and here the sex includes vanilla sex, gay sex, lesbian sex, oral sex and more, and in frequent doses. And most importantly, it’s the women, not the men, talking about it, wanting it, trying to avoid it or merrily engaging in it.

Nearly half the book is set in the 1940’s, and the titular ‘dolls’ don’t even appear till well over a third of the way through. The novel’s male characters are mostly philanderers, lushes, failures or con men, and even the seemingly ‘good’ men go bad to some degree by the end. The three main women are complex, but far from angels, and none find release or redemption in their careers, their romances or anywhere except in the embrace of their lovely little dolls. Do not look for a happy ending when you finish the last page.

Valley of The Dolls Movie

I read Jacqueline Susann’s Valley Of The Dolls last week in a handsome 50thAnniversary trade paperback edition, complete with some introductory front matter and an essay from the author herself. A tireless self-promoter, book publishing urban legends claim that Susann would get up in the wee hours to primp, fill her car with coffee and cartons of donuts in order to show up at local rack jobbers and distributors’ loading docks before the truck drivers departed, encouraging all to keep her book face-out and in-stock at each stop on their routes. If true, this was before the days of consolidated book distribution (still continuing as we speak, with Baker & Taylor leaving the trade book business altogether and Ingram just about the only game in town).

Well, I never managed to wade through Fifty Shades Of Grey, even after a couple tries that couldn’t get past fifty pages of grey. But I’m really glad I read Valley Of The Dolls. Call it kitsch, call it trash…call it what you like, but it was a cultural milestone in its time and still a fun read even today.

Thirteen Days Overdue (And It’s Lace)

Rap Sheet LogoShame on me, but this is thirteen days overdue.

A heartfelt (belated) congratulations to J. Kingston Pierce on the thirteenth anniversary of The Rap Sheet Blog at therapsheet.blogspot.com (link below). The blog began on May 22nd, Arthur Conan Doyle’s birthday, appropriately enough, and since has showcased over 7,500 posts with over 6.3 million page views.

The Rap Sheet and CrimeReads are my primary mystery/crime fiction genre and noir culture resources, providing timely news and acting as vital jumping off points to learn more about so many different writers, books, films, artists and much more. For that, a great big thank you to The Rap Sheet!

So, I checked to see what a thirteenth anniversary is. You know, paper for the first, silver for the 25th, gold for the 50th and so on. There are some pretty weird ones, and several online wedding anniversary gift charts left a few years blank altogether. But all showed lace for a thirteenth anniversary. Now I’m at work at the moment with no lace handy, and I’m not about to go desk to desk to see who could help. Surely someone’s lacy somewhere today, but it won’t be appearing here. So we’ll have to make do with some vintage Alan Geoffrey Yates – AKA Carter Brown – and three editions of The Black Lace Hangover (which is, after all, a pretty cool title).

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