Barbara Hale does a great femme fatale!

I saw a 1956 crime movie over the weekend on TCM called The Houston Story. It was vaguely entertaining but mostly mediocre, a half-baked drama of a mobster wannabe played by Gene Barry. But it had two memorable elements in it: Edward Arnold as a chuckling mob kingpin, and Barbara Hale as a platinum-haired nightclub thrush and femme fatale.

This is one of my concepts of the perfect woman.

I kinda remember Barbara Hale from playing Della Street, the Gal Friday on the old Perry Mason show with Raymond Burr in the 50s and 60s…but actually I don’t remember that show very well because while I was growing up I was more interested in the Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, Ben Casey, and 12 O’Clock High and magazines like Famous Monsters of Filmland and giant comic book creatures like Fin Fang Foom. But I loved Barbara as a naughty minx in this movie when I saw it last night in my current state of maturation as a 57-year-old connoisseur of noirishly deceptive doxies. Yes, my eyes have been opened to an actress whose other works I must readily explore.

Barbara sings the same song in The Houston Story that made Rita Hayworth famous in Gilda a decade earlier, “Put the Blame on Mame,” and Barb’s equally sexy in a sultrier, more “MILFy” kind of way.

This is from the trailer for The Houston Story.

This is from the trailer for The Houston Story.

I don’t know if Miss Hale really sang the song or it was dubbed, but the camera stays on her in closeup the whole time, and her facial expressions, and the way she moves her mouth and the way the light flatters her gorgeous cheekbones, made it something I’m glad I recorded on the DVR. If you get to see this movie when it shows up again on TCM, watch how she moves her lips on the word “boys” in the lyric, “Put the blame on Mame, boys…”

In her other scenes in the flick, she really brings the tough babe to rich life with everything from the smallest furrowing of her brow to the freshening of her lipstick. What a dame!

Looking her up on the web after seeing the movie, I found some of these shots at a great tribute site called Big Dave’s Barbara Hale Annex. I also read somewhere else that she may have been a model back in the 1940s for the famed pinup calendar painter Gil Elvgren, the creator of timeless works like this (which can be found at the fine site Pinup Files).

It's a sad day when a grown man envies a cocker spaniel...

It's a sad day when a grown man envies a cocker spaniel...

Well, with Barb’s stems and that wholesome but saucy face, I can sure believe that Elvgren, who was to pinups what Michelangelo was to ceilings, would have loved her!

With women like this on their side, how could our soldiers NOT have beaten the Axis?

With women like this on their side, how could our World War 2 soldiers NOT have beaten the Axis?

Gentlemen act like asses around girls with guns and glasses!

The British actress Peggy Cummins (born 1925) is best known for her role as the sociopathic sharpshooter in the 1949 film noir Gun Crazy. Although I haven’t seen that film recently, I can still remember her ferocious femme fatale energy in it…

Actually, of the three shots above, the one I find most interesting is the third one, because it shows the emotionally penetrative power a fatal woman can exercise without a gun…the power they have all too often in the lives of normal men—i.e., not men on the run from holding up banks, like the characters played by Cummins and John Dall in Gun Crazy

The power to simply overwhelm men by manipulating masculine need

I haven’t seen Gun Crazy lately because I actually find it depressing. About a year ago I bought a DVD copy, and I still haven’t opened it. I identify with John Dall in that shot above…replace Peggy Cummins with a stripper soliciting a lapdance, and you have a photo-portrait of your Horny Time Traveler, a man who respects and fears the allure of the charismatic woman, whether she be psychologically healthy or twisted…

I was thinking about Peggy, who enjoyed a career from the late 40s to the 60s, because I saw her the other night in The Late George Apley, wherein she plays a headstrong (but charming, not abrasive) Boston girl in 1912…

In the latter film, she rebels in a fairly respectful way against the loving stodginess of her father, and he ultimately gives his seal of approval to her love for a young literature professor who—horror of horrors!—is not from Boston…

Not a great film, but an enjoyable one, and Peggy was feisty and intriguing. Apparently she got this part (according to Robert Osborne’s intro on TCM) when 20th Century Fox decided to replace Cummins in the coveted lead role in 1947’s highly anticipated costume drama, Forever Amber (a film I still have yet to see). Osborne said the studio felt she looked too “young” to play the ambitious 17th century wench Amber, but I wonder if that was reason…maybe Cummins would have been a little too intense in the role, perhaps too richly real? Linda Darnell, no slouch herself in the allure department, replaced her, but after seeing Cummins in both Apley and Gun Crazy, I gotta wonder what coulda been…

She also made an intriguing mystery thriller called Moss Rose in 1947, in which she played a Victorian chorus girl. I saw this a few years ago on a tape somebody made for me from a tv broadcast. I don’t think it’s on DVD yet…I remember it was twisty and atmospheric, and I wish I could remember where I put the cassette so I could rewatch it!

A part Peggy would have been wonderful in would be that of the unpredictable, manipulative, yet ultimately poignant prostitute in an adaptation of Patrick Hamilton’s trilogy of short, interconnected novels about London lowlife about 1930, Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, one of the finest books I’ve read in recent years…it tells the story of a doomed triangle between a would-be writer/waiter, a streetwalker, and a barmaid. Hamilton was the author of the plays on which the classic films Gaslight and Rope were based, but I think his novels are even more impressive. Check out his novel Hangover Square, too, which was made into a good movie which nonetheless was not very faithful to the book.

Anyway, the point I finally want to make is this. These fine actresses of yesteryear like Peggy Cummins immediately get me scrambling over to the computer to find out what else I can see them in. I don’t feel that way at all about contemporary actresses, although I am somewhat curious to see what January Jones and Christina Hendricks of AMC’s Mad Men do apart from that show…

I think part of the problem is that the films today just don’t have the kinds of rich stories that pull me in and make me want to plunk down twelve bucks for a ticket. So it’s not just that I prefer the actresses of long ago, but that the stories they were presented in are more to my liking in their variety, their tone, and their subject matter. Or maybe it’s the promotion of today’s films; maybe the stories are just as good, but the advertising doesn’t make me feel intrigued enough to find out. There is no alluring ballyhoo to pull me into the theaters…unless I’m supposed to be intrigued by an actress’s upcoming film because People magazine says she’s “dating” some football stud-muffin or riding some rock star schlong.

All I know is that after watching Peggy in The Late George Apley, I wanted more. And here’s a nice leg shot that I found, to keep me entertained until I turn up more of her films…

Just a healthy dose of good old-fashioned cheesecake!

——————-

I found the great screen captures of Peggy and John, and Peggy sharp-shooting, at writer Chris Orcutt’s interesting site; and Peggy’s leg shot at the always vivid Starlet Showcase.

Mad doctor seeks curvy 1950s strippers and models!

The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (1959) is one of my favorite movies. And with the zeal (or is it semi-derangement?) of the diehard fan of a truly wacky “cult” film, let me say that I cannot understand if it isn’t one of your faves, too!!

Honestly, what more does a movie need than all this?

A daring young surgeon, Dr. Bill Cortner (Herb Evers), gets into a car accident with his fiancee, Jan (Virginia Leith). She is decapitated, and he keeps her head alive in his lab. While his assistant Kurt (Leslie Daniel) engages in bitter philosophical dialogues with the talkative head, Dr. Bill trolls strip clubs, beauty pageants, and bikini photo shoots looking for a body onto which to transplant Jan’s head. He finds the perfect one in Doris (Adele Lamont), a photo model with a scarred face. But the monster in Bill’s laboratory, a result of botched experiments (played by Eddie Carmel, aka photographer Diane Arbus’s famous “Jewish Giant”), is telepathically commanded by Jan to bring an end to Dr. Bill’s unholy plans…

In its own way, a pioneering chick flick...

In its own way, a deep "relationship" movie...

I’ve tried not to spoil the plot too much for the uninitiated…

The movie was shot in 1959 but not released until 1962. One of the things I like best about Brain is how it takes me on a horny time-traveling journey into the seedy ambiance of mid-twentieth century sleaze life…

The strip club Dr. Bill visits on his quest to find the perfect body for Jan’s head was the Moulin Rouge at 47 W. 52nd Street in New York. At least, we see him at the entrance, looking at a large publicity shot of stripper June Harlow…she’s not in the movie, but her huge cut-out image was in the front of the club.

I've read that June was supposed to be related to the more famous Jean of movie fame.

I've read that June was supposed to be related to Jean Harlow of movie fame.

In the street photo above, the Moulin Rouge entrance is hidden by the sign for Jimmy Ryan’s jazz club. The image was captured by press lensman William P. Gottlieb in 1948 when “The Street” (as it was colloquially known) was a combination of music and jiggle joints. Club Samoa (its sign is just right of the center) was one of the best-known peeler venues. The Street started getting overhauled in the 50s thanks to encroaching real estate interests, and Club Samoa looked like this by 1958, close to the time that Brain was filmed across the road:

Sharon Knight, the name on the marquee, was a well-known headliner of the time, a protege of superstar Lili St. Cyr, who herself danced many times at the Samoa…

You can read all about her in Kelly DiNardo's excellent recent bio, Gilded Lili.

You can read all about her in Kelly DiNardo's excellent recent bio, Gilded Lili.

Here’s the interior of the Club Samoa…

If you wanted to light a lady’s cigarette, you could use this…

I don’t know if the scene where Dr. Bill watches a stripper was shot in the actual Moulin Rouge—I wasn’t able to find a photo of that interior—but wherever it was shot, the sequence wonderfully caught the seediness of that bygone world…

Later, this stripper flirts with Dr. Bill, but their scene is interrupted by another dancer with designs on the conniving medico—and this leads to a catfight!

It is reasonable to assume that this is an authentic depiction of the many catfights that probably did happen during the heyday of strippers on The Street.

It is reasonable to assume that this is an authentic depiction of the many catfights that probably did happen during the heyday of strippers on The Street.

One thing that really irked me when Turner Classics showed this movie last week on March 16th was that their print was one of the more heavily edited of the various extant versions, and newcomers to Brain never got to see Dr. Bill trade quips with the stripper and then duck out when the gals began fighting over him!

The other thing that irritated me is that the discussion between Robert Osborne and director John Landis didn’t scratch the surface of what makes the movie a fascinating treat…

To me, any film that can inspire such a wide range of interesting writing, as Brain does, needs no justification for its designation as a classic!

Adele Lamont (1931-2003) gave an indelible performance as Doris!

Another good pose. Adele Lamont (1931-2005) gave an indelible performance as Doris!

Whatever type of film criticism you enjoy, Brain has inspired it, whether you like your commentary hilarious as at Atomic Monsters, or thoughtful as at Classic Horror, or ironic and analytical as at Postmodern Joan. And by the way, I borrowed the great screen captures from a neat blog called Captured Monsters.

The bizarre bickering between Dr. Bill and Jan’s head is almost like a satire on the heavy-breathing melodramas of the 1950s, where men and women confronted their problems in passionate dialogue. In its own way, Brain is a “relationship movie”!

Jan was played by Virginia Leith, a 20th Century Fox contract player who, in 1955, appeared in the superb glossy thriller A Kiss Before Dying, wherein she was cruelly manipulated by a handsome but creepy Robert Wagner in a fashion no less outrageous than what her character endures in Brain under Dr. Bill Cortner. (Hey! Trivia alert! Wagner’s evil character in A Kiss Before Dying has the same initials as Dr. Bill Cortner! Coincidence, or homage?)

Wagner is brilliantly evil in this movie, and Leith is vulnerable yet steely—as well as gorgeous.

Wagner is brilliantly evil in this movie, and Leith is vulnerable yet steely—as well as gorgeous.

One of the fascinating side issues of Brain is the question of how Leith went from working in 1955 on a major suspense film based on a best-selling novel (A Kiss Before Dying) alongside stars like Wagner, Jeffrey Hunter, George Macready, and the fast-rising Joanne Woodward…

…to the low-budget fringe item Brain.

You must understand, I am not putting her down for it; she’s very effective in Brain, and does not condescend to the material. I’m just saying that the pairing of A Kiss Before Dying and The Brain That Wouldn’t Die serves as a commentary on the astonishing ups and downs of the actor’s life.

Kurt, on the left, was played by voice actor Leslie Daniel, who I believe also dubbed beefcake thespian Mark Forest in the title role of 1961's Son of Samson!

Kurt, on the left, was played by dubbing actor Leslie Daniel, whom I suspect on the basis of his distinctive voice also dubbed beefcake thespian Mark Forest in the title role of 1960's Son of Samson!

Artists of any kind are lucky to be immortalized for their work, for any work that lasts and fascinates into the coming years. Leith, as well as Herb Evers (later known as Jason Evers) and Leslie Daniel, and also Adele Lamont and Eddie Carmel, all shine into posterity thanks to their work on this strange manifestation of the cinema consciousness circa 1959!

This behind-the-scenes image from Brain would be well-paired with Diane Arbus's photo of Eddie, "A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx."

This behind-the-scenes image from Brain would be well-paired with Diane Arbus's photo of Eddie, "Jewish Giant at Home with His Parents in the Bronx, NY, 1970."

Meanwhile, with Brain having given me a taste of the old days on 52nd Street, I’m ready for a time-travel journey back to the glory days in the 40s, when the late Sherry Britton (1918-2008) was the star at Leon and Eddie, 33 W. 52nd Street! I’m shown to my table…I settle into my chair…and order a beer. Lighting a Lucky Strike, I ask the waiter, “What time does Sherry go on?”

Yep, this is a show I wanna see!

Sherry was named an honorary brigadier general by President Roosevelt for her efforts at boosting the morale of our troops!

Sherry was named an honorary brigadier general by President Roosevelt for her efforts at boosting the morale of our troops!

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I got the William P. Gottlieb image of 52nd Street here, the matchbooks of Club Samoa here, the interior of Club Samoa here, the outdoor shot of Club Samoa here, and the nice color shot of Lili St. Cyr here.

Jean Harlow, forever sexy…

How nice it must have been during a cold winter night during the Great Depression to be able to slip into a neighborhood bijou and watch Jean Harlow light up a screen with her matchless combination of earthy sexiness and well-timed wisecracks.

This was one of Harlow's earliest hits.

This was one of Harlow's earliest hits.

annex-harlow-jean-hold-your-man_01

Their first meeting in Gable's apartment is a classic of flirtation.

I caught Hold Your Man a couple of weeks ago on Turner Classic Movies. A comedy-drama, I thought it works best in the first half, when Harlow and Gable have some priceless dialogue. You can just feel Harlow’s body as she walks around in the form-fitting dresses, and stands with a gentle insolence with her hand on her hip. Then the movie turns more dramatic and too sentimental. Still, I could see how just looking at Jean on the big screen could have taken an audience on a mini-vacation from its woes.

happy!

I can well imagine what Cagney's lap must have felt like with Jean on it: happy!

Harlow’s platinum blond hair and slinky outfits had women across the country adapting the look for their own. You can get a sense of what New York felt like in Harlow’s prime when you look at the paintings of Reginald Marsh, who populated his canvases with images of Harlowesque types striding through the tumult of New York City, whether on the streets, the beaches, the dance halls, or burlesque stages.

The late Reginald Marsh matchlessly captured the feisty women of 30s and 40s New York in his paintings and etchings.

Marsh himself seems to long for the beauties who stride through his canvases.

The reason why Jean Harlow is so sexy still is because she makes us laugh. Even though we can’t get her to sit down on our individual laps, she gets a real physical response out of us–a physical release–when she evokes our laughter. A beautiful woman with a warm-hearted sense of humor (as opposed to the cutting kind) is the most alluring of all females. And Jean was very generous, even democratic, in the distribution of her charms through the medium of comedy.

Hmm. Maybe if I concentrate hard enough, I can imagine her sitting on my lap, too…

jean_harlow-102

Let’s meet Frances Drake, screen beauty of the 1930s…

It is time to visit the 1930s.

I see that Turner Classic Movies has two Jean Harlow pictures on tonight–Dinner at Eight and Bombshell. Although I love Jean Harlow and find her extremely sexy–she’s one of those women I cannot believe was not bestowed with true immortality, not simply the cinematic kind–my favorite actress from the 1930s is someone much less well-remembered: Frances Drake (1912-2000, although some sources say 1908).

Frances had an amazingly warm, open face...

Frances had an amazingly warm, open face...

She made pictures at various studios like Paramount, MGM, and Universal. I’ve been smitten with her performances in 1935’s Mad Love (where she drives insane surgeon Peter Lorre into an erotic frenzy of revenge) and 1936’s The Invisible Ray (where she is a steadfast wife to obsessed scientist Boris Karloff until he practically pushes her into the arms of another man).

She has a star on the Walk of Fame at 6821 Hollywood Boulevard

She has a star on the Walk of Fame at 6821 Hollywood Boulevard

It’s so nice to run into her after getting out of my time machine. It’s 1937 and she’s still single; she hasn’t married the Hon. Cecil Howard yet, a titled Englishman to whom she will remain wed until his death in 1985. (Ironically, “Cecil Howard” is also the pseudonym of a famous director of porn films in the 1980s.)

I love the refined ladies she played on film, so it's nice to see her in cheesecake mode...

I love the refined ladies she played on film, so it's nice to see her in cheesecake mode...

In an early scene in The Invisible Ray, she walks in a filmy gown across the ramparts of Karloff’s Carpathian castle, and the slender beauty of her body is fleetingly but indelibly silouhetted against a flash of lighting in the night sky. I first saw this movie when I was about ten years old–five times in one week on New York’s Million Dollar movie, when my family and I were visiting my grandparents in Brooklyn. I grew up in Chicago, where they didn’t show movies like this five times a week for impressionable minds to soak up.

This is the face of the woman Karloff spurns to discover an element that turns him into a glowing fiend...

This is the face of the woman Karloff spurns to discover an element that turns him into a glowing fiend...

Well, Frances is used to kooky scenarios from the two great horror films she’s made, and so we have a nice evening out on the town. Later…

Under those warm eyes is a playful kitten...or is that tigress?

Under those warm eyes is a playful kitten...or is that tigress?

I ask her to put on that costume from her film Bolero, which I’ve never seen except in stills. It’s amazing how she reminds me of the drawings of fetish artist John Willie in this sexy get-up…

Someday I have to locate her 1934 film Bolero...

Someday I have to locate her 1934 film Bolero...

With legs like this, it’s easy to see how she started her career as a nightclub dancer in London. Although she was born in New York City, she was educated in Canada and England. She made her early film appearances under her real name, Frances Dean. (Recently, I read in an old film magazine named Screen Facts that “Frances Dean” ironically was the stage name another leggy lass, Betty Grable, used early in her career when she made low-budget cheapies!)

From ladylike to cozy to sultry, Frances Drake had range...

From ladylike to cozy to sultry, Frances Drake had range...

Ah, what a pleasure to hear her voice up close, and caress her slender, five-foot two-and-a-half inch form. I bury myself in her hair, and inhale her perfume…but alas, the hours fly by and I must return to my own time! I could never support her in the fashion to which she deserves to become accustomed. I’ll leave that to her future hubby, the honorable Cecil…they will marry in 1939.

Besides, what’s the point of being a Horny Time Traveler unless I roam? There are females of many eras to meet, and I cannot be tied down. Farewell, sweet Frances…but believe me, it’s especially tough to leave you.

————–

I got most of these public domain images from www.fanpix.net and one from Cinefania Online.