Film Noir Friday:Lady of Burlesque [1943]

Welcome! The lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crimes theater is open. Grab a bucket of popcorn, some Milk Duds and a Coke and find a seat. It is burlesque week at Deranged L.A. Crimes–beginning with the post, NO, NO, BABETTE, and wrapping up with tonight’s feature, LADY OF BURLESQUE, starring Barbara Stanwyck, Michael O’Shea and Pinky Lee.

The movie is based on the 1941 novel by burlesque queen, Gypsy Rose Lee. Rumor has it that the novel was ghostwritten by mystery writer, Craig Rice. Rice (Georgiana Ann Randolph Craig) was the first female mystery writer to be featured on the cover of TIME MAGAZINE.

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However, there is sufficient evidence to prove that Ms. Lee wrote the book on her own. Either way, it is a fun read and makes for an equally entertaining movie.

Enjoy the movie!

TCM says:

S. B. Foss, owner of the Old Opera House on Broadway in New York City, promotes his new recruit, burlesque dancer Dixie Daisy, hoping that she will draw a large audience. Dixie’s performance draws cheers from the crowds and from comedian Biff Brannigan, who ardently admires Dixie even though she hates comics because of past experiences with them. When someone cuts the wire to the light backstage that signals the presence of the police, the performers are surprised by a raid, and pandemonium ensues. 

I’ll open with a short subject, a performance of PUT THE BLAME ON MAME with Gypsy Rose Lee from the 1958 film SCREAMING MIMI. Gypsy’s rendition is okay, but I prefer Rita Hayworth in GILDA.

No, No, Babette!

I research a lot of heinous crimes for this blog. But, sometimes, I tumble down a research rabbit hole and find a character who captures my imagination; then I follow them through their time in Los Angeles.

Each person is a thread in the fabric of the city. Which is how I came to Babette Fontaine. I tugged on a random thread. I saw an article about her and was fascinated. I would describe Babette as an entrepreneur who shared qualities with other transplants to Los Angeles during the 1930s and 1940s. Growing up in rural America, and coming of age during the Great Depression, Babette had nothing handed to her.

Conservative perceptions of women at the time dictated the employment available to them. Even programs in President Roosevelt’s New Deal restricted women.

They could not join the Civilian Conservation Corps, and other programs put them into housekeeping jobs. I imagine, as the daughter of a Kentucky miner, Babette preferred not to be stuck in front of a stove or behind a desk. She became a burlesque performer instead and traveled the east coast for a few years as a dancer.

I love women who defy the conventions and expections of their time. Babette was a rebel.

By the 1930s, American burlesque shows were unrecognizable from their 16th century English literary antecedents. Burlesque during the Great Depression was a training ground for many great comedians and actors whose careers took off in mainstream movies and television during the 1940s and 1950s. Dozens of legendary strippers, Sally Rand, Gypsy Rose Lee, and my favorite, Betty “Ball of Fire” Rowland, began their careers in the 1930s.

Chicago police arrested Sally Rand four times in a single day at the 1933 World’s Fair for her fan dance. Feathers, bubbles, and snakes became props for inspired dancers. Other dancers came up with their own signature acts.

SALLY RAND

In 1936, Babette Fontaine painted her body bronze in imitation of a statue, and became known professionally as the Bronze Venus. The gimmick made her a featured player in Parlez Vous Paree, a burlesque revue produced by Earl Taylor. Babette wasn’t the only woman to claim the Bronze Venus moniker.

JOSEPHINE BAKER, A TRUE BRONZE VENUS

Beginning in the 1920s, black mega-star Josephine Baker was called Bronze Venus. Baker didn’t need paint to glow like a work of art. Others to advertise themselves as Bronze Venus were Ha Cha San, Bobby Lynn, Collette, and La Tonda.

HA CHA SAN

Born to Burns and Maude Mccarty in rural Kentucky in 1916, Babette’s birth name may have been Dorothy. While Dorothy is an ideal name for a schoolteacher or housewife; Babette Fontaine looks better on a theater marquee.

The Parlez-Vous Paree show debuted in September 1936. It was a large production and featured scores of entertainers. They billed one as a stooge-like comedian. I wonder. Did he throw pies or chuckle nyuk, nyuk, nyuk?

A few months following the opening of the show, Babette’s name is prominently displayed in ads. The last mention of her is in November 1938.

Between November 1938 and January 1940, Babette vanished from show business. Then, suddenly, she resurfaced in multiple newspapers in a wire service interview. They described her as the head of a Los Angeles escort service.

Asked, “What would you pay for a date with your favorite movie star?” Babette had a ready answer. She said that if, by some miracle, she could deliver the “oomph girl” Ann Sheridan as a dinner partner to a lonely gent on New Year’s Eve, she would expect to get $1500. To put that into perspective, the 2022 equivalent amount is $30,585.00! If the lonely gentlemen would accept a second-best companion, Babette said she would offer either Dorothy Lamour, Hedy Lamarr, or Claudette Colbert for $750.

ANN SHERIDAN

Babette gave Greta Garbo a thumbs down as date material. Why? Because

she felt that men would be frightened of her.

GRETA GARBO

What if a woman needed an escort? Babette named Tyrone Power as the perfect date. Clark Gable, not so much. She said, “I am afraid he is a little too much of the aggressive type.”

TYRONNE POWER

In April 1941, a few months after Babette rated various Hollywood stars as potential dates for hire, she appeared in newspapers again. Operating an escort agency out of 726 South Wilton Place, she filed an injunction against Columbia Pictures Corp. The company planned to produce a film called “Glamour for Sale”.

And why should the film concern Babette? Because it depicted the escort business as shady, specializing in extortion, blackmail and other criminal activities. Babette took umbrage. She said she had operated an escort bureau in Los Angeles for two years and had never engaged in anything illegal. She worried her reputation would suffer if they released the film.

Babette withdrew her suit in September when producers at Columbia said that they would also show legitimate escort businesses in “Glamour for Sale.”

In a move similar to Babette’s lawsuit, in late 1941, burlesque star Betty Rowland sued Samuel Goldwyn Productions for using her well-known stage name, “Ball of Fire” as the title for his upcoming film starring Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper.

I AM SO LUCKY TO HAVE CHATTED WITH THE GREAT BETTY “BALL OF FIRE” ROWLAND. TO SEE BETTY IN ACTION, CLICK ON THE ABOVE PHOTO.

Several years ago, I asked Betty about her lawsuit. She winked and told me that the publicity was good for her and for the classic screwball comedy.

BARBARA STANWYCK’S “BALL OF FIRE” COSTUME IS A KNOCK-OFF OF ONE OF BETTY’S.

[Note: I’m pleased to report that as far as I know, as of this writing, Betty “Ball of Fire” Rowland is alive and well at 106! I hope she lives forever.]

Following the recall of Mayor Frank Shaw and the dismantling of his criminal empire in 1938, Los Angeles cracked down on vice. Regulations followed. One of the new regulations required escort bureaus to be licensed. Legislating morality is nigh impossible, but that never stopped a city, county, or a nation from trying.

A man seeking an escort sometimes expects more for his money than arm candy. If the woman is willing, they might make a deal without the agency’s knowledge. Of course, a crooked agency would encourage such arrangements and take a cut.

When Babette applied for a license in May 1941, she endured a grilling by the Police Commission. They wanted to know how much income tax she paid, what the girls charged and what she charged the girls.

According to Babette, she selected girls of good moral character, however, they were on “their own” after being introduced to the client. To me, that sounds like ass-covering 101. She said she charged the client $5. She then suggested to the client that he tip his date $5.

Babette claimed none of her girls ever had been arrested, and the only complaints she received about them came from police vice squad officers posing as clients. Sergeant John Stewart of the Central vice squad told a different story about one of Babette’s escorts. He and a few of his men operated an investigation out of the Biltmore and arrested one of the girls for “offering.”

Stewart, questioned about amounts paid to the escorts, said some demanded $50 from undercover investigators, others wanted $100 or more. A far cry from the five bucks Babette quoted.

Babette needed to prove she knew nothing of her escort offering undercover vice investigators a service not on the bureau’s official menu. She provided an alibi. She claimed she was out of town, or out of the office, when the girl was arrested. She played the sympathy card. The stress of the vice investigation caused her to suffer a breakdown. She fled to Dallas, Texas, for her nerves. Then she spent three days at the Hollywood Knickerbocker to further recuperate.

She produced receipts, which showed she was away when the girl was busted at the Biltmore. Babette also claimed a rival agency planted the girl to get her into trouble with the police.

The day after her license hearing, where she learned they postponed the renewal, Babette overdosed on sleeping pills in her car in a service station at Wilshire Boulevard and Detroit Street. She left a note, “Cards stacked—no use.” In her handbag she left a typewritten summary of her testimony to the Police Commission.

Babette claimed the police hounded her for not “playing nice,” and one vice cop in particular, who she nicknamed the “boogeyman”, followed her girls and clients, and prevented her from operating her business.

By July, Babette received the bad news. Her request for a license was denied. Babette’s attorney filed an appeal.

The drama kicked up a notch when, in February 1942, Babette claimed two men kidnapped and beat her.

She said two men followed her as she drove away from her home at 9038 Rosewood Avenue, Beverly Hills. Several blocks later, the men forced her car to the curb. A masked man got into her car and told her to follow his directions or “get a bullet in your back.”

She drove to 135th and San Pedro, where the men forced her from the car into a vacant lot. The thugs told her to “get out of town”, punched her on the jaw and knocked her out. When she revived, she had a gag in her mouth– her wrists and ankles tied. She struggled for an hour before freeing herself. Once freed, she walked into the street and flagged a passing motorist who took her to the Compton Police Station. Police reported Babette’s abductors had used her red lipstick to mark her forehead, cheeks and breasts with crosses. The significance of the red crosses is a mystery.

Babette had a flair for self-promotion. Was her kidnapping real? Without a description of her assailants, the police had nothing to investigate.

In early April, vice cops arrested Babette on morals charges in her home at 1769 S. Crescent Heights Boulevard. Arrested with her were Norma Clark and Harry Barker. Cops took the trio to Lincoln Heights Jail. They charged Babette with procuring and set her bail at $500. They charged Barker and Clark with resorting, and bail was set at $150 each.

Neighbors complained about suspicious goings-on at the bungalow and police staked it out for two nights before making the arrests.

Once her bail was posted, Babette made a beeline to her sister Colleen’s place at 2500 S. Hobart, where she was arrested while packing for a trip to Reno.

At first, Babette refused to appear in court. Then she changed her mind. She pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor procuring charge, and they immediately committed to jail for a medical exam (likely to screen for STDs) pending a probation hearing and sentencing. No word on how that turned out for her.

The Los Angeles Times offered a brief rundown of Babette’s escapades, beginning in 1941 and ending with her March 1943 arrest in Glendale after being found wandering along Brand Boulevard at 3:00 a.m. wearing only a white nightgown with gold trimmings.

This bizarre report ends the newspaper trail for Babette Fontaine—a fascinating and enterprising temporary Angeleno.

BROADWAY HOTEL, PORTLAND, OREGON

The last information I have for Babette is a marriage certificate. In Clark County, Washington, on January 28, 1946, Babette married Will Hayes—seventeen years her senior. Both gave as their address as the Broadway Hotel in Portland, Oregon.

Where they went and what they did as a couple following their marriage, I wish I knew. I hope Babette landed on her feet.

Film Noir Friday: The Chase [1946]

Welcome! The lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crimes theater is open. Grab a bucket of popcorn, some Milk Duds and a Coke and find a seat.

Tonight’s feature is THE CHASE [1946] starring Robert Cummings, Michele Morgan, Steve Cochran and Peter Lore.

Enjoy the film!

TCM says:

Returning a lost wallet gains unemployed veteran Chuck Scott a job as chauffeur to Eddie Roman, a seeming gangster whose enemies have a way of meeting violent ends. The job proves nerve-wracking, and soon Chuck finds himself pledged to help Eddie’s lovely, fearful, prisoner-wife Lorna to escape. The result leaves Chuck caught like a rat in a trap, vainly seeking a way out through dark streets. But the real chase begins when the strange plot virtually starts all over again…

Deadly Women, Series 14

I am fortunate to be affiliated with the DEADLY WOMEN television series. I love working with them and I have appeared in every season for over a decade.

I received an email from them the other day letting me know that my first episode of the current series (Episode 7, Flash Point) is going to premiere on the Discovery Plus streaming service Thursday, June 24.

It will also air on Investigation Discovery the following week on Thursday, July 1 at 9/8/C.

I cover a 1940 case from the U.K. Here is a photo of the deadly woman. You will learn all about her crime soon.

I will keep you posted on the other episodes for this series.

Thanks!

HO, HO, HOmicide: Holiday Noir–Christmas Holiday [1944]

Welcome! The lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crimes theater is open. Grab a bucket of popcorn, some Milk Duds and a Coke and find a seat. We are celebrating the holidays with holiday themed noir movies.

Tonight’s feature is CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY, starring Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly.

TCM says:

After receiving his commission on Christmas Eve, Lt. Charles Mason learns that Mona, his longtime girl friend, has married another man. When his plane from North Carolina to San Francisco is forced by bad weather to land in New Orleans, the heartbroken Charles meets alcoholic reporter Simon Fenimore, who takes him to a brothel run by Valerie De Merode. There Charles is introduced to hostess/singer Jackie Lamont, and agrees to take her to a midnight mass. After the church services, the two go to a diner, where Jackie tells Charles that her real name is Abigail and that she is the wife of convicted murderer Robert Manette.

HO, HO, HOmicide: Holiday Noir–Mr. Soft Touch [1949]

Welcome! The lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crimes theater is open. Grab a bucket of popcorn, some Milk Duds and a Coke and find a seat.

We are celebrating the holidays over the next few days with holiday themed noir movies.

Happy Holidays!

Tonight’s feature is MR. SOFT TOUCH, starring Glenn Ford, Evelyn Keyes, John Ireland, Beulah and Percy Kilbride.

At Christmas time in San Francisco, Joe Miracle steals $100,000 from the River Club, which he used to own. After evading his pursuers, Joe hides out with Victor Christopher, the brother of his dead partner Leo, and Victor’s wife Clara. Clara has purchased a berth for Joe on the next ship leaving the city. The ship, however, will not depart until the following night. While Joe is trying to decide where he will hide until then, the police demand to search the apartment. At first Joe believes they are looking for the stolen money, but learns that they want to arrest Victor for disturbing the peace and beating Clara. When the police mistake Joe for Victor and arrest him for the night, Joe believes that his problems are solved, but Jenny Jones, a social worker, persuades the judge to give Joe a suspended sentence. 

Mid-Week Noir: Black Angel [1946]

Welcome! The lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crimes theater is open for a mid-week noir matinee. Grab a bucket of popcorn, some Milk Duds and a Coke and find a seat.

Today’s feature is BLACK ANGEL starring Dan Duryea, June Vincent, Peter Lorre and Broderick Crawford.

TCM SAYS:

Has-been alcoholic songwriter Martin Blair goes to Los Angeles exclusive Wilshire House apartments to visit his estranged wife, popular singer Marvis Marlowe, but is refused entrance by the doorman per Marvis’ instructions. Martin sends up a gift of a small heart brooch and, while waiting outside the building, overhears a man receiving permission to see Marvis. Despondent, Martin goes to a bar to get drunk, then, as he often does, his friend Joe takes him home to his apartment and locks him in for the night. After midnight that same night, musician Kirk Bennett goes to see Marvis and, finding her apartment door unlocked and hearing her recording of “Heartbreak” playing, goes inside to wait.

The First with the Latest! Aggie Underwood, Crime Reporter

Aggie interviews a tearful dame.

“There is no killer type.  Slayers range all ages, all sexes. . . Homicide is expected from the hoodlum, the gun moll, the gulled lover.  It isn’t from the teenager, the . . . sweet old lady, the fragile housewife, the respectable gent who is the proverbial pillar of society.

They kill with pistol, rifle, or shotgun; with the blade . . . with poison; with ax, hatchet or hammer; with cord or necktie; with fake accidents; with blunt instruments or with phony drownings.

Killers do not run true to form.  What they have in common is killing.”

The quote is from my favorite Los Angeles crime reporter Aggie Underwood, from her 1949 autobiography, NEWSPAPERWOMAN, and she knew what she was talking about.

During her career as a reporter, Aggie covered nearly every major crime story in the city. Law enforcement respected her and occasionally sought her opinion regarding a suspect. They even credited her with solving a few crimes.  

Cops and journalists have a lot in common. Both professions rely on intuition guided by experience and intelligence. They see the worst that humanity has to offer, but no matter what they witness, they strive to maintain their objectivity. 

Inspired by Aggie, I began this blog in 2012 and wrote her Wikipedia page. In 2016, I curated an exhibit at the Central Library on Aggie’s career and wrote the companion book.

Join me on November 17, 2020 at 7pm PST for the webinar and you will meet one of the most fascinating women in Los Angeles’ history.

Film Noir Friday: The Stranger [1946]

Welcome! The lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crimes theater is open. Grab a bucket of popcorn, some Milk Duds and a Coke and find a seat.

Tonight’s feature is THE STRANGER starring Orson Welles (who also directed), Edward G. Robinson and Loretta Young.

TCM says:

In post-war Germany, Wilson, an American delegate to the Allied War Crimes Commission, demands that Nazi prisoner of war Meinike be allowed to escape so that he may lead the Commission to his former boss, Franz Kindler, the most dangerous and elusive Nazi of all. Watched carefully by Wilson, the freed Meinike travels to Latin America and there contacts a former Nazi cohort about the whereabouts of Kindler. After some resistance, Meinike learns that Kindler, an avowed clock enthusiast, is living under the name Professor Charles Rankin in a small Vermont town called Harper. 

MIDNIGHT IN THE DESERT –A CONVERSATION ABOUT HISTORIC LOS ANGELES CRIME

MY INTERVIEW WITH DAVE SCHRADER ON MIDNIGHT IN THE DESERT

On March 10th, B.C. (before Covid) I was interviewed by Dave Schrader for his wonderful radio show, MIDNIGHT IN THE DESERT. We talked for 3 hours about historic Los Angeles crime.

When I first agreed to do the interview I wondered how we would fill the time. By the 2 1/2 hour mark I knew we’d never be able to cover everything. The time flew. Dave is a terrific host and I recommend that you check out his show. I hope to make a return visit sometime during the summer.

Dave’s area of expertise is the paranormal, but he also has an interest in crime. Here’s a little more about Dave:

Dave Schrader has been one of the leading voices of the paranormal since 2006 when he launched his wildly popular talk show, Darkness on the Edge of Town on Twin Cities News Talk – Minneapolis’s top-rated AM talk station.

The show grew to become one of the station’s most successful shows and most-downloaded podcasts, expanding Schrader’s reach globally. Seeing an opportunity, Schrader moved his show to Chris Jericho’s network of shows on PodcastOne, where he further expanded his worldwide audience.

You can find Dave on MIDNIGHT IN THE DESERT.