Time to digress again – and why not? As with the B word last year, each post about Identity Politics or the pandemic requires at least 48 hours’ breathing space before my exhausted ire can summon up the requisite energy for a fresh assault on the subject, so today’s digression treads a familiar path – if taking an unusual starting point. Anyway, as a small child I resided in a ‘Coronation Street’-style neighbourhood in which the traditional corner shop run by a grumpy old man was still a permanent fixture; for those kids with an appetite for escapism that couldn’t be satisfied by penny sweets, these claustrophobic emporiums often included a revolving rack crammed with American comic-books featuring eye-catching covers designed to provoke the pestering of purses in the possession of mothers. These glossy imports were also a little pricier than their home-grown equivalents on account of the full colour contents, so it helped to have a few good deeds in the bank.
The October 1971 issue of ‘Jimmy Olsen’ (subtitled ‘Superman’s Pal’, just in case the reader didn’t realise) had a US cover price of 25₵, but one that featured the UK price of 7½p stamped on it – presumably by customs & excise. Such purchases were something of a treat on account of the cost, but children tend to value their treats – or did when they were few and far between – and this particular treat imprinted itself on my consciousness via its characteristically vivid illustrations by the great Jack Kirby. The story as best I can remember it involved the Man of Steel (Jimmy Olsen’s pal, lest the reader forgot) somehow stumbling upon an Earth-like world plagued by characters resembling the classic Universal Studios stable of horrors – Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Werewolf, etc. – which had evolved for real on account of old movies being beamed onto the planet from outer space and taken as a design for life from the Gods.
As was commonplace in the comics industry back then, good ideas tended to regularly recur when the author ran out of new ones; this plot was a rehash by Jack Kirby of a ‘Fantastic Four’ story he’d co-penned in the 60s, though that one concerned a parallel world developed along the lines of 1920s Prohibition-era Chicago, a planet evolving into a society run by gangsters. I suppose one could say the story was a sharp satire on the way in which cinema influences actions in the real world as some imitate what they see on screen and then cinema gets the blame – an accusation that was certainly made in the 30s and 40s whenever certain crimes were said to be inspired by a specific film. The irony here was that the Golden Age of the Hollywood gangster picture – primarily the province of Warner Brothers and one that made Edward G Robinson, James Cagney and George Raft household names – was born of holding a mirror up to the contemporary criminal element; art imitated life and then life imitated art.
The only reason I’m thinking of this is due to the ongoing narrative of my DVD lockdown library once again. Having been through every TV series on the shelf, I’ve just moved onto movies and I fortunately have an abundance of these films, most of which I haven’t watched for several years. The gangster flicks in the collection lean heavily towards the pre-war monochrome ones, especially if Cagney stars. I find him a mesmerising, incredibly charismatic actor whose on-screen presence transcends all the famous tics and gestures that were as crucial to every 1970s TV impressionist’s act as Frank Spencer impersonations. When I was a kid, Cagney was still one of the world’s most instantly recognisable movie stars, even if he’d long since retired from the business by then; regular screenings of his old films dominated BBC2’s ‘Saturday Cinema’ institution, the sole alternative to wall-to-wall sport during my childhood. His electrifying performances in classics such as ‘Public Enemy’, ‘Angels with Dirty Faces’, ‘The Roaring Twenties’ and ‘White Heat’ aren’t remotely stagey, even though they pre-date the Method school; he so convinces as a cold-eyed hard man that it’s no surprise he struggled to escape the typecasting these roles inevitably led to.
‘White Heat’, the movie climaxing with the legendary line ‘Look ma, top of the world!’ as Cagney’s psychotic crook with an Oedipus Complex, Cody Jarrett, is poised to be blown to smithereens, had elements of the gangster picture of the 1930s, but brought it firmly into the present day – 1949 – by incorporating tropes of Film Noir, the genre that had taken the crime story down an intriguing dark alley. In Noir, the focus shifted from the gangster to the private eye or police detective, and the main obstacle to nailing the bad guy tended to be the femme fatale, an alluring female figure of ambiguous moral character who often ensnared both hero and villain along the way. The femme fatale was the talkies’ successor to silent cinema’s bad girl, the Vamp, and provided numerous actresses with an entrée into the A-list; indeed, so career-defining did these roles become for some of them that it proved difficult to evade the long shadow they cast. The extensive attention to lighting that Hollywood reserved for its female stars at the time – the kind we’d now only really associate with still photography – helped seal the images in iconic amber forevermore.
Although Barbara Stanwyck in 1944’s ‘Double Indemnity’ gloriously exposed the avaricious bitch at the dark heart of the femme fatale and Rita Hayworth in 1946’s ‘Gilda’ portrayed the character at her most breathtakingly vivacious, my own personal favourite is Veronica Lake, she of the famous peek-a-boo haircut that was much later taken to a lop-sided extreme by Phil Oakey of The Human League. The trio of movies Lake made alongside Alan Ladd between 1942 and 1946 – ‘This Gun for Hire’, ‘The Glass Key’ and ‘The Blue Dahlia’ – saw this exquisitely elegant, languid blonde bombshell make the femme fatale as alluring as ever but gave the archetype a sympathetic, human quality that made it possible to fall in love with her without the perennial worry of waking up after a night of passion to discover she’d done a runner with your wallet. Veronica Lake undoubtedly has the femme fatale look, but her disarming ‘girly’ voice suggests a soft centre beyond the untouchable exterior; one gets the impression that the femme fatale front is a tool she’s developed in order to survive.
Having established herself as one of Hollywood’s most distinctive screen Goddesses, Veronica Lake then had to forego the hairstyle that made her stand out at the request of the US Government, concerned that its popularity could prove a safety hazard for women working dangerous machinery during wartime. However, so associated was she with this specific look that its voluntary sacrifice to the war effort actually had a detrimental effect on her career. She also suffered a couple of personal tragedies in the loss of a child and divorce; she then began drinking heavily, perhaps as a response to the less-than-sympathetic treatment stars received in the era of the all-powerful studio system, gaining a reputation for being ‘difficult’ on set. Offers dried up, and by the early 50s she was declared bankrupt, fleeing to New York where she descended into a sad cycle of drunkenness and dead-end jobs. She resuscitated her career in periodic bouts on stage and even played Blanche DuBois in Bromley in 1969. I so want to believe a certain resident of Bromley at that time saw this performance and was then inspired to copy her old image for the LP he released the following year, ‘The Man Who Sold the World’; but we’ll probably never know.
Veronica Lake died in 1973 aged 50 of acute kidney injury after having been diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver. But did the Veronica Lake who still smoulders as the celluloid embodiment of my kind of woman ever really die? Of course not, no more than Cagney or Bogart or any of them; they’re immortal – and just as they wove a fair few dreams that offered something other than Frank Bough or Dickie Davies on drizzly Saturday afternoons 40-odd years ago, they retain the magical power to divert and distract when it’s most needed. For that alone, those of us in the gutter looking up at the stars are eternally indebted.
© The Editor