Saturday, May 16, 2009

Good Girls Go To Heaven, But Bad Girls Go Everywhere

Are you a bad girl? Do you rat your hair, pierce your ears, try a little tobacco? Do you sneak out after curfew, park in cars and shake your tail feathers at roadside dives? Can you size men up for the dopes they are and then play them like a fiddle at the annual saps convention? Is your philosophy of life that a low-cut neckline does more for a gal's future than a Harvard MBA?

If you answered "yes" to any of the above queries, you might be a tramp.

Lucky for you, Junk cinema Loves tramps. These gum-smacking bad girls have a rich tradition in bad movies. Whether played by Bette Davis, Mamie Van Doren or Peaches Paige, tramps enliven any flick they appear in.

The Golden Age of Tramps was from the 1930's to the early 1960's, before the sexual revolution and the pill. This was also the heyday of the Motion Picture Production Code, when Hollywood censors could be persuaded to allow illicit behavior on screen as long as the evil-doers were punished in the last reel and justice triumphed in the end. So, for example, Bette Davis in "Beyond the Forest"(1949) could emasculate her husband, have a wild affair, get pregnant, induce a miscarriage and commit murder as long as she dies of fever by the flick's end, which she does. Unlike the female lead in "The Last Seduction", tramps could never profit from their crimes.

Why, if tramps are so immoral, do Junk Cinema lovers like them so much? Because tramps are often the only fun people in the picture. Consider Claudette Colbert as Empress Poppaea in C. B. De Mille's "The Sign of the Cross" (1932). Saddled with a husband who would rather spend his time in the company of scantily clad slave boys, she's got nothing better to do than take milk baths and make goo-goo eyes at Roman hunks like Marcus Superbus (Fredric March). Naturally, a good time gal like Poppaea can't understand why Marcus would rather spend time with squeaky clean Christian girl Mercia (Elissa Landi)--and neither can we. Yes, Mercia is devout and loyal and long-suffering (her parents were covered in oil and set on fire to act as human torches, after all), but she's dry as dust. Never the less, Marcus joins her in the Colosseum to do battle with the lions rather than join Poppaea in one of her many milk baths. No doubt, the Empress mourned this dope very briefly and found any number of willing substitutes to scrub her back.

Another reason tramps are so popular in Junk Cinema is because they are smarter than the other cast members, especially the male cast members. Take Barbara Stanwyck in "Baby Face"(1933). She has no illusions about who she is and who is responsible for it. "I'm a tramp! And who's to blame? My father!" she screeches. Escaping to New York City for a better life, Babs heads over to the Gotham Trust Company and bluffs her way into an office job--even though she can't type.

"Do you have any experience?", the personnel clerk asks.

"Plenty," she replies.

Before long, Stanwyck is climbing the corporate ladder one man at a time. Among her conquests is a bit player named John Wayne. When a scandal involving Barbara and an ex-paramour threatens to topple the bank, Stanwyck negotiates an even cushier job for herself at their Paris branch. She appears to be living the high life with no regrets until the movie's tacked on ending has her forsaking it all for true love. Sure.

Tramps also have great dialogue. "Why do you think you're such a smoky something when you're just nothing painted blue?" growls Ann-Margret in "Kitten with a Whip"(1964). "My motor never runs down," Tura Satana proclaims in "Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!"(1966), "do you want to check under my hood?" "Just remember," tramp Terry Moore counsels in "Peyton Place"(1957),"men can see much better than they can think. A low-cut neckline does more for a girl's future than the entire Britannica Encyclopedia!" "Stop treating me like a saint," Mamie van Doren purrs to Russ Tamblyn in "High School Confidential (1958). "Relatives should always kiss each other hello and goodbye." "You're not too bright," Kathleen Turner observes about William Hurt in "Body Heat" (1981). "I like that in a man."

What makes a gal a tramp? That's complicated. Heredity can play a role: if your mom is a tramp, chances are you'll end up a tramp, too. Pearl Chavez (Jennifer Jones) in "Duel in the Sun" (1946) has a trampy saloon dancer for a mom, so it's a forgone conclusion she'll end up the same way. Joey Heatherton in "Where Love Has Gone" (1964) is saddled with tramp Susan Hayword for a mom, who brags to her cuckolded husband,"You're not the first today--I'm just getting warmed up!" Therefore, is anyone really surprised when Joey goes on trial for stabbing the stud mom was shacking up with? Or that both mom and daughter may have been having an affair with the guy? In "Claudelle Inglish"(1961) Diane McBain's mom Constance Ford actually encourages her daughter to be a tramp, especially after her high school boyfriend dumps her once they finally have sex. Then, after Diane refuses the advances of rich Claude Akins, Ford decides to run off with him herself. When Diane's pa wonders where his wife is, Claudelle gleefully informs him she's "down by the willows" with Akins, adding, "We watched them!"

Some gals become tramps because they are bored. That's Bette Davis' fate in "Beyond the Forest". Described as a "midnight gal in a nine o'clock town", Bette's stuck with a wimpy husband and a crummy house. "What a dump!" she famously declares. Then Bette takes up with a city slicker who promises to take her to Chicago. He later dumps her and leaves her pregnant. As one of Bette's neighbors observes, "It's tough on a girl like Rosa living in a town like this." To which her friend replies, "It's tough on the town".

Other gals think being a tramp will snag them a rich husband. In "The Carpetbaggers"(1964) Carroll Baker started out as George Peppard's girlfriend, but she immediately throws him over to marry his rich dad Leif Erickson, becoming his stepmother. "Peyton Places"s Terry Moore uses her tramp wiles on rich boy Barry Coe to the same effect. Later, when Coe dies in World War II, Moore confesses she was only being trampy because Coe liked trampy girls.

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn't address the social injustices that made some girls opt for trampdom. During the decades these films were made, the double standard was in full swing; any female caught having sex outside of marriage was automatically branded a tramp. A "reputation" was something women had to avoid, but men were encouraged to build. In "Claudelle Inglish", Diane McBain is ruined when she has sex with her high school sweetheart, but her ex, on the other hand, is in the free and clear to marry someone else and remains a citizen in good standing. As Joan Crawford points out in "Johnny Guitar" a man can lie, cheat and even commit murder, but "as long as he hangs onto his pride" he's still a man. However, "if a woman slips just once, she's a tramp."

A great many tramp characters came from poor families, had little educational opportunities and were stuck in low paying, dead-end jobs. If a gal became pregnant out-of-wedlock, she was stuck with the blame and the shame, but the father could easily deny paternity or skip out of town. People also didn't discuss self-esteem issues, co-dependancy or addiction.

But maybe that discussion is for another time. And maybe in the realm of Junk Cinema, tramps are perfectly comfortable with who and what they are. Maybe there's a lesson there.

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