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The largely overblown notion of silent-film actors whose voices doomed them in talkies has been firmly enshrined in Hollywood mythology (and at least one undisputed masterwork, Singin’ in the Rain). Some careers did end, but often these actors were casualties of fashion; their time had passed. Much less discussed is the fact that the early talkies also produced a number of stars who faded or disappeared as changes in Hollywood, many linked to the enforcement of the Production Code beginning in mid-1934, lessened the demand for their style and their movies.
Dames, Janes, Dolls, and Canaries—a lighthearted reference to the era’s slang—gives a fresh look at the actresses who flourished briefly in the early 1930s, whose screen presence and approach to performing made them especially in tune with the early years of the Great Depression. Some, like Mae Clarke and Sally Eilers, projected the common sense and self-preservation instincts of a working woman navigating a cruel and sexist world. A few, like Bebe Daniels and the great Clara Bow, were silent stars whose appeal was undiminished—perhaps even enhanced—by the demands of talkies. Nancy Carroll’s versatility, which saw her draw the crowds in musicals, dramas, and comedies, still wasn’t enough to save her from persistent (and, in the #MeToo era, familiar) accusations of being “difficult.” Italian-born Elissa Landi was hobbled by misconceived publicity that sought to establish her as a rival to Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich, when her appeal was unlike either. The relaxation of certain taboos in the pre-Code era offered an all-too-brief opportunity to Toshia Mori, who gave one great supporting performance and never got a chance to give another. Mary Nolan might have had trouble surviving Hollywood in any era, but her weary, bruised affect was an exact fit for the disillusionment of the early ’30s.
Fourteen actresses in total are included in this series—the others are Ann Harding, Leila Hyams, Genevieve Tobin, Marian Marsh, Madge Evans, Dolores Del Rio, and Helen Twelvetrees. Wherever possible, a concerted effort has been made to schedule films that not only show their talents, but also are either rarely screened, unavailable on home video, or have reputations unfairly diminished by years of terrible, murky copies. The aim of Dames, Janes, Dolls, and Canaries is to provide a picture of the wide range of actresses and their characters in this era, before Joseph Breen and the Hays Office, who spearheaded the Production Code, deliberately narrowed the view.
Film selections and program text by Farran Nehme.
Organized by Dave Kehr, Curator, and Olivia Priedite, Senior Program Assistant, Department of Film, The Museum of Modern Art, with Farran Nehme, independent curator.