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Movie Review: Blondie Johnson (1933)

What is the difference between a woman’s picture and a picture staring a woman? Hollywood is quick to highlight so-called “women’s pictures”, but in the race to classify everything, it’s surprisingly easy to forget that women aren’t just a part of “women’s stories”. Comedy, drama, film noir… all of these are fair game. We are half of the world’s population, believe it or not. The 1933 drama Blondie Johnson stands out as a female led vehicle which manages to take a step beyond the usual pre-code expectations. The movie isn’t simply a romance, nor is it a melodrama. When all is said and done, Blondie Johnson isn’t a “woman’s picture” this is a story about a woman.

Blondie Johnson follows the aforementioned ‘Blondie’ (Joan Blondell) as she fights to make a way for herself as a woman, alone in the big city during the Great Depression. There’s life, love (in the form of Chester Morris) and even the occasional con job. How else is a girl supposed to get ahead in the world? A host of extrordinary character actors round out the cast, with Allen Jenkins and Sterling Holloway backing up the leads. Ray Enright directs the film from a script by Earl Baldwin.

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Much has been discussed about the incredibly unique leading ladies of the 1930s, and their cultural importance in relation to feminism and the growing women’s movement. Performers like Katharine Hepburn, Myrna Loy, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford are just a few of the actresses topping marquees of the period. By and large, these women are defined by their spirit. The characters they portrayed were feisty, they were independent and they occasionally wore pants! (Gasp!).

With much of her career defined by musicals, Joan Blondell, finds herself slightly in the periphery of this group. However, Blondie Johnson firmly places the actress along with her contemporaries. While female led vehicles aren’t uncommon in this era, this one feels less overtly romantic as many of the others. In fact, through much of the film, Blondie’s attention couldn’t be farther from true love (or even finding a rich husband as some of her predecessors). Instead, her focus is squarely on surviving and making a good life for herself.

Now, Blondie Johnson doesn’t feel like a ‘woman’s picture’. The film doesn’t have the melodrama, or even the lightness you’d expect of a movie like this. This is the story of a character, who just so happens to be a lady. In fact, when viewed through another perspective, this would be a gangster movie fronted by Chester Morris featuring Blondell as the love interest. Blondell’s take on the titular character is above all else, realistic. The actress hones in clearly on the pain, the desire and especially the drive inherent in this character. In fact, little separates her from the populist heroes of the period like Tom Powers and Little Caesar. She’s not above using the system to get what she wants.

Blondell is typically associated with her comedy and musical work during this period. She is a staple in the Busby Berkeley films of this era, namely Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade. While each of these films do deal with social issues like the Great Depression, the realism is scaled back a bit. The musicals bring a certain element of escapist fun simply through their form which is inherently unique to the genre. As such, Blondie Johnson feels like a much deeper cut in Blondell’s filmography.

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Is the film what contemporary audiences would call feminist? As a 1930s drama, it’s difficult to make that argument. The movie’s passage of the Bechdel Test is doubtful at best. Ultimately a romantic narrative, the story still brings the usual idealized ending. However, the narrative brings a painfully accurate take on a woman’s story from this period. Early in the first act, Blondie appeals to a welfare office for assistant:

Welfare Officer: Where did you last work?

Blondie: In a laundry on 14th Street. The Star Laundry. But, that was four months ago. I haven’t been able to get any kind of work since.

Welfare Officer: Laid off?

Blondie: I – I quit… The boss wouldn’t let me alone.

Welfare Officer: So you quit! That’s all for now.

This sequence plays painfully familiar, even to contemporary audiences. At the time of writing this movie is 86 years old. In just a minute of screen time, the movie addresses sexual harassment and the plight of women who stand up to it. Blondie is refused financial assistance because she should simply be “grateful” for the work and look passed the sexual harassment which comes with it. While this perspective doesn’t seem out-of-place in 1933, these questions are still being asked almost daily in contemporary society.

Meanwhile, the star persona of male lead Chester Morris plays a great deal into the status of this movie as well. While not a well remembered name, Morris spent much of the 1930s and 1940s establishing himself as a “heavy”. The actor broke out in the late silent era, but made a name for himself in Alibi. The 1929 crime drama netted Morris a Best Actor Oscar nomination at the second annual Academy Awards.

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Morris with Thelma Todd in Corsair (1931)

During the 1930s, Morris established himself in tough, almost villainous roles… just not quite. While the actor rarely played true “bad guys”, he always brought an edge (and a bit of a past) to his characters. His take on Danny Jones in Blondie Johnson is no different. While there’s an a romantic narrative playing out, it’s defined largely by the rough nature of these characters in this decidedly Pre-Code environment.

Danny: Well you make me sick. If you was my dame I’d break your neck.

Blondie: If I was your dame I’d deserve it.

This sense of violence is highly problematic; however, it isn’t uncommon to Morris’ roles of the period. In Red Headed Woman (1932) Morris’ character Bill Legendre clearly rapes Jean Harlow’s Lil Andrews. His characters in films like Corsair (1931), Five Came Back (1939) and The Big House (1930) are often verbally (and occasionally physically) abusive to the female leads. He plays gangsters, criminals and social outcasts with relative ease… all with the looks of a matinee idol of the period. As a result, he often stands in as a redeemable example of 1930’s era masculinity. He’s as rough as his contemporaries, but not above the influence of the right love-interest (as we see in Blondie Johnson).

Working together, Blondell and Morris meld perfectly. There’s an equality in their performances as the two go toe to toe. Blondell matches Morris in tone and avoids letting herself be overshadowed by his often dominating persona. Both are particularly impressive in their early, dialogue heavy scenes, excelling  in the iconic 1930s style of rapid fire dialogue. It’s an exhilarating, master class in the cinema of the era.

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Blondie Johnson packs together a sterling group of supporting actors which makes the movie a must-see for fans of 1930s cinema. Sterling “Winnie the Pooh” Holloway is a complete and utter joy as ‘Red’. Meanwhile, Allen Jenkins shows once again why he was a go to for gangster character roles during this period.

If the film struggles with anything, it’s the Pre-Code shortness. At less than 70 minutes, it’s a quick and easy sit. However, the runtime isn’t enough for the script to truly gel. As a result, plot-points feel rushed and jammed to their inevitable conclusion. By the time the audience is able to get a feel for one thing (just why was Louis (Allen Jenkins) under arrest?) the narrative shifts focus. In fact, the film could tack on an additional thirty minutes and be absolutely fine.26-joan-blondell

Questions of gender are fascinating, especially in examination of Pre-Code cinema and Blondie Johnson is an important examination of this important topic. This crime drama fronted by a woman is uniquely constructed, not only rare in pre-code cinema, but really in contemporary Hollywood. This film is an incredibly rare example of a film which tells a woman’s story, without being a “woman’s picture”.

 

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Anatomy of a Song, Top 5

Anatomy of a Song: Isn’t It Kinda Fun

The classic musical State Fair (1945/1962) brings a number of classic vocal standards to movie screens. When looking at both movies in comparison songs like “It Might As Well Be Spring” and “It’s a Grand Night for Singing” feel very standard in their depiction. These musical numbers are examples of timeless, mid-century Americana. Interestingly, this isn’t the case for “Isn’t It Kinda Fun”. The catchy tune features prominently between both film versions. However, while there are relatively few changes within the lyrics and overall structure of the song, the staging and delivery of the number allows an examination of the massive cultural changes in the almost twenty years separating these movies.

Our cinematic introduction to “Isn’t It Kinda Fun” comes in the 1945 film version of State Fair. A centrepiece of the movie, the song is showcased as a duet between Wayne Frake (Dick Haymes) and Emily (Vivian Blaine).

The performance in the movie serves two primary roles. Perhaps most importantly is the song’s purpose in developing one of State Fair’s main romantic pairings. Emily is a traveling showgirl and nightclub singer and it is through this song that she’s truly able to connect with innocent farm boy Wayne.

Secondly, the number is also an important character moment for Wayne. Throughout much of the narrative, he struggles to establish himself as anything more than a clueless hick in the eyes of Emily’s “show-business” friends. Haymes was a crooner by trade and he feels much more comfortable as a singer than with his acting. He shines in the moment, and this shows in the audiences’ reaction around him. As such, “Isn’t It Kinda Fun” helps establish Wayne as a serious contender for Emily’s affections. Though, as per usual for most post-WWII musicals, any sexual chemistry is largely absent.

The one thing that is clear from this music number is that in 1945 “Isn’t It Kinda Fun” is a standard work of Hollywood fair. It’s clean, polished and feels very similar to other numbers of the time.

The song later makes a reappearance in the all-star, 1962 remake of the same name. In this version, the song is repurposed as a showcase for Emily (Ann-Margret) during one of her shows at the state fair. The song takes the place of “That’s for Me” which is also sung by Emily (Blaine) in the 1945 version.

The changes to this number demonstrate the cultural evolution affecting the gold, old-fashioned Americana of the Hollywood musical. The song which is presented in 1945 as a standard vocal ballad is “Ann-Margret-ized” in 1962. Emily performs it on-stage as a dumb-struck Wayne (Pat Boone) watches from the audience below her. It is sultry and fiery, making use of not only Ann-Margret’s strength as a singer and dancer, but also her undeniable sexuality.

The first State Fair came as America struggled to return to normalcy at the end of World War II. Servicemen were returning from overseas and couples were anxious to return to life as it was. Meanwhile, the second movie comes from a drastically different cultural period. The 1960s were a time of substantial social upheaval. In the years surrounding this movie’s release, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique hit newsstands as well as the (equally important) Sex and The Single Girl by Helen Gurley Brown. Views towards sexuality (and women in general) were changing, and this fact is evident in the music number. The choice of song (as well as actress) deliberately shows how culture shifted and evolved in the twenty-years following the end of the second World War.

While the 1962 version of State Fair hasn’t survived the passage of time as well as the original film, the remake is definitely worth a watch. The similarities and differences the depiction of songs like “Isn’t It Kinda Fun” shows how society changed since the release of the 1945 State Fair.

Vintage Recipes

Vintage Recipes: Girl Scout Cookies (1922)

Today takes us on a bit of a detour gentle readers, manly due to a long day at the “day job” and finding myself unable to muster the energy for the pie I’m still needing to bake. In my laziness, I wanted to pick something a bit easier… this took me to a vintage Girl Scout cookie recipe from 1922. The write-up can be found on the Girl Scout website.

Not too painful, right?

The recipe has some simple roots, especially if you’ve tackled basic spritz cookies. Otherwise known as my go-to Christmas cookie.//

Once the butter and sugar go in you start adding the wet ingredients (eggs, milk, flavoring- I did use almond instead of vanilla!). The results are decidedly… gross. We’re talking a sloppy, messy, lumpy dough. I have never seen a dough which looks quite this… bleh.

Luckily for me, this is the first recipe in a while which didn’t call for cup after cup of sifted flour. As a result, this wasn’t quite the arm workout.

The dry ingredients pulled the dough together well…

With the rest of the dry ingredients added, the dough was a bit more manageable. It was still really sticky, but it worked as a drop cookie.

With the lack of details on the recipe, I threw them in the oven at my go-to of 350 degrees (F). And since cook times vary (even bake to bake) in my poor little geriatric oven, I checked them every 5 minutes. They ended up coming out at roughly the 15 minute mark.

As you can see, some of them browned a bit much, but they were a deliciously soft cookie. They could decorate up really nicely (I went for a spartan look… it was late. Don’t judge me!). Anywhoo, they could lend themselves really well to some varied flavors, and they were devoured by my ever enthusiastic taste-testers. This is definitely a recipe I shall be coming back to in the coming months.

Stay tuned for more!

Raiding Mommy’s Liquor Cabinet

Raiding Mommy’s Liquor Cabinet: Pink Lady

Here at Hollywood and Wine, I’m forever questing after all things vintage. In this new segment, I’m digging into the past by looking at some vintage cocktails. We’re raiding mommy’s liquor cabinet so you don’t have to!

Today’s recipe comes straight from the Mad Men era, being posted in a 1968 recipe book.

The Pink Lady is a little drink with a surprisingly long history. Despite its name, it isn’t a “sexy” nostalgic favorite, fading into the background in a sea of Manhattans, Old Fashions and Gin Martinis.

A quick Google of the drink’s history ties the drink back to the Prohibition era in some form. In fact, the Pink Lady is mentioned in the 1937 comedy Topper.

Once you venture back 80 years, the mixtures and stories begin to get a little muddled.

The drink’s rise seems most apparent between Prohibition and the 1950s. Much is written emphasizes its status as a ladies drink. A Wall Street Journal article: “This Lady is Tart in Taste” details that actress Jayne Mansfield loved the cocktail, mixing herself one every day before dinner. It’s difficult to get much more traditionally (and superficially) feminine than the curvaceous actress.

Perhaps even more fascinating is the fall from grace which followed. As the 1960s progressed, the Pink Lady dropped out of favor, with the reason cited as male cocktail enthusiasts rejecting the femininity of the drink. “I mean, what man drinks a pink cocktail?!”. (🙄) As someone who enjoys looking at gender and sexuality during the mid-twentieth century, I’ll be writing more on this soon!

Now, let’s get to mixing this sucker. Looking at the recipe I used, it’s not quite the standard. It’s close, but is actually missing Applejack Brandy… never mind that I don’t have any. There are also a number of recipes which omit the cream and lemon. In fact, the omission of cream seems to be an older iteration! That being said, look for me to rerun this with the other version of this recipe in the near future! Much, much more to come.

This drink was a fun one to mix. The alcohol you need for this one is gin! I used a fairly basic brand… I have a baby bar… and didn’t taste a problem with it. Grenadine is the other thing you have to think about, but I bought that at Target.

Once I managed to get passed the concern…worry….hell, paranoia about putting the egg white into the drink, it ended up being a relatively straight-forward concoction. Everything combines together in a shaker… I got mine at Target… and shake away! I probably over shook… like I said, egg white. However, it didn’t take much longer than described to get it ready and strained into the glass above. Voila! Yes… I know, not the right glass. I’m working on that!

Anyway, I really liked it!! Taking the first few sips, I was expecting it to be a heck of a lot sweeter than it was. A word that is constantly used to describe the Pink Lady is balance, and that feels exactly right. The cream seems to temper things down a bit, both toning down the pang of the gin while tempering the sweetness of the grenadine. Taking a drink, if felt like a nice calm, dry taste with the slightest twinge of sweetness at the very end. Co-tasters who are fans of sweet, liqueur, cream-based drinks were surprised how much they enjoyed the drink!

Take a pass at this recipe (if you’re legal, of course!) and let me know how it comes together.

 

Top 5

Top 10: Hot Retro TV Men (Pre-1970)

Okay, yes, the men of classic TV weren’t that progressive. In fact, some of these dudes are downright problematic. However, that’s not my focus here. I’m stepping back into my television wayback machine to look at some of my ideas on the hottest men of classic TV… this started out as a Top 5, and quickly became a Top 10 when I realized there were far too… many…. choices.

(Get ready for a dark and twisted trip into my psyche).

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1.) Donald Hollinger- That Girl

What do I say about Donald Hollinger? I’m not even sure how old I was when I saw my first episode of That Girl. He’s lovable, adorable and a perfect supportive boyfriend to Marlo Thomas’ Ann Marie.

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2.) Todd Stiles (Martin Milner)- Route 66

I came to Route 66 backwards. I actually fell hard for Martin Milner the first time I watched Adam-12 on TVLand. So, you could color me interested when I discovered Milner starred in a show before that one. To make things even more delightful, it featured Milner and the equally attractive George Maharis driving a gorgeous car through the desert. As Todd Stiles, Milner brings his traditional likability in spades… he’s a good guy, and that’s part of what makes him so attractive. That’s even before you get to his smile, and eyes that don’t quit.

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3.) Dr. Alex Stone- The Donna Reed Show

Now, don’t get me wrong… Alex is terrible. When watching the nostalgic 1950s sitcom through a contemporary lens, he’s really everything which is wrong with masculinity in the 1950s. However, he’s also everything which is desireable with 1950s masculinity… chiseled jaw, gorgeous eyes, matinee idol good-looks, and he’s also a doctor. That’s right kids, we get to see him in a lab coat! Never mind he’s a bit petty, controlling and seems a bit threatened by his wife… I digress

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4.) Rod Serling- The Twilight Zone

Brains are sexy. Brains are oh, so sexy. Sure, most might not see what brings this crazy sexiness to The Twilight Zone creator and host Rod Serling, but I always have. Is it the suit? Is it the fact he was also a writer? Is it that unbelievably amazing voice? All of the above, my friends. All of the above.

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5.) Steve Allen- The Tonight Show

As I mentioned with my above entry, I find brains stupidly attractive. And like the delightful Rod Serling, Steve Allen brings so much beyond the superficial. Allen was a renaissance man, not only taking a lead role in writing and presenting the first installment of The Tonight Show, he was also a crazily talented songwriter, musician and novelist. He may have had problematic politics in his old age, but I’m choosing to not go there.

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6.) Joe Friday- Dragnet

I’ll start this with a preface… remember that Dragnet was a part of American culture for a long, long time. While most remember the late 1960s installment which featured a crew-cutted Joe Friday taking down the progressive hippies of the era, that’s only one Joe Friday. The series actually premiered as a radio show in the late 1940s and ran on televison through much of the 1950s. This installment shows a much younger Joe Friday, less tired and saggy than he is in the late 1960s. And, have I mentioned that voice??? Full stop.

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7.) Captain Wilton Parmenter- F-Troop

F-Troop is one of the more problematic series on this list. However, I digress. From my earliest memories, the adorable Ken Berry was always there in the corner of my consciousness.

Wilton Parmenter isn’t the… quickest. He’s clumsy. He’s an easy mark for Sergeant O’Rourke (Forrest Tucker) and Corporal Agarn (Larry Storch). However, he remains so earnest, and so well-meaning throughout the whole series. Add to that Berry’s adorable chemistry with featured actress Melody Paterson as local shopkeeper Wrangler Jane… precious. They’re completely and utterly cute, I can’t stand it.

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8.) John Steed- The Avengers

With all of the different versions of the Avengers, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to tell the each one apart in the scope of popular culture. I’ll give you a hint, watch the long-running British series. In fact, the show is probably responsible for making me…me.

John Steed, duh. He’s dashing, British and wears fabulous clothes. For a girl with a fondness for accents and bowler hats, this is up my alley.

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9.) Cheyenne Bodie- Cheyenne

While I’m not a western efficianado, I’ll be straight with you here. Actor Clint Walker was 6’6″ and absolutely oozed a brooding, period masculinity. I’m only human after all.

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10.) Dr. Kildare- Dr. Kildare 

While Lew Ayres will always and forever be my favorite Dr. Kildare, Richard Chamberlain’s take on the legendary character in the long-running medical procedural definitely makes me take notice. Look at those chiseled good looks. Just look. I mean, it comes as no surprise that the actor is a mainstay in prime time, usually exotic soap operas when he wasn’t playing the good doctor. He’s so… pretty! And like Alex Stone above, lab coats are sexy.

I was reared on classic TV and my Nick and Nite viewing shaped me into the vintage lady I am. There’s a lot more to come! Stay tuned!

Vintage Recipes

Vintage Recipes: Cocoa Mint Cake

So kiddos, the vintage bake-a-thon continues this week as I try my hands at a “Cocoa-Mint” cake. As the recipe below shows, we can thank Pillsbury for the initial recipe.

The recipe (like last week) comes from the pages of my grandmother’s 1937 journal turned recipe book.

This is another Crisco based cake, starting with a mildly staggering 1/2 cup followed closely by the sugar. I made sure to beat a fair amount in between, resulting in the not-quite-so-appetizing mixture pictured below…

As the ingredients combine, baking this cake proves to be somewhat of a chore. Once the eggs are added, there’s a lot of mixing in-between adding the rest of the wet ingredients as well as the brunt of the dry.

Sooooo much sifting!!! This felt like arm day at the gym.

Now, would that cake behave in the same way just dumping in the flour and such?? I’m not sure. I’m not sure I’m gutsy enough to try at this point.

The last ingredient was an interesting one: coffee. The recipe calls for a good “strong” 1/2 cup of coffee. Now, could this be a structure thing?? My coffee came from a very traditional Starbucks k-cup, so this is neither vintage or accurate to the period. As a result, I really didn’t taste it. Do you want a coffee taste? I’m adding this to the list for a more period specific bake through.

Now, to get to the interesting part… the frosting. This was a new one. I followed the recipe above, using mint jelly with an egg white.

I will admit, I cheated on the recipe. I used the double boiler, but I didn’t have a “rotary” hand mixer as specified. So, my next thought was that whisking must be close. I mean, I used some good, old-fashioned elbow grease. Nope. Nope. Nope. I whisked the heck out of that frosting for double the specified time and couldn’t get a rise out of the egg white. In fact, it laid there like a mint flavored ball until I put it under my handy, dandy, oh-so-modern mixer. It was only then I could coax it into rising to resemble anything like a frosting.

The verdict on the cake, it ended up being a bit dry. However, the frosting had some stellar flavor (if not a bit overpowering). It is definitely one I’m going to jot down for use in the future, with different jellies… the thought of this with an Orange makes my mouth water.

Unfortunately, it was the strongest part of a generally lack luster cake.

Verdict: “Meh”.

Top 5

Top 5: Nostalgic Movie Bars

Smoky dive bars, swoon-ey jazz music… there’s a very concrete image when thinking about nostalgic bars in classic film. Some “gin joints” are iconic, conjuring everything we remember about the golden age of cinema. There’s a certain style, which I’m sure you can see in your head…

So, let’s take it away with our discussion of my favorite cinematic bars.

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1.) Rick’s Cafe Américain- Casablanca (1942)

Okay, if you haven’t watched Casablanca, why are you here?? Fine… go out and watch it. The film is one of the best to come out of Hollywood, and it’s definitely worth a watch.

As they say, “Everybody comes to Rick’s”. In the movie, the now iconic nightspot functions as a central location, bringing the hodgepodge of unique and interesting characters together. The setting is absolutely gorgeous, conjuring not only a feeling of the movie’s Moroccan setting, but also the bleak nature of the WWII years, while still glittering with cinematic glamour. Even simply looking at pictures of the setting evokes a tinkling riff of “As Time Goes By”.

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2.) Mos Eisley Cantina- Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)

Probably the biggest departure on this list is no less iconic. While I was born a bit late to appreciate the joys of Star Wars during its initial run, my first memories of watching the series involve watching it recorded on VHS… kids, ask your parents.

While the location is far different than the more nostalgic other entries on this list, the Mos Eisley Cantina conjures a similar sense of the past. George Lucas made no secret that the action films of the 1930s and 1940s inspired his crafting of his legendary trilogy, and it’s incredibly evident in the almost noir-like atmosphere of the cantina.

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3.) Ink and Paint Club- Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

Being born in the mid-80s, I was a perfect age to love Who Framed Roger Rabbit, when it premiered in 1988. Now, as an adult, I’ve gained a whole new appreciation for the film… however, I digress.

Now, there are a few different bars in the period, mystery/comedy. The Ink and Paint Club really stands out as my ultimate speakeasy, brining all the glamour Hollywood of the period is known for, with the slightest hint of a rough edge. The film makes a great use of unconventional (and vintage) cartoons in the sequence helping to contribute to the feel of the moment.

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4.) The Overlook Bar- The Shining (1980)

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the iconic bar from the classic Stanley Kubrick version of The Shining. The classic scene is such a memorable one that still influences the hundreds of horror films in the years to follow.

Once again, the location captures the nostalgia it’s hoping to evoke. A great deal of the horror comes from the eerie silence of the abandoned hotel. However, it’s less of a haunted house. Rather, it is like a ghost ship. All the memories of its storied past remains, all that’s missing is the people. In the bar sequence, all at once viewers are aware of just how alone the Torrance family are in The Overlook Hotel.

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5.) South Seas Club- The Rocketeer (1991)

My fondness for all things nostalgic knows no bounds, and this is likely thanks to a childhood spent watching The Rocketeer. The period Disney superhero film is set in 1930s Hollywood, showcasing all the glamour of the era.

The South Seas Club fills in as the film’s nightclub, functioning as a Coconut Grove or Trocadero. The club’s shiny glamour and polished nostalgia started a young moi daydreaming about time traveling back to the 1930s… and obviously, I’m still fascinated by the period.