Jaded cineastes who've seen every Herschel Gordon Lewis movie and every film noir might well consider feeding their fetish for lost cultural forms with "Hollywood Esoterica: Girls, Girls, Girls!," the Roxie's 13-film tribute to B- and Z-grade female-dominated programmers from the '30s through the '50s. The series resurrects hitherto unknown female role models from Hollywood's depths in the form of girl gangs, "pin-down girls" (lady wrestlers), "allotment wives," jewel thieves, and even a singing "masked countess" on the lam from a killer husband. The girls engage in all manner of thrillingly anti-social behavior: shooting heroin in the Ed Wood-ish Girl Gangs (1954), running a crime syndicate in Allotment Wives >(1945), beating the hell out of each other in Pin Down Girls (1953), and dividing their excessive leisure time between existential angst and street brawls in Roger Corman's Teenage Doll (1957).
Devotees of obscure divas will find much to love in the work of Tala Burrell, one of many second-string Garbos who graced movie screens in the '30s and '40s. In She's Dangerous (1936), Burrell battles Walter Brennan for the affections of a fetching young Walter Pidgeon; in Women in the Night >(1948), she brings her bargain-basement hauteur to a gorgeously shot story of "cafe hostesses" in occupied Shanghai at the end of World War II. Gertrude Michael, later destroyed by alcohol, is nearly as forgotten as Burrell, but deserves better. In the raunchy The Notorious Sophie Lang (1934), she's enchanting as a masterful jewel thief who stylishly confounds the men around her.
Fans of female con movies will pray for incarceration after seeing what really goes on in the Big House in Women's Prison (1955). In spite of a sadistic quasi-lesbian warden (Ida Lupino), this jail is a lot like sleep-away camp, with the gals singing, doing impressions, and screwing their male counterparts in a strategically placed closet. A must-see is the well-acted, noirish Allotment Wives, with fading star Kay Francis affecting as a tormented crime queenpin trying to run her racket as her daughter drifts into whoredom. And speaking of lousy mothers, Joan Crawford energizes Queen Bee (1955), a campy Southern Gothic in which she gleefully assaults men, women, and children who never think to just get up and leave. The fearless Roxie staff plans to augment the fun with a live re-enactment of the ending of Big Town Girl (1936), truncated from the otherwise glistening print.
-- Gary Morris
"Hollywood Esoterica: Girls, Girls, Girls!" screens Monday through Friday, May 10-14, at the Roxie, 3117 16th St. (at Valencia), S.F. Admission is $6.50; call 863-1087 for times or see Reps Etc., Page 86.
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