Monday, January 2, 2017

David Lightner’s “Winnie Lightner: Tomboy of the Talkies”

David Lightner is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Alberta. He became interested in Winnie Lightner because of their shared surname but is not related to her.

Lightner applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Winnie Lightner: Tomboy of the Talkies, and reported the following:
Winnie Lightner was the first great female comedian of the talking pictures. Renowned for her ability to belt out raunchy songs and for her gleeful mockery of conventional morality and gender roles, she rose to stardom in vaudeville and on Broadway and then joined the exodus to Hollywood.

Page 99 of my book is the opening page of a chapter titled “Movies That Talk and Sing,” which describes Winnie’s earliest appearances on film. In a ten-minute short subject, she sang of a sailor exhausted by accommodating women (“I’m only a gob. They need a sultan here on the job”), of a couple enjoying marital bliss (“We don’t go to the moving pictures for our thrills. Our love scenes would make the pictures look like stills”), and of training an underage boy to become a perfect partner (“Now twelve is pretty young they say, but when they’re older than that they’re too blasé”). Consequently, she became the first person in motion-picture history to be censored for spoken words as opposed to visual images.

Subsequent chapters tell how Winnie went on to star in seven Warner Bros. features. In the best of them, her domination of men made her the comic epitome of what we nowadays call a feminist. Nobody called her that at the time, however; they called her a tomboy instead. When the Great Depression caused audiences to sour on feminism, Warner Bros. tried to craft a new image for Winnie by assigning her roles in which she was submissive to a male partner. Because the new image did not go over at the box office, Winnie’s stardom came to an end. In four final films, she played secondary roles as the loudmouthed roommate of Loretta Young, Joan Crawford, or Mona Barrie. She then retired and spent the second half of her life in obscurity.

Page 99 is the best place to begin learning about Winnie’s movies, but I hope readers will be interested also in her personal life and early career. The first chapter, for example, describes here rough-and-tumble childhood in Manhattan, including the time she sneaked into an empty vaudeville theater and pretended to perform on the stage, until a janitor caught her and smacked her with a mop.
Learn more about Winnie Lightner: Tomboy of the Talkies at the University Press of Mississippi website.

--Marshal Zeringue