Like the Internet, podcasts do the great service of connecting all kinds of people to all kinds of people. It can connect us to people and content we’d otherwise never access. It can also hook us up with avocational soulmates who are into the same nutty, weird, hard-to-find stuff you’re into. You kind of obsess over Law & Order? There’s a podcast for that. You want lessons on Stoicism? There’s a ‘cast for that. And for someone like me, who’s really been into old movies and the women who rock them since forever, there’s Sass Mouth Dames. The brainchild of Dr. Megan McGurk, Sass Mouth Dames is part of a larger project committed to celebrating and analyzing a genre too-often dismissed in mainstream cinema history – the women’s film.
Born in America, McGurk earned a PhD and headed to Ireland, where she now works as the Director of the Business Academic Writing Centre at University College Dublin (UCD). But her passion is sharing her love of, and insights about, the classic “woman’s film”. (It’s mine too, except she’s actually doing it.) Toward that end, she’s written a book and started a local film club. Megan also hosts the Sass Mouth Dames podcast, where each episode examines a film, an actress, and the role she plays. (And often, the clothes she wears.) Many times the podcast looks at the role/movie/actress from the perspective of feminism, film history, and the actress’ own life. (I love when she reads excerpts from hard-to-find memoirs – juicy!)
Dr. McGurk was nice enough to give up time out of her crazy busy schedule to tell us about the sassy dame behind the Sass Mouth Dames podcast.
First things first, Megan. How do you define a “Sass Mouth Dame”?
MCGURK: In the original Imitation of Life (1934), Alan Hale praises Claudette Colbert’s ability to get workmen to fix up her pancake shopfront, and another group of men to install fixtures and furniture on the cuff. She replies: ‘All I had was talk’. She talked her way into business. Colbert played one of many sass mouth dames in woman’s pictures—those films made in the studio era from 1929-1959. For thirty years audiences were treated to the spectacle of women talking. They played characters who lived by their wits, who were quick with the comeback, and who always held their own with men.
If she tore strips from a man on camera, if she blew his hair back with a scalding rebuke, or used her superior wit to leave him speechless, she’s a “sass mouth dame” to know and study.
What’s the story behind your abiding research and celebration of classic Hollywood’s damery?
MCGURK: Honestly, I can’t remember a time when I was not devoted to the women of classic Hollywood. Instead of following the ‘Lean In’ nonsense, and all the bad advice written for women, why not turn to Crawford or Stanwyck, or other sass mouth dames for tips on how to get ahead with style and dignity?
Just one of the things that really impresses me about your podcast is that Sass Mouth Dames is such a time- and labor-intensive labor of love. It must be driven by a passion not just about Hollywood damery, but a passion for sharing all things dame-erific. What’s the podcast’s audience? Whom do you envision listening?
MCGURK: Well, one thing — I don’t write for men. I don’t think about men when I write the episodes. I try to highlight woman’s pictures that offer reassurance and support at the end of a hard day—like a combined spa getaway, a therapy session, and a slice of film history.
Men listen, too. Men like woman’s pictures. I follow dozens of men on Twitter who are devoted to women from the classic film era.
Your Sass Mouth Dames ‘brand’ has a book, a RL film club, social media presence and a podcast. How did each of these various ‘components’ come about?
MCGURK: They are methods to amplify my mission, which spreads the word on woman’s pictures. Why settle for watching films where women are only arm candy and have nothing to do? There are so many outstanding films where women are the centre of the story, and I’d like more people to know about them.
I decided to do the film club after watching Theodora Goes Wild (1936) in the Egyptian as part of the Turner Classic Film Festival. It was magical to watch it with a large audience who loved it as much as I do. Simply magical. I wanted to recreate that feeling in Dublin and share films that are hard to source here.
Your podcasts are primarily you reading a very engaging, well-researched script. It seems to me to be the work of many daunting hours of preparation and research. I don’t mean to obsess about this, but it just seems so damn overwhelming to me! How do you prep each episode, and how just howlabor-intensive is it?
MCGURK: It depends on how well I know the picture. Often, I go with my current obsession. A short episode might take me 15 hours to write—a longer one might take more than 30 hours.
Except for the autumn break, I aim for three or four episodes a month. If you want to build an audience, you must provide regular episodes. And I don’t consider it a chore or hard work. If anything, I pace myself from trying to do too much.
What have you learned doing the podcast? What advice would you give to budding podcasting dames put there?
MCGURK: One of the biggest lessons I’ve learnt is not to treat a podcast script like an essay. Writing for the eye is much different than writing for the ear. For essays, I like to write long sentences. But they can be difficult for listeners, so I’ve gotten better at writing shorter sentences for a script. It has probably improved my writing overall, because long sentences can be too indulgent.
Also, I try not to go for the obvious route and concentrate on presenting a fresh angle of vision on the topic. Avoid summaries or telling the audience what they already know.
Also, be realistic. Do it because it’s your passion, not because you think the podcast will make you rich and famous.
Can you share how and why you select the movies/roles/actresses you do? I really respect that you do not go for the obvious.
MCGURK: Often my selections come from who I think deserves more attention, a film I’ve recently watched, or their Hollywood memoirs. A great number of star autobiographies are well-written, contain smoking hot stories, and offer valuable lessons for surviving powerful men.
Generally, I avoid the super well-known pictures because they already have an audience and are covered on other podcasts. I want sass mouth dames to be a resource for films that aren’t as well known. If I were looking around and saw a podcast with an episode on Mayo Methot, as I’ve done with Vanity Street (1932), I would rush to listen and think, hey this woman is a kindred spirit!
I do have some films with a high profile in my archive though. Laura (1944), Ziegfeld Girl (1941), I Married a Witch (1942), Midnight (1939), Easy Living (1937), and Down Argentine Way (1940) are well-known classics.
OK Megan, last but not least, let’s get down to dame! As a listener I infer Joan Crawford is your #1 dame. Who are your dame of dames and why? Do you, like I, look to classic dames for clues and inspiration on how to negotiate life as a wise, strong, sassy woman? (As the Mayor of Dametown, I call my spiritual path the Tao of Dame.)
MCGURK: The sass mouth dames in woman’s pictures offer reliable life lessons, especially for how to survive in a man’s world.
And yes, Joan Crawford is my patron saint, my number one dame. She was supposed to expire in the gutter. Instead, she rose to the top of a highly competitive field and stayed there for decades. Same with Barbara Stanwyck, who would be second on my list. Then Irene Dunne.
I would add to the list: Miriam Hopkins, Carole Lombard, Jean Harlow, Susan Hayward, Ginger Rogers, Marlene Dietrich, Claudette Colbert, Mary Astor, Paulette Goddard, Joan Blondell, Mayo Methot, Lilyan Tashman, Kay Francis, Theresa Harris, Margaret Sullavan, Rosalind Russell, Aline MacMahon, Bette Davis, and Lana Turner.
You can find the Sass Mouth Dames podcast wherever you get your ‘casts, or just go to SassMouthDames.com. Also, check Dr. McGurk out on Twitter at either her @MeganMcGurk or @SassMouthDames .