Sunday 13 January 2013

Forgotten Precode Dames 1# Winnie Lightner

Haven’t heard of this Precode actress, singer and comedienne? Neither had I since a few weeks ago when I tumbled upon this controversial movie poster for ‘Gold Dust Gertie’. 

It was probably Winnie Lightner’s vaudeville style of performance, unusual looks and slightly older age that prevented her career from flourishing well into the Precode era but she should still be considered a great talent and a recommendation for any Precode musical fan.  
Winnie Lightner publicity shot, 1931
Winnie Lightner was born Winifred Reeves on September 17, 1899 in Greenport, New York. She was yet another performer born in the magic year of 1899 similar to other great actors, Humphrey Bogart, Fred Astaire, James Cagney and Gloria Swanson. Winnie began her career in vaudeville by joining her sister’s show in 1915 and became a big success overtaking her sister and the rest of their family. As her popularity grew she was offered parts in Broadway plays and revues between 1920 and 1928. These include the 20’s staples ‘George White’s Scandals’ (1922, 1923 and 1924), ‘Gay Paree’ (1925 and 1926) and ‘Harry Delmar’s Revels’ (1928). It was through this she earned her nickname ‘Song a Minute Girl’.

Like many performers of the day, Winnie in 1928 moved into films and Vitaphone shorts.  She made a splash in several that featured such musical numbers as, ‘We Love It’, ‘God Help a Sailor on a Night Like This’ and ‘That Brand New Model of Mine’. It was through these clips that Winnie became one of the first performers to be censored solely for her music and not for her dancing or appearance. The censorship battle heated up in Pennsylvania where the censorship board refused to release the shorts because of the content of the songs. Warner Brothers retaliated by requesting the board judge the films only on the visual elements but they ultimately refused.  Below is one of Winnie’s late musical revues, ‘Singing in the Bathtub’ from (1929).
The controversy over censorship only hastened Winnie’s entry into the larger and more widespread medium of feature length films. In 1929 she was offered a role in the now lost musical ‘Gold Diggers of Broadway’ which made her a massive icon and star. Warner’s was quick to snap up this rising talent who, although she was not young now aged 30, had obvious screen presence and innate comedic ability and signed her to a more permanent contract.  Her next film was a grand Technicolour display called ‘Hold Everything’ (1930) which continued the successful from her other film. Next was a small dramatic role in the mediocre film ‘She Couldn’t Say No’ (1930) followed by another Technicolour movie ‘The Life of the Party’ (1930) which saw the return of the wise-cracking and jovial Lightner.  

Her next three films ‘Sit Tight’ (1931), ‘Gold Dust Gertie’ (1931) and ‘Manhattan Parade’ (1932) were all to continue Winnie’s success in the musical genre but, while shooting these films, audiences began becoming bored with lavish musical movies and most of the song and dance numbers were cut from the films. With no musical roles forthcoming and still under contract, Warner Brothers decided to put Winnie in supporting roles in a number of second-rate dramas and comedies. These included two Loretta Young vehicles, ‘Play-Girl’ (1932) and ‘She Had to Say Yes’ (1933) and another film ‘Side Show’ (1931). Winnie was miserable in these roles and chose to leave Warner Brothers to become a freelance artist. She made two more films before her retirement, mainly playing small supporting roles, including MGM movie ‘Dancing Lady’ (1933) starring Joan Crawford and ‘I’ll Fix it’ (1934) for Columbia starring Jack Holt.   

After her retirement she used her spare time to focus on her personal life. In 1929 Winnie had met notable Precode director Roy Del Ruth (famous for ‘Blond Crazy’ (1931), ‘Taxi! (1932) and ‘Employee’s Entrance (1933)) during the making of his film ‘Gold Diggers of Broadway’ (1929). After her film career ended, Winnie married Del Ruth in 1934 and had a child, now successful cinematographer, Thomas Del Ruth in May 1942. Although Winnie reportedly had loved performing after her last picture she never returned to the entertainment industry or met many people from the film-making business. Her marriage to Del Ruth continued until his death in 1961 and Winnie died 10 years later on March 5, 1971 from a heart attack.     


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  2. Winnie Lightner is definitely a treat. I've only seen her in Gold Dust Gertie, but she steals the show from everyone involved. Thanks for the run down, you've given me a few more movies to look up!

  3. Recently saw both of the Loretta Young films with Winnie. Play-girl was beautifully photographed by Greg Toland and She had to Say Yes has to be one of the most aggressively "pre-code" films of them all, truly outrageous behavior from nearly every character! that's classic that she married Del Ruth, he's been a fave director of mine for yeeeeeears now! oh how i wish TCM would do a director of the month for him or Lloyd Bacon! what a batch of films they could play for either of those fine film makers!