Mice, not men

Regular Cladrite Radio readers know we love discovering unknown (to us, at least) bits of slang in old movies. Here’s an especially memorable one:

Some months back, we were watching Jules Dassin‘s A Letter for Evie (1946), a charming little “B” picture from MGM, and there was a scene wherein one soldier, a handsome hunk of a ladies’ man played by John Carroll, says to his new pal (Hume Cronyn), who is something of a bookish shrimp, “Let’s go out and pick up a couple of tomatoes.”

“Tomatoes?” asks Cronyn’s milquetoast.

“Yeah,” replies the man’s man. “Lollipops. Mice.”

Now, “tomatoes” we knew; “lollipops” we’d heard once or twice, but “mice”? That was a new one on us.

It was apparently new to Cronyn’s character, too; he puzzled over it, repeating it aloud a couple of times: “Mice??”

So we wondered if maybe it wasn’t coined especially for the movie.

Nope, says a friend of ours, who happens to serve as North American editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. The use of “mouse” to refer to a young woman, he told us, “was very common in the 1940s. There’s a unique example from the late eighteenth century, but after that, it doesn’t turn up again until the late 1910s.” (To his credit, he also pegged, without us telling him, which movie we’d heard the term used in—he’s a whiz, there’s no denying it.)

We’re not sure it’s a usage that could be considered ripe for revival, but what the heck, it’s worth a try. we urge you to use it in a sentence sometime in the next week, even if whomever you’re speaking to is likely to be as confused by it as Cronyn’s character was.

Cinematic slang: Charmed, I’m sure

A poster for the movie Saturday's Children, in which the line Charmed, I'm Sure is heardAnyone who’s ever watched more than a handful of classic movies has very likely heard a character, usually a female and most often one with a thick outer-borough accent, say something along the lines of, “Charmed, I’m sure” when being introduced to someone for the first time.

This usage is clearly meant as something of a gentle laugh line; it nearly always indicates a character who is unsophisticated but would have us believe otherwise.

It’s depicted as an overreach, taking polite speech and giving it an inadvertent twist toward the uncultivated.

Less often, it is used as a chilly form of greeting, the “I’m sure” giving the lie to the “Charmed,” when a character is anything but happy to be encountering in public the person in question.

But have you ever heard anyone in real life use “I’m sure” in this fashion? “Nice to meet you, I’m sure.” “It’s my pleasure, I’m sure.” These usages crop up in old movies, too, but we have to admit we have never heard them used in real life.

Was this once a common usage? Where did the “I’m sure” come from, and what was its intended meaning?

We recently watched Saturday’s Children (1940), starring John Garfield and Ann Shirley, and in it, Dennie Moore plays Gertrude “Gert” Mills, a brassy office manager who speaks her mind in slightly fractured English and with a broad Brooklyn accent. When she is introduced to Shirley’s character, Bobby Halevy, who has recently been hired to work in the ofice and is reporting for her first day on the job, Gert greets Bobby with a chirpy, “How do you do, I’m sure?”

We did a little casual Googling and found a couple of references to “I’m sure,” but nothing definitive, alas.

Urban Dictionary has one explanation that we found intriguing, though, because it’s the usage that the Brooklyn gals so often depicted in old movies seem to be trying to pull off:

A warm greeting used upon being introduced someone. It is most often used in the context of a highly formal situation.

Madame: Miss Davis, Miss Miller.

Miss Davis: How delightful to meet you, Miss Miller.

Miss Miller: Charmed, I’m sure.

Maybe “I’m sure” was, in fact, once a formal and elegant phrasing. That would explain why it was considered humorous when a gum-snapping dame like Gert Mills used it in an attempt to appear more sophisticated.

So we have characters saying “Charmed, I’m sure” when they are anything but charmed. And, more often, we have characters using the phrase in an attempt to appear more sophisticated than they are.

But where are the characters using it genuinely?

Have you ever heard someone say, “Charmed, I’m sure” in real life?

If you have, by all means, share your story in a comment!

Cinematic Slang: A bunch of violets

Hollywood pictures of the early 1930s are often interesting in the attitudes they exhibit toward gay men and lesbians. The presentation of gay characters are sometimes very matter of fact, offering no particular judgment or attitude, and even when the depictions are a bit demeaning, at least the fact that there are gay men and lesbians in the world is acknowledged. In pictures from the late ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, one rarely sees a gay character depicted at all (Peter Lorre‘s Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon (1941) is one notable exception to this rule).

Jews underwent a similar cinematic fate in Hollywood, it seems to us. In the 1920s and early ’30s, there were many Jewish characters depicted in Hollywood movies. Were those depictions sometimes stereotypical? Undeniably, but not all were, and at least Jews had a prominent presence in the Hollywood movies of the era. That seemed to change drastically in the ensuing decades.

We were watching a pre-code James Cagney film not long ago (Picture Snatcher, 1933), and in one scene, for reasons not salient to this account, Cagney is on the phone pretending to be a woman. A dame he’s scamming walks in, hears his end of the conversation, and asks, “Want to borrow one of my dresses, dearie? Who was that on the phone?”

“Ah, just a bunch of violets,” Cagney answers. “He had the wrong number. I egged him on for a laugh.”

“A bunch of violets”—as an old euphemism for “gay man,” that was a new one on us.

Cinema Slang: groupie

No slang we’ve encountered in an old movie caught us more offguard than the use of “groupie” in The Man with Two Faces (1934) , starring Edward G. Robinson, Mary Astor, Ricardo Cortez, Mae Clarke, and Louis Calhern, and based on a play cowritten by George S. Kaufman and Alexander Woollcott called The Dark Tower.

We’d long assumed that “groupie” was a product of the rock era, that it was coined to describe those women (and men, too, we suppose) who are willing to go that extra mile in demonstrating their devotion to a particular musician or band.

But a scene in THE MAN WITH TWO FACES suggests that the term might be much older.

In the film, Astor plays Jessica Wells, a troubled actress who was formerly married to a controlling creep named Stanley Vance (Calhern). Prior to the action depicted in the film, Vance had abandoned Wells, leaving her a total mess, her life and career in ruins. Finally, when word was received that Vance had died, Wells had slowly begun to pull herself together.

As the film opens, Wells is healthy and about to open on Broadway. Suddenly—wouldn’t you know it?—Vance appears on the scene, very much alive, and everyone close to Wells is concerned that she will crack up again.

In the pertinent scene, another actress (Clark) is sitting on Calhern’s lap as he flirts shamelessly with her. In walks a sardonic actor from the troupe (Robinson) who says, dismissively, “Well—a new groupie!”

Now, it’s possible he could be referring to Vance, since Clarke’s character is an actress and more likely to have an admiring fan, or he could—and I think this possibility the more likely one—be referring to Clarke’s character as Calhern’s groupie, without the fan/performer connotation we usually associate with the word.

Either way, we were surprised to hear the word uttered in a seventy-five-year-old movie. And our friend who works for the Oxford English Dictionary was, too.

“I’m very surprised to hear that the word is that early,” he told us when we mentioned the scene to him. “Every source I’ve ever seen puts it in the late ’60s.” The verdict’s not in yet—he’s still looking into the matter—but it appears that I might just have helped uncover what Jesse said could be “a major discovery.”

Now, it’s not as though we get a free copy of the OED for our contribution or anything (we live in Manhattan—who has room, anyway?), but we do get a kick out of the possibility that we may have contributed a cite that reveals a particular usage to be more than three decades older than was previously thought. We can’t really take any credit, of course—we were just indulging our interest in old movies.

But it’d be nice if our hobby actually provided a service. We leave our small marks in such ways as we can.

Cinematic Slang: Trade-last

Some years ago, we encountered a curious usage while watching My Best Girl, a Mary Pickford silent (her last, as it happens) from 1927.

There was a scene between Mary and her future husband, Charles “Buddy” Rogers. The two playing Maggie and Joe, stock clerks at a Merrill’s five-and-dime store who are clearly smitten with each other.

Except Joe Grant is, unbeknownst to Maggie, actually Joe Merrill, son of the millionaire founder of the Merrill’s chain of stores. He has been placed at the lowest rung of his dad’s organization so that he might learn the business from the ground up.

The exchange in question went like this:

Maggie: Joe, I have a trade-last for you. I heard the manager say you were a very efficient young man.

Joe: That’s because you’ve taught me so much about the business, Maggie.

Maggie: Now tell me your trade-last, Joe.

Joe: Well, I know that one of the Merrills thinks you’re the finest little kid in the store. (Here he’s referring to himself, of course, since Maggie doesn’t know he’s a Merrill.)

We had never encountered the term “trade-last” before, so we looked it up in Merriam-Webster. We expected it to mean roughly the same as the noun form of “secret.”

But here’s what MW had to say:

“A complimentary remark by a third person that a hearer offers to repeat to the person complimented if he or she will first report a compliment made about the hearer.”

So Bill tells Barb that he thinks Brad dresses nicely. Barb offers to share Bill’s sentiments with Brad, but only if Bill will first tell Bard something nice he has heard someone say about her.

What intrigues us about this word is how awfully specific it is. That is, it applies to such a particular and somewhat convoluted situation. MW says the term was coined in 1891, and we can’t help but wonder how it came into use.

It’s also an oddly unintuitive word. You’d never guess, from hearing it out of context (or reading it in the intertitles of a silent movies), what it meant.

Oh, the things you can learn from watching an old movie.