That Old Feeling: Three Ladies to Talk About

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Women’s roles in today’s Hollywood movies? Who’s kidding whom? With few exceptions, they are ornaments to the all-boy plots of action films and comedies: the wife left back home, the girl seen through a keyhole. The "Charlie’s Angels" trio? Their idea of femininity is giggling and spending all their spare time on hair management. And Julia Roberts? Don’t get me started. If "Erin Brockovich" is what picturemakers think of as the modern woman — who uses her elevated boobs for political do-gooding, and whose idea of a conversation is to insult everyone she disagrees with — then give me "Little Women.’

Better yet, give me the women of old Hollywood. And by old, I mean that glorious era that began just after the late ’20s coming of sound, when the movies learned to talk, with a tough elegance that could suit the drawing room or the street corner and ended with the imposition, in 1934, of a rigorous Production Code of morals and manners that effectively ended the breeziest few years in talking cinema. In those "pre-Code" times, women were depicted as being every bit a man’s equal, often his superior, in intelligence, ambition and an itch to bend the elastic mores of the Jazz Age till they snapped. And Hollywood had the star actresses to embody this very modern, take-charge ideal. Nobody back then had to create an affirmative" action niche for women’s movies; they were among the most popular, probing and critically acclaimed. For good cause: seen today, they are as fresh as ever. Fresh as in modern; fresh as in impudent.

These fabulous babes, the actresses and the characters they played, are celebrated in a four-week film retrospective that itself deserves to be celebrated: a series at Film Forum, in lower Manhattan, called Ladies They Talk About. The series, whose title is borrowed from a Barbara Stanwyck trash treasure of 1933, gets part of its inspiration from a valuable new book, "Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood," by San Francisco Chronicle film critic Mick LaSalle, that paints vivid word-portraits of the major stars and their finest movies of the period. Still, there’s nothing like catching these good — bad, great — bad women in motion, in the celluloid flesh.

Programmer Bruce Goldstein's selection of 53 feature films, and two packages of ‘30s shorts, provides one fabulous wallow in some wonderful films and many bizarre curios. If you’ve never seen Harlow’s "Red-Headed Woman," Stanwyck’s "Baby Face" or the Dorothy Mackaill "Safe in Hell" on the big screen, Film Forum gives you just one more reason to move to New York. (One reason to stay where you are: you probably have access to Turner Classic Movies, the cable channel that airs many of the pre-Code classics produced by Warner and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Alas, we don’t — despite the facts that TCM has been available most places for six years, that our provider, Time Warner Cable of New York, is owned by the same company that owns TCM (and this Website) and that you’d think Time Warner Cable would be sick of the incessant badgering of desperate subscribers like me.)

The two studios that produced most of the best pre-Code films couldn’t have been more different. MGM was the glossy penthouse of Hollywood, with pampered stars and, in Irving Thalberg, a production boss so sophisticated he could serve as the model for Monroe Stahr in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s "The Last Tycoon." It was also the only studio to make a profit in 1932. Warner’s, which tapdanced on the edge of bankruptcy that year, was the working and fighting man’s studio. And did they work — six days a week; and on the seventh day, they wrestled. Actors went on strike, or were suspended for truculence, and writers never stopped complaining about producers’ meddling with their clever work. John Huston used to tell a joke about two Warner’s producers: they’re crawling across the desert, dying of thirst, when they spot a can of pineapple juice. One producer is about to life the precious nectar to his lips when the other says, "Wait, let’s piss in it first."

From Jack Warner and Darryl Zanuck on down to the lowliest, mouthiest extra, Warner’s was the quintessential man’s hangout. As Ethan Mordden, in his excellent history "The Hollywood Studios," put it so evocatively: "We’re talking major Tough Guys here, charged with bringing every film off with the efficient fury of a pirate raid." But major Tough Gals too. Nobody dished it out like a Warner’s heroine. Indeed, "heroine" hardly does the species justice: in traditional Hollywood terms it conjures images of crinoline and fluttering eyelashes. Force of nature is more like it, in a movie studio that accurately reflected the depths of the Depression its audiences knew too well. For a tough time, a pragmatic work ethic: get what you can and don’t worry how. As somebody says in "Blonde Crazy," a Warner’s comedy from 1931, "The age is chivalry is past — this here’s the age of chiselry."

And it was often the women who did the chiseling. In "Frisco Jenny," women in a whorehouse pick the pockets of silly older men. The Bette Davis drama "Fog Over Frisco" begins with a steno babe sitting on a man’s desk — her back to us, her legs saucily crossed — while her boss crouches before her at her crotch level; he might be giving her a pubicure. And in "I Loved a Woman," Edward G. Robinson discovers his mistress Kay Francis entertaining another man; when he starts whining about what he’s lost, she snaps back, "You’ve lost nothing, because you never were the only one.’ Ouch!

Warner’s didn’t have the corner on tough women who, from need or whim, acted boldly in self-interest. In Paramount’s 1933 "Torch Singer," Claudette Colbert is told she’s hard. "Sure I am," she says. "Just like glass. So hard nothing can cut it but diamonds. Come around with a fistful sometime — maybe we can get together." But the freedom to live involved more than cracking wise. As LaSalle notes, "Before the Code, women on screen took lovers, had babies out of wedlock, got rid of cheating husbands, enjoyed their sexuality, held down professional positions without apologizing for their self-sufficiency, and in general acted the way many of us think women only acted after 1968."

"Complicated Women" is written in a conversational tone, and I read it in one — agreeing with some points, arguing with others — as if the author were on one end of a long-distance phone call that went merrily on all night. I like his descriptions of actresses (on Glenda Farrell’s "sumptuous bad-girl mouth — she looked like she sucked her thumb too much as a child") and synopses of films. I wish the book had a more rigorous scheme; part of its charm and frustration is its Oh-and-that-reminds-me structure, as one movie leads to another, or is dropped and returned to, in passing, much later. LaSalle is less historian than raconteur, and most of all, film lover, in all the hot-flash intensity the term implies.

LaSalle’s book and the Film Forum series put all the grandes dames and great dames on parade: Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, Mae West, Jean Harlow, Carole Lombard, Claudette Colbert and our very favorite hard case, Stanwyck — whose work, in an exemplary 40-year career, is so worthy of sustained adoration that I will devote a full column to her in the near future. But the book and the retrospective are most valuable for their rediscoveries of some of the ‘30s incandescent actresses. Say these names lovingly the next time you enter a specialized video store: Miriam Hopkins. Kay Francis. Norma Shearer.

No actress of the period radiated a more full-body sensuality than the girl from Bainbridge, Ga. Already 30 when she made her movie mark in 1931, with a co-starring part in Ernst Lubitsch’s "The Smiling Lieutenant," Hopkins flitted from hit to hit in the next two years: as the prostitute in "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," the elegant thief in "Trouble in Paradise," the ravishing playgirl in "Design for Living." But her most demanding role was one she later disdained: the heroine of "The Story of Temple Drake." In 1972, after a screening of the film at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Hopkins shouldered her way to the front of a ladies’-room line. "Y’all suffered through this,’ LaSalle quotes her as saying, "but I suffered most. I think I should be allowed to go in first."

In this adaptation of William Faulkner’s novel "Sanctuary," Temple is a Delta flirt who gets her comeuppance. As a pretty girl from a respectable family, she toys with her beaux — little boys who must play the love game by her rules. They can kiss her but not cop a feel, and they keep coming back for what they fruitlessly hope will be more. Or maybe it is more: in a suggestive scene, the family’s maid says of Temple’s doting grandfather, "If he’d done her laundry he’d know more about that child"; perhaps it’s been torn or soiled. After a spat with her noble beau (William Gargan), she is abducted to a criminal dive and raped by the sullen gangster Trigger (Jack LaRue). Suddenly she must play by another person’s more demanding rules. Now she is the pawn.

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