Thursday, April 19, 2012

Feminine Wiles

The first time I saw Female (1933, directed by Michael Curtiz, William Dieterle, and William Wellman), it pissed me off mightily. What started off as a sly feminist critique of masculinity and a vindication of the abilities and appetites of women went all weak in the knees in the end and transformed into an egregiously anti-feminist film. I mean, a LOT of Pre-code movies follow this pattern, and it's hard to swallow in those films, too, but Female is a starker example than most. Not content with letting its diamond hard heroine go all soft and wishy washy, it has to put broad, regressive pronouncements about the role of women in society into the mouths of both of its leads. At the showing I attended last night, there was a vocal reaction to this turn of events, as well there should be. Watching this movie anew, though, I started to suspect it of having an ulterior motive. Michael Curtiz is the nominal director, though he only directed reshoots featuring Johnny Mack Brown as one of our heroine's conquests. I wonder if one of the other directors--probably William Wellman--isn't attempting to smuggle a wink at the audience into the last scene of the film, as if to say "Don't blame us! We know how crappy this is, too!"

I mean, I get why this sort of thing happened. Even before Joseph Breen became Hollywood's high inquisitor for the nation's bluenoses, the studios were feeling the heat from their flagrant disregard of the production code. This film was made late in the game, and surely Jack Warner could smell the blood in the water. Those limp endings? A concession to propriety. A beard, if you will. Some films were so profligate with their naughtiness that these concessions couldn't possibly paper over them. I'm on the fence as to whether Female is one of them, even though the Breen office apparently thought so. It was never re-cut for re-release.

In any event, Female follows automobile executive Alison Drake as she swaggers through a man's world. She runs her company with smooth precision. She's competent, shrewd, and hard boiled. She has an appetite for men, and has no qualms about taking the men that catch her eye to bed and then discarding them when they become needy or covetous. In other words, she's a parody of the sexism of men, and the movie gets a lot of mileage out of transposing behavior that would be admirable in a man onto a woman. But then Alison meets Jim Thorn, a man she can't dominate. She wants him, and her usual tricks won't work. In order to get him, she softens, she embraces the feminine, she subordinates herself to social expectations, giving up her role as a competent executive and as a woman with agency over her sexuality AND her possessions. Only THEN will Thorne take her to wife. And she submits willingly. Enthusiastically, even. Thorne, for his part, wants a wifey and broodmare. Here's his idea of a woman's role in a relationship:

I know, right? WTF?

There's a fundamental disdain for femininity in this movie, regardless of how it enforces a standard of femininity in the end. When Alison embraces her culturally accepted femininity, she goes to pieces. No longer is she competent to run her company. No longer are the abilities she has so amply shown in the first half of the movie available to her. She becomes an ornament for the strong alpha male. I can't decide if this is subversive or not, though I do resent the notion that femininity is somehow less than masculinity, that it is somehow antithetical to competence and tough-mindedness, regardless of whether it's critiquing the lot of women in the world. Femmephobia is no fun to encounter if one has a femme identity (as I do).

I have more to say about the gender politics in Female, but I need to pause for a minute to discuss the movie as a movie. As a comedy, Female is actually pretty terrific. The barbs it jabs into masculinity during its first half all hit home, and it gets big laughs when it elides Alison's sexual escapades from the point of view of her household staff. More than that, the movie LOOKS great. This is an art deco fantasy world in which Frank Lloyd Wright's Ennis House (shot as the exteriors of Alison Drake's home) opens into a vast, space, as if the house is some kind of TARDIS, larger on the inside than on the outside. Certainly, the organ vestibule is some kind of science fiction device, because there's no visible way for the organist to get to it. Orry-Kelly's fashions are the height of thirties chic, too, including the designer's preference for gowns that have translucent decolletage that looks like flesh when filmed in black and white. The lead performance by Ruth Chatterton is sly, too. The actress is in on the joke and knows how to milk an appreciative glance directed at the male of the species. The scene late in the movie when Alison lures Thorne to a picnic almost chokes on the feminine act Chatterton puts on. Her eyes wink at the camera. George Brent as Thorne, on the other hand, seems to buy into his alpha male as right and natural. There's no irony in his delivery of how he sees the place of women. This is a problem, because as the object of Alison's pursuit, Thorne is seen as an ideal of sorts. In any event, this is a pretty funny movie, and seeing it with an audience makes the experience click a LOT better than watching it late at night on television.

Alison Drake is a familiar archetype to anyone who reads pulp fiction. She's a highbrow version of Red Sonja, the She-Devil with a Sword who will only give herself to the man who defeats her in combat. As such, she's a fantasy figure for insecure men. George Brent is a kind of tabula rasa as an actor, so it's easy for a male audience to imprint themselves on Thorne and imagine themselves conquering the cast iron bitch at the center of the movie. It's a pernicious fantasy.

And yet...there's something being smuggled into the movie, too. There's a hint that Alison's embrace of femininity is another ruse that she's using to manipulate Drake. The scene at the shooting gallery where they first meet is telling, because it's entirely clear that Alison flubs her last shot deliberately in order to stroke Thorne's ego. The movie is making it clear here that Alison is at least Thorne's equal even if she hides it. And then there's the ending, significantly set in another shooting gallery. It's in this scene that Alison declares that she's willing to throw over everything in order to marry Thorne, but as she does this, Thorne wins a pig. When Alison tells him that she wants nine or ten kids, the pig squeals loudly. The two drive off with the pig in the back seat. In other words, it's as if the movie KNOWS that this is never going to work, that the happy couple has been given a sow's ear rather than a silk purse, that Alison is metaphorically driving off with a pig, one way or another.

One of the interesting things about the enforcement of the production code is how thoroughly it put the kibosh on the roles of women in movies and in society. "Moral" conduct in movies was an instrument of repression, it seems, and the code strikes me more as a tool for social engineering than as a guardian of the poor sensibility of god-fearing Mr. and Mrs. America. After the code, characters like Alison Drake were unthinkable. Women were reduced to madonnas and whores (and whores existed to be either redeemed or punished). Gender roles for women became severely restricted and resolutely heteronormative. There's a lesson in this. Every time I read a reactionary screed about the immorality of movies after the classic Hollywood period, I want to scream, because it seems to me that the classic period was a time when it was horrible to be anything but a white man in the movies. This strikes me as immorality on a far greater scope.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with you. Your review is spot on. The audiences of the 30s weren't prepared for a true feminist film. And I think in 2013, they still aren't.