WEIRDLAND: Women's Roles in Classic Hollywood

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Women's Roles in Classic Hollywood

Esther Williams and Gene Kelly in "Take me out to the Ball Game" (1949) directed by Busby Berkeley

"The All-American man wears a coat of high finance, But the All-American girl wears the pants." -Lyrics from "Take me out to the Ball Game" (1949)

Loretta Young and Alan Ladd in "China" (1943) directed by John Farrow

"I forgot how much trouble an American woman can be," says Alan Ladd in 'China', and there's movie truth in those words. The American woman on film is not a weak creature. She may have a weakness, and it can bring her down; she may be confused and worried, which will cause her to make foolish mistakes; but she is not weak and she is not stupid. Men constantly have to cope with her. She can wreck their dinosaur models, outshoot them in a rifle contest, poison their mushrooms, and reduce them to gibbering idiots. She can, and she does. The American woman on film is too hot to handle. Sometimes the movies make it look as if all of American male culture is focused only on the task of figuring out how to control a force that is stronger than it is, stronger than politics, stronger even than nature: the force of the American woman. 'China' does not end in a close-up of a romantic embrace between Ladd and Young. It doesn't even end by lingering over the dead body of Alan Ladd, the sacrificial hero. It ends with a close-up of Loretta Young's face.

Marilyn Monroe in "The Seven Year Itch" (1955) directed by Billy Wilder

Sexual agenda regarding women takes all forms, from Marilyn Monroe standing over a grate with her skirt blowing up around her to nun Deborah Kerr sleeping alongside marine Robert Mitchum on an isolated island. When Susan Hayward does a wild Gypsy dance in 'Thunder in the Sun' (1959), she is watched by Jeff Chandler. It is a clear metaphor in which a man observes a woman letting herself go, cavorting freely about as an indicator of what she might be like in the act of sex. ("I like the way you dance," leers Chandler.) 'Thunder in the Sun' also has Chandler watch Hayward when she goes down to the river to bathe, swimming naked under his hidden gaze. (This, in fact, is pretty much all the action and excitement there is in the movie.)

In 'China Girl' (1942), Lynn Bari comes to rescue George Montgomery from the Japanese, and the two of them act out a metaphorically abusive relationship. Bari is carrying on her body the gun Montgomery will need to escape. She needs to pass the gun to him in front of his guards. To do so, she first triggers his jealousy. He spits out, "You can't wait for me to be dead so you can take up with these monkeys." She slaps him. He slaps back, hard.

Rosalind Russell in "Tell It to the Judge" (1949) directed by Norman Foster

In 'Tell It to the Judge' (1949), Rosalind Russell can't cook breakfast at the lighthouse. Robert Cummings has thoughtfully provided her with a nice fish to fry, but she can't clean it, cut off its head, or cook it. The viewer can watch him watch her fail and then triumphantly take it away and cook it himself. Spencer Tracy watches with similar amused tolerance in Woman of the Year (1942), while Katharine Hepburn, a world famous newspaperwoman, tries to make pancakes. Even a cup of coffee is beyond her ability. As Hepburn destroys the kitchen, Tracy shows us how to see her incompetence, and then he rescues her. (At least he has the grace to say that anyone can make breakfast. It's her he wants, not a cook.)

Claudette Colbert, Brian Aherne and Ray Milland in "Skylark" (1941) directed by Mark Sandrich.

In "Skylark" (1941), Claudette Colbert falls on her face, slipping all around the floor, as she tries to cook fish in a boat's galley. It is perhaps easy to make too much of these humiliation scenes. In all three cases, the women get their men anyway, and they do not fundamentally change themselves. Russell remains a judge, Colbert remains an elegant wife, and Tracy even lectures Hepburn on the folly of her having felt she should cook.

Comparing Claudette Colbert and Carole Lombard, two stars who often played elegant women in romantic comedies, shows how subtle variations emerge that draw on possible audience differences. No matter what happened to Colbert, she maintained her cool charm, her throaty chuckle, and her ability to emerge a winner.

Even when she was playing a bedraggled poetess on the lain in "It's a Wonderful World" (1939) or was stepping out into a torrential downpour with nothing but a newspaper to shield her gold lamé (Midnight, 1939), she looked perfectly turned out, neat, trim, and competent. Whatever it was, Colbert never stepped in it over her shoe tops. No doubt women yearned for that level of subtle mastery and enjoyed Colbert's triumphs.

Lombard, on the other hand, didn't keep herself above it. She fell into it, taking the pratfall, but remaining a good sport. She might shriek and kick at a man (as she did to John Barrymore in Twentieth Century, 1934) and she might be socked on the jaw (as she was by Fredric March in 'Nothing Sacred', 1937), but somehow she managed to make it look desirable, appropriate, and not demeaning. Although both Lombard and Colbert played in dramas and were considered serious actresses, they were more appreciated for their roles in these sophisticated comedies about women.

Films provide other answers to the question of "What do women want?" "I want things!" cries out Peggy Cummins in "Gun Crazy" (1949), by way of explaining why she and her beloved should embark on a life of crime together. "I want things... big things!" She utters the battle cry of movie females, the anguished bleat for money, sex, freedom, clothes. Give me things. A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do, say movies, but a gal's gotta have what a gal's gotta have, and what a gal's gotta have is things. When women don't have the things they want, they become unhappy, suicidal, even murderous.

"This dime-store china," complains Sheila Bromley to Ronald Reagan in 'Accidents Will Happen' (1939), "it's making an old woman out of me."

Rosa Moline (Bette Davis in "Beyond the Forest", 1949) wakes up in her bed with a satisfied, sensual smile on her face, her equivalent of the Scarlett O'Hara morning after. Realizing that she has indeed aborted and can now marry her lover, she moves deliciously in the bed and picks up her mirror and lipstick to make herself presentable. Her joy is shortlived, as she soon begins to "burn up" inside. After making herself up like a grotesque caricature of a woman, she staggers downtown to board the night train to Chicago in one last attempt to get out of Loyalton, Wisconsin, and to get free of a typical female life. As she approaches the station, the train sits on the tracks, smoking and hissing and belching like the Train to Hell rather than the night train to the Windy City. The train appears to be waiting for her, but like the treacherous male symbol it is, it pulls out and leaves her, abandoning her to her fate. After the train moves out, viewers see Rosa, lying dead alongside the track, having died from the pain of being a woman.

In a perceptive article on the film's director, King Vidor, Eric Sherman says that Vidor "seems not at all concerned that we understand why she [Rosa] is this way," meaning why Rosa Moline is evil, desperate, murderous. Sherman is correct, but from a woman's point of view I would say that females in the audience understand exactly why Rosa Moline is "this way." No construction of an explanation is necessary other than her being a female character played by a woman. Rosa Moline fought on to the end, gallant but misguided, unwilling to accept repression and restriction.

Rosa Moline has called her pregnancy "the mark of death," which is what it will turn out to be for her. She's like Michael Corleone or Frankenstein's monster or Cody Jarrett. She may kill. She may look ugly. She may be something for the birds. But she never quits. Rosa Moline is an American hero.

Sally Forrest and Claire Trevor in "Hard, Fast And Beautiful" (1951) directed by Ida Lupino

Like 'Mildred Pierce' before her, Claire Trevor slaps her own child silly in 'Hard, Fast And Beautiful'. The destructive mother ends up losing her daughter's love and respect, and she also loses her husband.

As she sits at his hospital bedside, the two of them discuss Trevor's life. It's a kind of last chance for the husband to pass judgment, since he will soon die: -"Everything was for Florence, wasn't it? You made yourself believe that, but it was all for you. Nobody but you." -Millie: "No! That isn't true," Will Farley: -"You never gave love. That's the most important thing. You took it, used it, but you never gave an ounce of it to anybody."

Having delivered the death blow to her sense of herself, he suddenly goes as hard as nails, turning into a different man. "Beat it, Millie," he tells her. In the end, Trevor is left totally alone in the frame, in the dark of night in an empty tennis stadium. She sits alone, with abandoned programs and papers blowing about her feet, and nothing but the sound of tennis balls being batted back and forth. This is the fate of the destructive mother, the image warns. -"A Woman's View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-1960" by Jeanine Basinger

No comments :