Saturday, September 07, 2013
Women's Roles in Classic Hollywood
"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)
"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.
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 '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.)
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.
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.