‘There’s nothing organically wrong with you’: Grey Suits on Women in Douglas Sirk’s Pictures

By: Megan McGurk

No doubt volumes abound on Douglas Sirk’s use of colour to throw into sharp relief the troubled recesses of the mid-century American family. In Written on the Wind (1956), for instance, yellow has never looked as lurid as when Sirk uses it to illustrate corrupt appetites of the spoilt rich, from Robert Stack’s two-seater convertible to Dorothy Malone’s polo neck when she attempts to seduce Rock Hudson by the river. Yellow seems apt to suggest bile of an overtaxed liver in all its technicolour excess. Or viewers could pick apart how he uses white dresses for Lana Turner and Sandra Dee in Imitation of Life (1959) to underscore the racial hierarchy that shrinks the scope of Susan Kohner’s life.

Surveying a candy floss palette he daubs across the screen, it’s easy to overlook those masterstrokes he composes with grey; more to the point, how Sirk uses women in grey suits to critique the way gender roles complicate desire and ambition. Bill Thomas receives costume design credit for All That Heaven Allows (1955), Written on the Wind (1956) and Imitation of Life (1959), but specifically for ‘gowns’, so it’s unclear whether he designed the suits or if they were taken off the rack. Since Sirk paid close attention to the focus of colour in his films, it seems safe to read grey suits as meaningful. More so than pink, grey captures the essence of muliebrity, because grey matches women in their struggle to gain purchase on respectability and be taken seriously. On the colour wheel, grey mutes the assumption of sex. The hue has the potential to stave off sexual overtures, unless you count the obsessive grey suit fetish Hitchcock manifests for James Stewart’s character while he stalks Kim Novak in Vertigo (1958), which may account for my visceral dislike of the film. If a woman in a grey suit has no respite from sex pests, what kind of sense can we locate in the world?  Women wear grey as a shield. It offers the possibility for multiple interpretations. Even though grey connotes ambition, it also represents the way women feel disappointed in their desire.

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Semiotics from Ginger Rogers

By: Megan McGurk

When almost beggared and starved, with only a few crackers and an apple for an evening repast, a lecture from a well-fed man about the sexual dimorphism of seals seems indelicate if not outright vulgar. Spare a lady a disquisition of facts collected during the time you sat at a table reading while someone else prepared the dinner. A hungry woman would rather console herself that it’s no fun to swim around in a fur coat all day, instead of listening to the species defined by a male example and the female as its mere opposite. In Gregory LaCava’s Fifth Avenue Girl (1939), Ginger contests the male speaker’s authority in a brief exchange, issuing a robust protest, one that anticipates hallmarks of the personal-is-political vanguard still thirty years in the future.

Allan Scott’s screenplay contains one of the most striking rejections of a Cyclop’s-squint logic governing a man’s world. Whether you point to Adam’s rib or Freud’s penis-envy, storybooks have a long tradition of spotlighting men for the definition, quote and summary of human experience. Women, cast off as leftovers, become an afterthought, second-rate—bits of what the male embodies in whole form. Shabby patterns of representation always put men in the forefront. Ginger shows viewers how much the world expands when you resist playing an opposite role.

In front of the seal pond, Ginger makes it plain she has no intention of playing a passive audience member to a random blowhard. She interrupts and undertalks throughout his narration, mocking his claim at expert status; moreover, she steals his audience by directly addressing the sad rich man standing between them. Seals rate as one of the smartest of the carnivores, he says, only dogs are smarter. He corrects Ginger’s remark about how joyless swimming in a fur coat seems by saying they’re a different species. He foists his observations on Ginger and the forlorn well-heeled gentleman.

See that fella? That’s a male. Know how I can tell? He’s bigger than the female.

–You mean the female is smaller.

Yeah, that’s right—and lighter in colour.

–I see. The males are darker. And louder.

 

Ginger Rogers may be small, pale, soft-spoken and poor, but she has sense enough to side-step his lazy terms. Mr jibber-jabber fails to recognise that she’s not talking about seals. Ginger’s parting comment, that now she knows how the other half lives, reminds us in the flickering light that men never consider themselves by half measures.

As viewers often discover in woman’s pictures, women like Ginger Rogers have answers that men need rarely notice.

Sass Mouth Dames Film Club: Dublin 12 Oct-9 Nov

Megan McGurk and Danielle Smith present Dublin’s hottest new film club with titans of Pre-Code woman’s pictures. Join us for screenings of the best from the early 1930s: Joan Crawford, Joan Blondell, Carole Lombard, Jean Harlow and Barbara Stanwyck star in racy plots about women with ambition to burn.

They don’t make ’em like this anymore.

19.00-21.00, Thursdays, 12 Oct-9 Nov.

Minerals, coffee & tea, snacks included.

Get your tickets here.

Tyrone Power’s Reversal of Fortune in Nightmare Alley (1947)

By: Megan McGurk

Tyrone Power’s beauty invites discussion. Unlike other uncommonly handsome men in Hollywood who seemed uneasy with nature’s gift, Power wore his good looks with the elegance of a bespoke suit. He always had a relaxed fit with women onscreen. Robert Taylor, on the other hand, was profligate with his handsome face, which he treated like a burden he couldn’t wait to outgrow (and he did—just look at him in the late 1950s where he looks like a dissolute husk of his glory days). Somehow it de-sexed him, left him unmoored, made him feel effeminate and open to questions about his masculinity. Taylor had to butch it up at every turn in manly outdoor pursuit. He hid behind his looks in a smirking remove from leading ladies, and rarely sent up his screen image or displayed any degree of humour about his screen idol status, unless you count the brief scene in Her Cardboard Lover (1942), when he slips into Norma Shearer’s silk pyjamas, something he probably only did because Cary Grant had pulled it off in Bringing Up Baby (1938), without accusations of droopy manhood. For actors such as Taylor, or Errol Flynn, a louche charmer in the 1930s, yet whom Olivia de Havilland failed to recognise two decades later for a dead-eyed vampire he had become, beauty was the province of muliebrity, not a trait for red-blooded he-men. Their beauty caused concern, it jarred the macho template Hollywood stamped on celluloid by a king like brawny Clark Gable or rangy Gary Cooper. Only perhaps Douglas Fairbanks, Jr compares as another male screen idol from the 1930s who wore beauty like an accessory rather than iron shackles reluctantly worn to meet their doom. (I’m not including Archie Leach here because he grew more handsome with age. In the 1930s, he was good looking but not on par with Power, Taylor, Fairbanks or Flynn).

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Why We Need Sass Mouth Dames, Woman’s Pictures 1929-1959

 

Our current cinema stinks.

Instead of settling for crappy re-boots or second string roles, we should embrace the time when Hollywood believed that a film could only profit if it appealed to women.

Join the new Sass Mouth Dames Film Club: Series One, Pre-Codes. Dublin 12 Oct-9 Nov.

Get your tickets.

I’ll be co-hosting with Danielle Smith.

Here’s the Foreword from my book on woman’s pictures:

Sass Mouth Dames: 30 Essential Woman’s Pictures 1929-1939

By Megan McGurk

A punchline from Howard Hawk’s Monkey Business (1952) echoes into Charlie Wilson’s War (2007), the last film directed by Mike Nichols. In the original screwball classic, Cary Grant appears puzzled by Marilyn Monroe as a secretary who pleads with her boss for another chance at typing. Charles Coburn, as the boss, tells her no, that it’s very important, and to get someone else to do it. Crestfallen, Monroe accepts the sheet of paper and leaves to find a typist. The men watch Monroe wiggle out of the room. Coburn deadpans an explanation: ‘Anybody can type’.

Wynn Everett, listed in the credits as receptionist ‘Charlie’s Angel #1’, delivers the revised line in Charlie Wilson’s War.  She responds to a similar query from a visitor about the bevvy of centrefold-grade office staff employed by the Texas Congressman (played by Tom Hanks) in her boss’s knuckle-dragger wisdom: ‘You can teach ‘em to type, but you can’t teach ‘em to grow tits.’ Perhaps they felt the line wouldn’t seem as terribly sexist if it came from a woman. The original was funny because it need not state the obvious, while the updated version feels ugly and crass. ‘Grow tits’ has an odious ring to it, particularly when women are named in the cast after the man they happen work for, which recalls the grim totalitarianism of Ofglen and Offred from The Handmaid’s Tale. Who needs a name when you have great breasts, I suppose the logic follows.

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