By: Megan McGurk
George Cukor’s A Life of Her Own (1950) wastes no time reminding viewers how tough women have it. For instance, we can’t just walk into a room and sit down. Creepy Tom Ewell (sorry, but I run to the shower to apply salt scrub whenever I recall his oily, horn-dog play for Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch) lectures a wannabe model in his office about a woman’s appearance in any room as something that requires effort, which she must practice every minute she can (when she’s alone in her apartment, in her bedroom, on the street, or in the bathroom). Women should never ‘make up’, and should instead ‘make down’. We should walk on the balls of our feet like wild cats, rather than our heels, like bears. Two imaginary rails should corral each hip to modulate a smooth gait. We should sit in a graceful ‘S’ position which cranks our spine into a chiropractor’s nightmare because the silhouette pleases the eye:
Most women drop into a chair like a bag of meal and haul themselves out of it like a bag of coal.
We should stretch ourselves so that our neck pulls out from shoulders, shoulders out of the waist and the waist out of the hip. Lana Turner sits in a chair trying to commit his mixed metaphor tips to memory. Cats, bears, meal, coal, rails, got it? Meanwhile he would resemble a domino tile if not for the expanse of his well-fed middle. Ewell’s character Tom Caraway sports bad posture, a double chin, traits he excoriates in the job hopeful woman, not to mention his grease pocked complexion and sloppy demeanour. Somehow men who enjoy prosperous careers as curators of beautiful women always fall short of the aesthetic standards they demand of women. Femininity, by contrast to anything lacklustre machismo, rates a full-time occupation. Lana performs his inane specifications to the desired effect and lands a job.
Caraway assesses Lana Turner’s tallboy drum majorette inspired hat and smart waistcoat and quips that she doesn’t look like she’s from Kansas. Lana’s character Lily James responds with a steady understatement which points out that they have magazines and movies in Kansas. She adds, for his education we don’t all wear sun bonnets. Unlike many other films that paint small-town women as awkward fashion hayseeds (like Susan Hayward in My Foolish Heart), screenwriter Isobel Lennart (whose credits include Anchors Aweigh; East Side, West Side; Love Me or Leave Me and Funny Girl) realises that ambitious women in rural outposts practice for the thrill of Gotham with enough heated dedication to fry an egg. And director George Cukor knew that women have studied glossy mags and films stars for style tips since his 1932 masterpiece What Price Hollywood? Lily James didn’t work her tail off waiting tables and sweeping up hair in a salon to be turned away at the door for looking corn pone. She’s carefully dressed in a stylish ensemble, as evidence of the old dictum to dress for the job you want. She had plenty of time to do her homework while she worked a variety of jobs for six months to save the train fare.
As soon as Ann Dvorak enters the room we know she’s the cautionary tale meant to chasten the newly hired Lily James, but since she’s a live wire, exposed, vulnerable yet still potent as former top model Mary Ashton, viewers forgive her stock quality in the plot. Dvorak swans in the way all glamorous women did in the 1920s and 1930s, as Louise Brooks recalls in Lulu in Hollywood, something she learnt from Constance Bennett entering a nightclub, with her head thrown back as though she detected an abominable odour. Dvorak plays a benevolent queen, though, quick to share her experiences with the new model in town. Her first bit of advice warns Lily not to overlook women in the offices, to be nice to them and not just flirt with the men. Women who sit quietly in meetings really make an office run and influence who they pick out of a pile of head shots.
Mary uses alcohol as a buttress, as viewers watch her fortify herself before a date, the booze lends support that drowns out the panic and calms angry outbursts. Bottles drench fires that would otherwise immolate everyone in her path. She rages against her lover Lee Gorrance (Barry Sullivan) for paying too much attention to Lily, for not returning her calls, and probably for a host of other things that he specifically and men in general have done to disappoint Mary. Didn’t she master all the tricks of feminine arts? Must she now resign herself to the trash heap because she’s on the precipice of forty? Angry women like Mary plug the scream hiding deep in their throat with brandy, wine or gin. Glug, glug until she doesn’t feel like smashing everything in sight. Hooch has unfortunately also made her paranoid, when at the end of the night she asks Lily what Caraway said about her, and accuses Lily of going after reptilian Gorrance, while the anger bubbles to the surface again: I’ve been there. I know you she screams at Lily, who barely conceals terror at the demons of recrimination stewed in fear and insecurity wafting out of Mary. Wearing a frock with an asymmetrical shoulder, Dvorak looks half undressed, off-kilter, and wobbly during her outburst, and viewers know that she’ll never make a comeback or follow through on plans for a new apartment, new clothes, or a new man. She’s reeling, undone, but she’s not totally consumed by fury that she misses the chance to extend kindness to Lily. Mary recognises the one-sided battle and gives Lily a token—something she won in a raffle that reminds her she was lucky once. Lily accepts a small porcelain shoe, decorated with fake jewels on top, with an old-fashioned 1930s block heel. It’s saccharine and tacky, like our taste when we’re young and easily swayed by gaudy baubles, as Joyce rendered so beautifully with the boy in ‘Araby’. Viewers know, if Lily doesn’t, that we won’t be seeing Mary anymore.
Rather than reflect on what she could learn from meeting Mary, Lily grasps the first rung of the ladder to success, posing for a series of magazine covers and cultivating a taste for finer things. The flush of youth provides its own buffer for how fate abandons other women over time. Where A Life of Her Own falters begins with the question: what happens after you get what you want? For Lana Turner, unlike most heroines in woman’s pictures from the 1930s, wealth and renown insufficiently fill her ambition, her inner yearning for completeness. Lana pines for Ray Milland, who plays a married man she can’t have. Every chorine, gold digger, sass mouth dame and rising starlet from the Depression Era hiss and lob popcorn at the screen at this point. When you have the brass ring, sister, you don’t trade it for a man.
Instead of watching her mewl over Milland, viewers need Lana delivering speeches with more fire than an acetylene torch, like the one she delivers to rebuff Barry Sullivan’s Lee Gorrance. He makes a pass at Lily before Mary’s in the ground. Hackles raised, she tells him:
Listen you small time chiseler, I don’t want any small favors or any big favors from you, or anything else you use to buy women. I’m not in the business you think I am and I’m never going to be. But if I were I’d be out of your price range. If I were it’d take me ten years to get around to you, so keep away from me.
—Why little Miss Kansas, you’ve been around.
There are rats like you everywhere.
She scrapes him off her shoes and continues on her way.