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.

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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.

Not only does the script call for Wynn Everett to smile and comport herself as though her boss behaves as a brilliant, fun-loving maverick who simply calls them like he sees them, all women in the cast suffer comparable indignity. Amy Adams has little more to do than gaze with frothy adoration at Hanks. Emily Blunt’s unsavoury chore involves taking a page from the Playboy fantasy book. She’s a buttoned-up suit in the waiting room with the buxom typing pool in one scene and then tousled and undressed in matching bra and panty set in Hanks’ home the next. The film would have us believe that women can’t wait to strip off for a middle-aged government employee. Julia Roberts may have commanded the highest salary for women of a generation, but here, her character reduces to a grooming ritual that consists of using a safety pin to prise apart individual eyelashes caked with mascara. Media coverage discussed the lash trick more than any individual component of Roberts’s performance. Forget character development, ladies—give us your beauty tips.

Charlie Wilson’s War indicates everything that’s wrong with contemporary Hollywood. Although it was produced and marketed as a prestige film with Oscar ambitions, female characters had scant dialogue and nothing to do but serve as set dressing. So-called highbrow films cleave to limited characterisations for women just as rigidly as popcorn escapists that train a Cyclops focus on men. Productions restrict themselves to plots about men who do the same old things such as scheme in a seedy office to storm Wall Street while they boast over drugs and sex workers; men pledge themselves to inane fantasy quests; fight evil in spandex and capes; catch bad guys; battle zombies or monsters; gripe about middle age; pull a big heist; go to war; in short, men do stuff while women watch with heaving cleavage and smooth hair.

For decades, since the 1960s, we have endured the male point of view onscreen to an almost utter exclusion of women. I often imagine what might run through a woman’s mind when she must say ‘wow’ and act profoundly impressed by the ego-driven antics of men, as unflappable Rashida Jones does in The Social Network (2010), when Jesse Eisenberg brags about the number of online hits he scored in one day. She must have died a little inside. Or ebullient Anna Camp, who plays a prostitute named Candy in Café Society (2016), who crumbles when spurned by Jesse Eisenberg her first night on the job. Camp must have felt at least a little despair over the cheap reduction of female character and thought, ‘gee, Woody, another sex worker?’ We can add Emma Stone in Zombieland (2009) for a satisfying triumvirate, a character who can easily out-manoeuvre the type of man played by Jesse Eisenberg, yet still submits to a plot arc where he rescues her. Did she ever wish she could hold the production hostage for a re-write? When Emma Stone disclosed in a recent Rolling Stone profile that directors gave the hilarious lines she improvised on set to her male co-stars, fans of woman’s pictures registered little surprise. Men have received the best lines ever since Hitchcock decided to carve up his leading lady in the first act. Eisenberg was chosen at random to illustrate my point. I’m sure we could pick any man billed above the title after woman’s pictures went out of fashion and find a script that favours him over the lead woman in the cast. Not a single man acting today has amassed a body of work which supports leading women, as once Charles Boyer (King of woman’s pictures), Clark Gable (King of Hollywood), Joel McCrea, George Brent, Franchot Tone, Humphrey Bogart, Fred MacMurray, Melvyn Douglas, Kirk Douglas or a host of other actors once did without any sacrifice to their masculinity. The Revenant, last year’s Oscar darling lacked enough dialogue for women to fill an index card. I wonder how women felt cast as a bunch of mutes.

Even when women make contemporary films, they don’t often break stereotype or truly celebrate women. Instead, we encounter unlikeable leading ladies with an inability to cope, as a type viewers are instructed to regard as a failure, a loser. Our cinematic imagination—so immersed in disdain for women and their experiences—means that when women-centred projects appear, they soak up a surfeit of anti-woman sentiment and create leading ladies who seem hapless and lost, such as the case in Bridesmaids and Trainwreck. Both box office hits, nonetheless at the cost of female protagonists who constantly screw up or only have casual sex as a symptom of their daddy issues rather than for pleasure. The spectacle of a bride pooping in the street and bridesmaid doing the same in a sink no doubt caused every woman from the silver screen era to spin in her grave. We need characterisation that surpasses raunchy gags. And if there’s a film with a more conservative, conformist message than Trainwreck’s—stop carousing and settle down with a husband and kids already—I’ll eat a pair of opera gloves. Too many films today deliver a lecture or chastise women for not living up to society’s expectations when they should instead show us how to transcend the narrow prospects reserved for muliebrity.

Instead of woman’s pictures, we settle for novelty act status, as though we were Lancelot Link, or some chimp act in re-boots of male-led franchises, such as Ghost Busters and Ocean’s 8. Isn’t it cute, the ladies think they’re people. Re-makes surrender all pretence that Hollywood cares about telling women’s stories. Their message boils down to sloppy seconds for the ladies and we should line up around the corner for the privilege. Imagine how Joan Crawford or Barbara Stanwyck would respond if they were asked to appear in a recycled men’s story. Forget about a verbal reply, just consider how high a brow would climb and how wide an eye would pop.

Don’t you crave films that feature women as leads in juicy plotlines? Don’t you desire films about women who overcome a hardscrabble background and move on to fulfilling career paths and marvellous adventure? Don’t you want to see films where women define the course of their lives and stand up to men who try and push them down? Don’t you want to see women claw their way to the top through their own steely wit and gimlet eyed view of the world? Rather than suffer through another film where women receive less than a third of the dialogue or only play the eye candy foil to the male lead, turn back to an era when women onscreen mattered. Stop wasting money on tickets to productions that views us as a tacked on two-dimensional hair-and-tits component instead of the main characters.

Bad news at the box office these days tells us that Hollywood isn’t interested in making those movies or building plots around heroines with verve. We can instead find good news in Hollywood’s classic period, a time when the film industry made ‘pictures’ that were wholly invested in pleasing female patrons with dynamic scenarios of modern womanhood. Each major studio devoted a percentage of productions to woman’s pictures, a genre that dominated Hollywood from the early sound period through the Cold War era, roughly from 1929-1959. Made mostly in glorious black and white, woman’s pictures highlight representations of women as a relief, escape or detour from traditional roles and stereotypes. Even when conventional rules apply, women glean cracks in the firmament that suggest alternatives.

Once, you could reliably find a female point of view in the cinema. During the period when Hollywood made woman’s pictures, women in the audience watched thoughtful depictions of a range of topics such as sexuality inside or outside marriage; how to forge romantic entanglements with men based on equality and respect; women who struggled in the sex trade or as the kept woman; women who laboured in historically male professional fields; women as crime bosses; women as writers, artists and entertainers; how women survived on a daily basis when they were broke and without resources; how to manage female rivalry, and perhaps most importantly, the films present friendship between women as a bedrock support system to negotiate the soul-crushing effects of gender inequality. Woman’s pictures offered women in the audience a means to widen the scope of their world after it shook and shrunk in the wake of the Stock Market Crash of 1929, as they struggled through the years of WWII and the Cold War era.

Thirty films from Depression-era woman’s pictures selected for this collection give women plenty to do, think and say and contain a host of subversive messages to undermine the authority of a man’s world. Each film I’ve chosen remains relevant for women today and stands out as a superior film of any time. Between the outstanding performances, well drawn plots and covet-worthy designs from masters such as Adrian, Orry-Kelly and Travis Banton, woman’s pictures offer a world that revolves around us for a change. The men onscreen may seem wonderful or awful in near equal measure, but they never overshadow women until the credits roll. In woman’s pictures, you know her by her name: hard boiled maiden, fresh dame, gold digger, chorine, sister, or what I like to call sass mouth dame. A sass mouth dame talks back, she’s ambitious, independent, hard-working, quick with a quip and not to be sold a bill of goods from a suit and fedora.

Contemporary onscreen talent plays second-fiddle to silver screen mega-queens such as Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Blondell, Glenda Farrell, Irene Dunne, Carole Lombard, Ginger Rogers, Aline MacMahon, Patsy Kelly, Thelma Todd, Ann Dvorak, Theresa Harris, Sylvia Sidney, Kay Francis, Claudette Colbert, Louise Beavers, Fredi Washington, Rosalind Russell, Greta Garbo, Bette Davis, Constance Bennett, Miriam Hopkins, Merle Oberon, Bonita Granville, Joan Bennett, Lilyan Tashman, Toshia Mori, Clara Bow and Katharine Hepburn. Woman’s pictures include so many talented women that it was difficult to restrict this book to only thirty titles. Already, I regret not squeezing in more films about showgirls who make good; women who struggle against the odds, even if they lose in the end; career gals; or the modern Cinderella. I’ve chosen to present the films by their year of release, rather than by a ranked or rated system. I haven’t adhered to studio billing—actors appear in the order I think they should have in the list of credits. I gush at length about some actors (Crawford, Stanwyck, Blondell, Boyer) and complain sharply about others (March, Boles, Shearer, Grant) but recognise that preferences for film stars, although subjective, have roots with the depth of an oak tree.

A brief word about the selection process seems in order. Many other titles could have joined this roster of woman’s pictures from the Depression era, but as with any collection, it can be tricky to let a number grow too large. Originally, I had wanted to include additional pictures, such as two exceptional titles from 1929, Piccadilly and Pandora’s Box, as well as Safe in Hell from 1931. Anna May Wong proves just as glamorous in rags dancing in the nightclub’s scullery as when she appears onstage in an elaborate costume. She gives one of the best glowers in film history during the showdown with Gilda Gray. Louise Brooks’ reaction of sexual triumph in the backstage closet scene also deserves to be enshrined among superior moments onscreen. Both women played showgirls with a dubious reputation but who were just trying to thrive. Dorothy Mackaill’s sex worker gives a barn burner speech at the end of Safe in Hell. I also deleted essays I had written about Craig’s Wife (1936) and Stella Dallas for similar reasons.  Although each film contains masterclass performances and superior writing, the women die or receive punishment in the end. It seemed more to the point for this collection to celebrate women who don’t have to pay the ultimate price for breaking the rules.

Sass Mouth Dames aims to join critical space with landmark studies of woman’s pictures, such as Molly Haskell’s From Reverence to Rape and Jeanine Basinger’s A Woman’s View. I hope to widen the audience for woman’s pictures among women and men who have grown weary with limited representations in the Cineplex. Hollywood did it once before, so why not bring back woman’s pictures? Let’s embrace the warm glow from black and white cinema and bask in an era when women may have been left with only a coat and a pair of step-ins—as Joan Blondell was in Dames (’34)—but still managed to protect their dignity and meet the day with wit and style.

You can buy my book here