By Megan McGurk
During the scene in Norma Shearer’s powder room for The Women (1939), director George Cukor suggested a bit of business for Rosalind Russell. First, she hooks a chair with her ankle, sits down, and shares a choice piece of gossip with Phyllis Povah about the man of the house, who had been carrying on with a shopgirl under his wife’s nose. After they cackle, Roz has a moment by herself at the sink over guest soap and towels with cheap embroidery. Roz looks in the mirror, pulls back her lips, and examines her teeth. In her memoir, she recalls questioning Cukor’s instructions. The director pointed out that women make up one way in front of one another, but they did it another way when they were alone. Small details like baring her teeth made it possible for Rosalind Russell to steal the picture. Cukor put his finger on small moments that build character and set a mood.
Ricardo Cortez probably isn’t the first name you think of when it comes to films about women, because he’s better known in front of the camera than behind it, but he shares the same integrity in telling women’s stories as better known directors such as George Cukor. In 1938, Cortez signed a deal with 20th Century Fox to act, write, and direct. In two years, he directed seven ‘B’ pictures for the studio. Dan Van Neste, in his biography, The Magnificent Heel, notes that Cortez ‘approached the direction of the ‘B’ movie as if he were about to helm Citizen Kane’. Cortez was meticulous in his set ups and paid attention to detail. He applied decades of experience in front of the camera for coaching cast members through a performance. In 1940, Cortez directed three woman’s pictures back-to-back which rival the quality of more prestigious ‘A’ productions.
Like Cukor, Cortez sensed the dramatic potential of a powder room setting, where women share secrets behind closed doors. At first, City of Chance (1940), seems like a standard potboiler about the gambling rackets. Fifteen minutes into the picture, top-billed Lynn Bari arrives, playing a reporter who assists a police investigation to close a fancy casino run by C. Aubrey Smith and Donald Woods. The racketeers have the usual gadgets, such as pool tables which convert for playing ‘21’, dice, and roulette, along with a rigged telephone booth that has an office extension for eavesdropping. But the real plot intrigue occurs in the powder room, far away from the prying eyes of men. Ricardo Cortez stages covert exchanges between women, giving the viewer a real sense of what women do when men aren’t around.
Three women find respite for a moment in the powder room and trade in sass mouth economics. They ask the cocktail waitress, Beulah, played by Theresa Harris, if she will exchange their chips for cash. Beulah asks for a promise that they won’t tell, because she says she knows the club owners wouldn’t like it. One of them settles the bargain at ten percent off the top for Beulah. The women hand over $200 combined in gambling chips. Theresa Harris scoops them into her pocket and dashes off to the counter. All the while, Lynn Bari observes with saucer-eyes. Cortez paces the scene so that it rolls along as smooth as a woman applying lipstick or combing her hair. Women have figured out a sure-fire way to beat the house and make a date profitable. Really, it’s a feminine art that only counts as cheating as much as a push up bra and spritz of perfume. Women in the powder room cut to the chase, rather than gamble, or waste time with role play, as say Jean Harlow did when she pretended to lose her purse so she could squeeze rent money from Stuart Erwin in Hold Your Man (1933).
Cortez shows viewers a smart system women use to make ends meet. The odds favour men—why throw away good money on rigged games? When their dates hand out chips to play with, women take the sensible option and convert them to the cash. Lynn Bari seems more impressed watching this deal than the one by a gangster who wages a hostile takeover of the gambling den. Frankly, so am I.
Another woman in the powder room hatches a practical scam which Lynn Bari strains to overhear. A woman admits to a friend that her husband is on a losing streak. In an earlier scene, downstairs at the crap tables, she had begged him to call it quits. He brushed her off, dug his heels in, convinced he could turn it around. She takes a pair of fixed dice from her evening bag and tells her friend she’s going to switch them for the real thing. Someone will notice and shut the game down for a house fix. If she can’t stop her husband, she’ll close the joint. By necessity, a harried wife collects a slew of tricks to keep a reckless husband in line. I would have preferred the whole picture set inside the powder room.
In the last two pictures Cortez directed, he locates the action in The Sherrington Hotel for women, where men are not permitted beyond the lobby. Fox studio planned a trilogy that began with Linda Darnell’s film debut, when she was only fifteen years old, in Hotel for Women (1939). Directed by Gregory Ratoff, Darnell is bolstered by Ann Sothern and a cameo by celebrated hostess, Elsa Maxwell. But the hotel feels two-dimensional compared with the intimacy of the setting when Ricardo Cortez followed up with Free, Blonde and 21 (1940) and Girl in Room 313 (1940). Ricardo Cortez presents the hotel as though it were a Russian doll, a series of nested rooms hidden in private recess.
In the opening scene of Free, Blonde, and 21 (1940), a drunk man offers an excuse when he’s stopped at the entrance of the Sherrington that a friend told him to stop there. The doorman replies that he fell for the oldest gag in the city—the Sherrington is reserved for women—and turns the man away. Cortez frames exterior and interior spaces as a fortress of layers, which ultimately lead to the inner sanctum of rooms that are women-only and off limits to men. The street front revolving doors, rear service entrance, the lobby, elevators, corridors, and rooms, grow smaller, and blockade pick up artists, men on a bender, and cheating husbands.
Joan Davis, playing one of the chambermaids, watches over the residents. She mends clothes, wakes them when they fall asleep wearing hair dye, loans money they never pay back, and monitors how many sleeping pills they have left on a nightstand. Right from the start, Davis lets us know how men rate when she slugs her boyfriend in the back alley because he demanded a kiss. The men are more dress dummy than swoon merchant. Surrounded by stuffed shirts and ham-fisted dopes, the women are left to run away with the picture. One particularly dim son of Adam, a physician played by Henry Wilcoxon, seems aghast that Lynn Bari lives in the Sherrington. He doesn’t understand why she would choose to live in a women’s hotel rather than her own apartment, Lynn Bari explains ‘it’s like watching the same review that never gives quite the same show twice’. She’s drawn to the characters and their stories, just like an audience watching a picture. The dormitory spaces are as unique as the women who occupy them.
Lynn’s room is decorated with tasteful furnishing and drapes, rather than the basic folding tables of the girls just starting out on their own. Bari’s room is a testament to an independent working woman—she has the room of one’s own that a million dames strive for when they ride the subway each morning. Lynn Bari was only 21 years-old when she made the film, but she looks like she could mentor younger girls in the hotel. She carries the poise of experience earned over many years since her first film appearance, when she was only 13, as a chorus girl in Dancing Lady (1933). As Bari put it, she played the heavy in ‘A’ pictures for 20th Century Fox while she was heroine in ‘B’ pictures.
In Free, Blonde and 21 the platinum Mary Beth Hughes leaves a note before she overdoses on sleeping pills, which she hopes will make front page news to shame a man who did her wrong. Lynn Bari rides along in the ambulance. On the gurney, Hughes is supposed to be knocked out cold, but erupts into a sneeze. Had she really taken a bottle of pills, she would have been oblivious to the sniffles. Bari, as a worldly sophisticate, realises the girl staged the whole thing. Cortez takes full advantage of a small intimate moment between women to get the real story. Before they reach the hospital and official men take charge, Lynn Bari already has an accurate diagnosis.
Ricardo Cortez retains the sense of intimacy he created in the Sherrington for the last picture he directed. During one scene in Girl in 313, Mary Treen plays a maid who teases residents with a juicy tale about a gun moll who just checked into the hotel. The girls are busy with more pressing matters, such as soaking her dancing feet in the tub. No one bites on the gossip, including a woman who writes racy stories for magazines. They are big city gals who have heard everything. The scene illustrates how quickly information circulates through the halls.
Florence Rice plays a jewel thief (or is she?), who swipes a $50,000 necklace during a glamorous jewellery show during the opening scene. She arrives at the Sherrington without a reservation, but offers an excuse about an abusive husband, which gets her a room and no questions about the absence of luggage. Mary Treen knocks on the door to help the new resident unpack and notices a pistol in the new gal’s handbag. Safe inside the hotel for women, Rice contacts Kent Taylor, a smug insurance agent, to broker a deal for the return of the valuable necklace. She asks for $10,000. In a phone booth, she sets up the rendezvous for exchange in the Sherrington lobby. She tells the man he will know her by a white lace hat with two white feathers—the hat she just so happens to be wearing.
The confection on her head is something else. It’s more the idea of a hat than an actual hat. It looks like a few yards of stiff lace with a grosgrain ribbon to secure it on a brimless crown. In front, it boasts two enormous white feathers poking out. Rather than a fashion statement, it’s a sartorial gag designed for men who wouldn’t have the faintest idea about the variations of millinery. Florence Rice does not expect men to know a Eugenie from a halo, a pillbox from a toque, a tam from a beret. She keeps it simple for the pair of goons who will no doubt swoop down on the pigeon in white lace and feathers. In the Sherrington’s lobby, the camera shot picks up woman wearing the white number while she tucks her dainty legs under a chair. Two bulls grab her by the arms, and take her down to the station, but he woman isn’t Florence Rice.
At the bar, Kent Taylor assumes his job is done until Florence Rice sidles up next to him wearing the white lace and feathers on her head. She answers his bewilderment with a coy excuse, that the saleswoman assured her it was the only one like it in town. Then she admits she paid an old friend to wear it and play decoy. Cortez executes a scene that shows how easy it is to fool men. Men may have badges or titles but women have learnt to outsmart them. I’m a sucker for a fashion plot twist and this one is as sweet as they come.
In 1931, Ricardo Cortez, born Jacob Krantz, was a washed-up ‘Latin’, an imitation Valentino left over from the silents, when Warners cast him to support Bebe Daniels in a film initially titled All Woman and then changed to Woman of the World. During production, the script revisions favoured the detective rather than the glamorous criminal. Once the film premiered, under the title The Maltese Falcon, most of the praise went to Cortez. The role gave Cortez a chance to shine as a distinctly pre-Code American leading man. He’s a charmer whose eyes were clouded with dollar signs. But he made an impression as one of the most durable leading men in woman’s pictures. He was present for whatever the story needed. Onscreen, in woman’s story, he was a lifetime supply of brilliantine—the slickest trick on celluloid—as either a swoon merchant or a total stinker.
Ricardo Cortez was primed to direct woman’s pictures after years of giving faithful support next to stars such as Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Helen Twelvetrees, Kay Francis, Barbara Stanwyck, Mary Astor, Loretta Young, Bette Davis, Claudette Colbert, Mae Clarke, Carole Lombard, and Irene Dunne. Even when he played a scoundrel, he often assisted his leading lady in a significant way, such as when he had burnt an incriminating letter from Kay Francis before he was shot by a father avenging his teenage daughter’s honour in Transgression (1931) , or when he disposed of his own body for Kay Francis once he had sold her to a pimp in Mandalay (1934). Cortez knew the real from the fake as intuitively as a man in the rackets knows loaded dice on green felt–after years it was in his blood.