As Blondie McClune, Marion Davies has only one dress to her name. Although she saves money for a new one, her mother needs the cash to pay rent. Blondie’s oldest friend, Lurleen Cavanaugh, played by Billie Dove, lives in the same cold-water tenement, but soon moves into a penthouse after she lands a spot in the Follies, thanks to her ability to wear a skirt made of pearls. Lurleen changes her name to Lottie and develops notions. The story by Frances Marion and dialogue by Anita Loos captures a passionate rivalry between women who want to shed their origin. And Marion’s impression of Greta Garbo is not to be missed.
In his memoir, Frank Capra described his goal as a director: ‘I would sing the songs of the working stiffs, of the short-changed Joes, the born poor, the afflicted. I would gamble with the long-shot players who light candles in the wind, and resent with the pushed-around because of race or birth. Above all, I would fight for their causes on the screens of the world.’ Capra also included the pushed-around Janes of the world in his pictures. He made five of them starring Barbara Stanwyck. In Forbidden, Capra’s answer to Back Street (1932), Stanwyck plays a small-town librarian. Tired of dull routine, Stanwyck longs for adventure. She cashes in her savings for a new wardrobe and lavish cruise, where she hooks up with a married man. Will she be content as a mistress?
Merrily We Go to Hell (1932)
Dorothy Arzner’s cautionary tale shows women why they should avoid a hasty marriage to a random lad from a party. Arzner’s picture scuppers the romantic myth that women can save men from themselves. Sylvia Sidney stars as a socialite who falls for a dissolute writer, played by Fredric March. Each time he proves unworthy, she ignores the facts. What happens when she agrees to a modern marriage on his terms? James Baldwin once wrote that Sylvia Sidney ‘was the only American film actress who reminded me of reality’. Sylvia Sidney bore her share of troubles onscreen with an angelic grace that was the antithesis of hardboiled dames from the pre-Code era.
Shanghai Express (1932)
closes with the fourth film Marlene Dietrich made with Josef von Sternberg,
which was the top-grossing film from a stand-out year for pre-Code woman’s
pictures. Nominated for Best Picture and Best Director, it won for Best
Cinematography from Lee Garmes. In an elaborate feathered costume designed by
Travis Banton, Marlene looks like an exotic bird who longs for wings fast
enough to carry her away from men. You can’t beat Dietrich and von Sternberg
for style, mood, and dramatic atmosphere. Anna May Wong gives a standout
Join Megan McGurk for a once-off summer night for Sass Mouth Dames Film Club.
In this war-time screwball comedy, you could mistake the housing crisis in Washington D.C. for the current situation in Dublin. Jean Arthur advertises a flatshare which results in a queue down the block, an all too familiar sight today. Jean gets more than she bargains for when an elderly gent (Charles Coburn) insists on taking the vacancy. Things grow more complicated when he rents half of his room to tall drink of man-water, Joel McCrea. When a swoon merchant and his propeller take up residence, a sass mouth dame falls hard.
The regular film club series returns in September.
When Evelyn Keyes was married to director Charles Vidor, he often quoted his fellow countryman, Hungarian dramatist, Ferenc Molnar. Once, during an argument, Vidor cited Molnar for proof that sexual double standards were necessary. Molnar had said it was much easier to clean dirt from the outside of a boot, rather than the inside. Hence, men could sleep around, but women could not. Molnar’s ham-fisted metaphor rationalises bad behaviour, such as the time when Vidor suspected Keyes had been with another man, and in response, he tried to push her down a flight of stairs. If a woman is just a pair of soiled boots, a man could toss her downstairs with good reason.
If we apply common sense to using boots as a symbol of sexual honour, Molnar and Vidor sound less convincing than that theory about Coca Cola as an effective contraceptive. Picture the number of boots you have owned. Have you ever had a problem with getting them dirty inside? Even if that did happen, the dirt would remain invisible. Only the wearer would know about it. Meanwhile, cretins always track muddy boots into the house without a second thought for the floors they sully. In my head, I can hear Marjorie Main shouting ‘clean your boots!’ at the sleigh driver in A Woman’s Face (1941). Just because it’s relatively easy to clean a pair of boots doesn’t mean that men can be bothered to wipe off the muck.
The passage about Vidor and Molnar stayed with me long after I read it in Evelyn Keyes’s piercingly funny memoir, Scarlett O’Hara’s Younger Sister, which made the bestseller list when it was published in 1977. Keyes has an unassailable gift for nailing the foibles of men she took up with. Aside from Charles Vidor, she also lived with John Huston, Mike Todd, and Artie Shaw. The men in her life may have been visionaries, but when it came to women, their outlook never advanced beyond shadows on the cave wall.
I kept picturing different boots until my thoughts bumped up against shop front glass. Numerous scenes of window shopping occur in woman’s pictures, forged into memory. If sexually experienced women are like worn boots, wouldn’t they just buy a new pair? In terms of sex and shopping, one double standard leads to another, bound together like a dried-up daisy chain. Women are criticised either way—if we do it (have sex or go shopping) or if we don’t.
Scenes of window shopping in woman’s pictures seize a moment for fantasy, especially if she doesn’t have any money and needs a boost from the latest fashion. Historically, standing in front of a shop window may have been one of the few places a woman could linger in public without drawing unwanted attention.
Artful window dressing occasions hope. No matter how down and out, if she had empty pockets and zero prospects, looking in a shop window might spark a new beginning and promise better days. Teenage shop girl Mary MacLaren stares at a pair of boots on the way to work so often that she knows them by heart in Shoes (1916). Lois Weber’s picture connects sex and shopping in the desperate plight of a poor girl in tattered shoes, but I’m sure MacLaren’s character was relieved to have warm, dry feet, even if she did have to trade sex for them.
In a scene from Waterloo Bridge (1931), unemployed chorines pressed by necessity into sex work try to work the crowds outside a theatre without success. Doris Lloyd’s Kitty tells Mae Clark’s Myra they should try her lucky window. Behind the glass, a mannequin kitted-out for the battlefield poses under the lights. The shopfront’s display of military equipment draws men like ants to a picnic, and Kitty and Myra hope to collect a few crumbs from the tableau. Both women live hand to mouth servicing men in uniform. Kitty’s lucky window may mean something other than tea and toast for dinner, or the chance to settle overdue rent. Kitty and Myra extend commercial transactions outside the purview of cash registers behind the glass. Their window shopping has a different context, but stages a hopeful scene, just as they often do in woman’s pictures.
Goods arranged behind glass might reassure a dame that tides have turned. In Pick Up (1933), Sylvia Sidney, after her release from a custodial sentence, escapes a downpour under a shop front awning, and latches her great soft eyes onto a showcase of women’s lingerie. Denied delicate silk and lace for dull prison chambray, Sidney takes pleasure in an outward sign that she’s returned to society. Fresh from a shipwreck she’s lucky to have survived, Joan Crawford gazes with longing in a shop window that showcases the latest women’s frocks in Strange Cargo (1940). Crawford sheds her rags first thing on dry land, which makes her resilience as tangible as a ticker tape parade.
In a scene during Don’t Bother to Knock (1952), Marilyn Monroe’s character draws a clear parallel between a meagre wardrobe and hopelessness. The scars on her character’s wrist are a direct result of the fact that she never had a dress to wear throughout high school. Viewers can feel how Monroe becomes vulnerable and probably recalled her own childhood in foster care. In Marilyn Monroe’s memoir My Story, she wrote that she had owned only two white shirtwaists and two blue skirts as her total wardrobe. Looking back, she knew it must have seemed like she wore the same clothes all the time. Other kids made fun of her because a bland uniform of poverty set her apart from other girls.
Monroe’s character the babysitter talks about what a difference she experienced when she arrived in New York from a small town out west. Manhattan was a place full of wonders, including window displays that enticed a girl to enlarge her world through fantasy. Monroe’s character refers to it as ‘window wishing’, where she could stand in front of the glass and picture herself transformed by new clothes. It’s no surprise that the first thing she does during her babysitting job is put on the wife’s jewellery and dressing gown. As soon as Monroe trades the ill-fitting dress made of bargain basement fabric for the flattering lace and chiffon gown, her spine lengthens, her waist narrows, her voice unfurls to a purr, and her attitude becomes imperious to match the glamorous frock.
‘Window wishing’ attracts women, nose pressed against the
glass, as though it were a commercial mood board, a portal into the future to
think about what they might make over. Items arranged in the window are more
delectable than macaroons or eclairs in a patisserie. When you’re hungry for
style it’s as real as a growling stomach.
Sometimes scenes of women gazing at a shop display tell us what a woman lacks (the right clothes) and then other times, the scenes make clear what a woman doesn’t need (some man). In almost every case, there’s more at stake than just consumer goods for sale. The scenes invite viewers into the interior lives of women. Fashion displays encase their circumstances and ambition—also their deepest longing. It’s also an invitation to think about other women’s craft at self-presentation.
What would things be like if she had that dress? Those shoes? That hat? The possibility from gazing in a shop window calls to mind a brilliant passage from Voyage in the Dark, a novel by Jean Rhys. It’s one of the loneliest novels, and one of the best at depicting a woman in a fit of depression more restrictive than a whalebone corset. Anna, the protagonist, grabs a lifeline when she escapes the trauma of a nasty breakup with a bit of window shopping:
‘There was a black velvet dress in a shop-window, with the skirt slit up so that you could see the light stocking. A girl could look lovely in that, like a doll or a flower. Another dress, with fur around the neck, reminded me of the one that Laurie had worn. Her neck coming out of that fur was a pale gold colour, very slim and strong-looking. The clothes of most of the women who passed were like caricatures of the clothes in the shop-windows, but when you stopped to look you saw that their eyes were fixed to the future. “If I could buy this, then of course I’d be quite different”. Keep hope alive and you can do anything, and that’s the way the world goes round, that’s the way they keep the world rolling. So much hope for each person. And damned cleverly done too’.
Rhys tugs on a thread that stitches up the appeal of window shopping: Our hope and longing to be made over and improved, to find the right thing that unlocks our truest selves. Maybe an affair turned sour could be as easily shed as a change of wardrobe. In front of the glass, Anna becomes tethered to reality through friendship with Laurie. One thing that helps after her illusions about men are shattered is hope behind the glass. The bright appeal of another woman’s admirable style saves Anna from the thoughts trapped inside her head. A dress shop window reflects a lone woman staring in, but the frock connects the dots toward ideal fashion statements from other women. Fashion encases sorority, a community of women, rather than just a solitary consumer. Women stock looks from other women until they become etched into memory like a poem.
Window shopping showcases what women desire. When Carole Lombard halts her leggy stride in front of a stylish dress hanging in a window in Hands Across the Table (1935), viewers know she’s saying to herself ‘someday.’ Lombard’s uniform for work as a manicurist is adorable, but she wants something that has no resemblance to what she wears to soak hands in soapy water. She pauses to look through the window each morning as a reminder, to orient her purpose. On a whim she empties her bank account and buys a darling frock and a little matching hat for a date with a man she fancies. Who among us has not spent a reckless sum to have the right look? Carole’s window wishing makes the daily grind bearable.
Window shopping gives women the opportunity to change their mind. When Garbo first encounters an odd funnel-shaped hat in a milliner’s window in Ninotchka (1939), she witnesses proof of capitalism’s excess. Initially ridiculous and ostentatious, something she scoffed at, Garbo adjusts her opinion of the little brown hat over time. The more she looks at it, the whimsical design takes hold of her imagination. What good are ideals if they fail to accommodate a rakish hat?
Window shopping can offer cut-glass clarity for a woman’s disappointments. Claudette Colbert stages an epic bender in her husband’s department store window display in She Married Her Boss (1935). Colbert realises the wooden mannequins on display for living room furniture match the sexless bargain she struck in marriage. Outside an exclusive boutique, Joan Crawford stares at a blue coat with a dyed fur trim and musters the confidence to go inside and try it on during The Bride Wore Red (1937). Starved for colour, she envelopes herself in primary colours when she impersonates an aristocrat for the amusement of two old men. Soon enough, Crawford learns that women in society dress conservatively in muted tones. Joan’s peacock blue coat and valentine beaded gown present a sharp contrast to the sombre tones and old-fashioned styles of the landed gentry. Joan’s technicolour style in a monochrome society paints a woman who needs colour as much as bread and goulash. The slippage between what Claudette or Joan expect and what they find in marriage or high society presents a reliable allegory in woman’s pictures.
If men want something, they just smash the window and take it, as the younger version of John Dall’s character does in the beginning of Gun Crazy (1950). When Helen Chandler tossed a brick through a window in Vanity Street (1932), it was so she would be arrested and have the relief of three hots and a cot in jail, rather than an empty stomach and park bench she had as a dame down on her luck.
Sometimes you wish women took a direct path to get what they need more often.
Ernst Lubitsch believed
Norman Krasna’s script was the hottest comedy in Hollywood. He selected Hands
Across the Table to be the first project he supervised in his new role as head
of production for Paramount studio, lending his famed ‘Lubitsch touch’ for the
benefit of director Mitch Leisen. Carole Lombard plays a manicurist on the hunt
for a rich husband. Even though her client Ralph Bellamy is wealthy and uses
any excuse to summon the lithe blonde who will gently soak his mitts in a bowl
of water, Carole considers him only a friend. Instead, she falls for another
client, Fred MacMurray, who has a society name but no money. What happens when
sass mouth meets scapegrace? Does she marry for love or money?
Theodora Goes Wild (1936)
of the Lynnefield Literary Society disapprove of a bestselling book, excerpts
of which are printed in the local paper. In a letter of protest, one member
dismisses the scandalous novel as ‘sexy trash’. What the ladies don’t know is
that one of their own penned the bodice-ripper under a pen name, Caroline
Adams. Quiet, unassuming Theodora Lynn, played by Irene Dunne, wrote the book
that the ladies want banned. During a secret trip into the city to meet with
her publisher, an illustrator (Melvyn Douglas) figures out who she really is
and pressures Theodora to stop hiding from the town’s disapproval. Why not
discard a proper reputation if she longs to be called ‘baby’? But what if
Theodora gives him a taste of his own medicine?
Woman Chases Man (1937)
plays an architect who charges into a wealthy developer’s office (Charles
Winninger) with a pitch for a new social housing scheme. When he attempts to
get rid of her, she passes out cold, woozy from two days without eating.
Depression-era woman’s pictures contain numerous scenes of women who faint from
hunger, but a Southern belle like Miriam has a stylish fit of vapours. After he
revives her with food, they hatch a plan that will make his son (Joel McCrea) finance
their project. Once she sees McCrea, business seems less important than being
in his arms. If Miriam were not already a sass mouth MVP, she would certainly
win the honour with her Pre-Code gangster impression.
fairy tale about a dame in a poufy dress and glass slippers. Legendary
screenwriters Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder update the Cinderella story for
Claudette Colbert, who plays a former chorine down on her luck. She rolls into
Paris with nothing but a gold lamé gown and a ticket from the municipal pawn
shop in Monte Carlo. As luck would have it, she crashes a society party where John
Barrymore notices the interloper. He waggles those bushy eyebrows and offers
his services as a would-be fairy godfather, outfitting her with trunks of
fabulous clothes and a line of credit. All she has to do is pretend to be an
aristocrat and distract a gigolo away from his wife, played by Mary Astor. In
the middle of this, Don Ameche plays a taxi driver who starts a city-wide
search party among his fellow cabbies to find the woman he fell for—the dame in
the gold dress.
Cluny Brown (1946)
In the title role, nothing gets Jennifer Jones more excited than a clogged sink. When she looks at a sink full of water and vegetable scraps, Cluny Brown rolls up her sleeves. With a large wrench in hand, she bangs away at a pipe until the blockage drains. But her guardian uncle thinks it’s undignified and tells her to learn her place, which he decides should be working as a housemaid in the country. The only person who supports Cluny’s desire to serve the pipes is Charles Boyer, the king of the swoon merchants, a man who could charm the tail from a fox. On the surface, Ernst Lubitsch’s picture is about a gal’s dream of being a plumber; more importantly, it’s an impassioned clarion call for being true to one’s self above all. Since it’s a Lubitsch production, you know everything’s about sex, too.
Series 9 opens and closes with Kay Francis, because she was top of the box office during the Pre-Code era, playing a wide range of complex women. Here she plays a clip joint hostess along with Lilyan Tashman. They breakfast at twilight on aspirin and juice before they empty men’s pockets for a living. Kay Francis complains about the middle-class Babbitt types who paw the gals and tear their dresses each night, so she decides to go straight for Joel McCrea. Lilyan Tashman, with a smooth mercenary platinum wave and a caramel-coated purr in her voice, evens the score with wisecracks. George Cukor proves he had a gift for directing women in this early-career gem.
Midnight Mary (1933)
In Pre-Codes, one of the biggest themes was ‘the kept
woman’. Sometimes it worked out, as it did for Joan Crawford, who trades a love
nest for marriage and respectability with Clark Gable in Possessed (1931). Then other times, as with Loretta Young in this
picture, she realises that while she reads books written in the Enlightenment
era, she’s embroiled with a mug from the criminal rackets (Ricardo Cortez). Loretta
decides that being poor isn’t half as bad as being kept by louse. All she wants
is a good job. Enter Franchot Tone, in one of his best society roles, trading
quips with a scandalised butler. Una Merkel, as Loretta’s sidekick, plays an
unabashedly greedy dame, and is wonderful, as always. William Wellman’s
innovative work as director exhibits great care for the subject matter.
Don’t get the impression that women in Pre-Codes were all sex workers or fallen women. Sometimes they were the brains behind the rackets (Joan Crawford in Paid, from 1930, or Joan Blondell in Blondie Johnson, from 1933), or a magazine editor (Kay Francis in Man Wanted, 1932), a social worker and best-selling author (Irene Dunne in Ann Vickers, 1933) or even head of a factory. In Female, Ruth Chatterton plays the boss of an automobile company. In her downtime, she unwinds with casual sex, often with the men who are on her payroll. If men complain, or want anything more intimate than a fling, they can expect a pink slip in their pay packet. Ruth Chatterton looks supremely comfortable behind a huge desk in a corner office wearing enviable suits and frocks. George Brent is the one man able to resist her terms. Chatterton and Brent were married in real life at this time, and their passion for one another shows. Director Michael Curtiz crafts one of the most significant films about sex and power ever produced by Hollywood.
What do you do when your lover commits the ultimate betrayal? Kay Francis is woefully unprepared for the moment when Ricardo Cortez uses her as payment to settle his debts with a brothel owner. Abandoned and devastated, Kay heeds advice from the brothel’s madame, who reasons that since a man got her into trouble, she should use them for a way out. With hair like an Art Deco sculpture, and exquisite outfits, Kay transforms herself into ‘Spot White’, a sensation every man must have. If the Academy Awards had acknowledged costume design (they didn’t until 1948), Orry-Kelly’s glamorous ensembles would have been hard to beat. Director Michael Curtiz helms a picture that celebrates resourceful sass mouth dames.
BONUS FEATURE: Havana Widows (1933) with Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell will close out Series 9.