In the opening scene of She Married Her Boss (1935), Claudette Colbert wears a modified tuxedo, which seems like an inspired choice, since she plays a predecessor to William Powell, who wore a penguin suit to work as a butler in My Man Godfrey (1936). Both Colbert’s Julia Scott and Powell’s Godfrey Park reform dysfunctional wealthy families, a recurring theme in the work of director Gregory La Cava. As an executive secretary to Richard Barclay (Melvyn Douglas), Colbert finagles a deal to run things as smoothly at home as his new bride. The proposal and elopement happen off-camera. After the ceremony, their sexless marriage carries on like a cold business transaction. When Barclay popped the question, I imagine it went something along the lines of ‘Can you buttle?’
Claudette Colbert spends most of the run-time in a quest to consummate their union—to be a wife rather than an employee. As the new Mrs Barclay’s sexual frustration grows, the picture argues that a second shift not only sucks the life from Julia Scott, but commerce in general can be blamed for dousing the fire of her sexual desire. Ultimately she’s left wondering what a woman has to do to get some action.
During the opening scene, she sits behind a desk with two ringing phones and a buzzing intercom. Julia Scott settles a dispute between clerks over which product should receive a better placement in an advertisement for Barclays department store—men’s pyjamas or linens? If viewers hadn’t been convinced by Julia Scott’s name on the door, the image of her dispatching orders wearing a Noel Coward version of office attire clarifies for viewers who really runs the joint.
Robert Kalloch designed the tailored black frock offset by a starched white bib-front, adding extra-wide stiff white lapels and cuffs, and a snappy black bow tie. Colbert’s sleek monochrome look signals a woman who knows her onions. She looks as efficient as an Underwood typewriter with a pulse. Kalloch would later do for Rosalind Russell with chevron striped suits in His Girl Friday (1940) what he does with Colbert in the revamped tuxedo—create upwardly mobile designs for working women.
During his introductory scene as the harried and dyspeptic boss, Mel Douglas as Richard Barclay complains about indigestion from last night’s dinner. Claudette Colbert does four things at once to soothe his irritability: she mixes a bromo, rings a doctor for Barclay’s daughter (also suffering a touch of ptomaine from bad lobster), memorises his request to replace a broken toy piano, and then offers an opinion on the possible acquisition of another department store. Among the list of things Barclay doesn’t know is that his secretary has been in love with him for six years. In woman’s pictures, what men don’t know fills volumes. Julia Scott believes by becoming indispensable to her boss at work and home, he will reciprocate her feelings in time. She’s banking on his affection in an instalment plan. Eventually, he’ll pay off by putting out.
Joan Crawford has her pick between a troubled veteran (Henry Fonda) and a smug married man (Dana Andrews). Does she want the man who has good lines (‘The world’s dead and everybody in it’s dead but you’) or does she stay with the same old masculine lines (‘It won’t be over til we’re dead’)? Crawford looks good in the back street as well as the sunshine, thanks to the poetic photography of Leon Shamroy, who believed that every light had to be justified ‘like words in a sentence’.
Career gal Joan has a cute flat, the freedom to lose herself in work, and a great wardrobe by Charles LeMaire. I’m not sure why she wants a husband, but my interest in woman’s pictures is always seeing a woman who gets what she wants.
Catch up with podcast episode 85 on Daisy Kenyon (1947).
If you’re looking for more podcast episodes on Joan Crawford, step this way—>
In episode 60, I talk about Sadie McKee (1934) , the gold standard Crawford picture. It has everything I desire: Joan absorbs the slings and arrows of unworthy men, triumphs over their low opinion, has the support of a dear friend (Jean Dixon), and parades in exquisite designs by Adrian. And it has a scene set in the Automat, which is what I use to centre my best intentions each time when I sit down to write. Joan has a few coins in her pocket, but fortified by a smart wool topper and hat, she uses great style as a shield against pity and misfortune.
For episode 50, I talk about how Joan Crawford just wants to be left alone in her beach house. She foils the plot of a rough trade grifter and his backers, sidestepping the fate of women of a certain age.
In episode 36, Joan stars in a fabulous spy caper to defeat the Nazis.
Matt Harris, archivist and fellow Joan Crawford obsessive, joins me for episode 20 to talk about Joan in Flamingo Road (1949) and in episode 66 for Queen Bee (1955).
In episode 77, I admire the way Adrian develops his signature metallic look for Joan Crawford in No More Ladies (1935). The picture evades the usual tropes about a woman driven witless by a cheating husband. Joan turns the tables on Bob Montgomery until he sobs in her arms and begs forgiveness.
In episode 4, I talk about how watching Joan Crawford in Torch Song (1953) as she tries to do nothing on a Sunday leaves me with white knuckles.
Although Louella and Hedda are more famous for their long-running feud than for the power they wielded in the studio system in Hollywood, they had a lot in common. Both women struggled as single mothers. Each woman forged a career in highly competitive fields when most women did not work outside the home. By telephone, their weapon of choice, Louella and Hedda could drag moguls out of bed, make producers sweat through a charvet shirt, and interrupt a star in the middle of filming a scene. When there were no less than 400 writers competing for stories in the film colony, Louella and Hedda had the largest readership for their daily columns. Their success inspired jealous hit-pieces and even physical attacks from men.
Louella and Hedda forged an indelible impact on celebrity journalism that remains visible today. Each time you read a profile on a film star, their imprint lingers in the subtext.
Catch up with my six-episode series:
Part One looks at Louella’s early dreams of being a writer, her rise as a film scenarist in Essay Studio, and her rise as one of the first daily film columnists. She gathered interviews from stars during train station layovers, and developed modern ways to market her skill set, pitching ideas to editors and publishers. The episode concludes when she nearly died of tuberculosis after she logged too many hours working for William Randolph Hearst in 1926.
Part Two covers Hedda Hopper’s early years as a workhorse in her father’s butcher shop, to runaway chorus girl, to wife of a Broadway star, and her success in silent pictures as the stylish dame who outshines the star. Hedda divorced a cheating husband and flourished in Hollywood, until she lost everything in the 1929 Crash.
Part Three traces the rise of Louella’s influence as a columnist in Hollywood. During the transition to sound, studios feared a negative item about one of their stars from Louella, and gave her a 48-hour exclusive. For more than a decade, she was the first to report breaking news on the stars. Louella made a splash in radio by booking free talent for the sponsors. The Screen Actors Guild mobilised against her power to get the stars to work without pay.
Part Four examines Hedda’s struggle to maintain a film career once MGM let her option expire. She became a Jane of all trades, in real estate, as a talent agent, as a beauty operator for Elizabeth Arden, and a voice coach–anything to pay her son’s tuition bill and keep a roof over her head. When Hedda was past 50 and considered a failure by everyone in the film industry, she reinvented herself as a columnist.
Part Five looks at Louella’s resilience when she lost her studio exclusive, and watch her rival catch the big stories, starting with Lombard and Gable’s wedding. After Hedda appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1948, Louella stayed in bed for days. But Louella closed the decade by breaking two of the biggest stories of the postwar era–Rita Hayworth’s Cinderella wedding to Prince Aly Khan and the truth about Ingrid Bergman’s love child with director Roberto Rossellini.
Part Six notes the accelerated speed of Hedda’s success as a daily columnist. She didn’t just cover the stars–she used her column as a platform to argue that Hollywood was unfair to women. Hedda called for the end of severe diets, and more women as screenwriters, producers, and directors. Hedda’s right-wing politics became an overwhelming preoccupation after the Time magazine cover. She encouraged the HUAC investigation, led boycotts against so-called pro-Communist sentiment in Hollywood, which inevitably led to the Blacklist.
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.
In 1928, Harry Cohn sent Frank Capra to replace Irwin Willat on the location shoot for Submarine. Although Capra was reluctant to take over for an experienced director who had the loyalty of cast and crew, he accepted the assignment once the studio head guaranteed that he could reshoot the entire picture. When Capra had reviewed Willat’s rushes, he recoiled at the way the leading men, Jack Holt and Ralph Graves, were made up. In his memoir, The Name Above the Title, Capra recalled how the actors were painted with a heavy hand, with overly drawn faces that lacked realism, which detracted from the story. Holt and Graves wore exaggerated eyeliner and lip rouge that would have been better suited on a vaudeville troupe, rather than face a camera close-up.
Capra argued with Holt that the fussy hairpiece he wore made him look worse and that went double for the face paint. Eventually Holt and Graves were convinced, but only after they viewed the footage Capra shot of them bare faced and with a natural hairline compared to their original makeup. Capra vowed to himself ‘as soon as I was important enough I would get rid of makeup, come actors, come cameramen, come all the Westmores’. He complains about makeup during several passages in his book.
Two years after the Navy picture, Capra directed Barbara Stanwyck in her star vehicle, Ladies ofLeisure, and held firm to his anti-greasepaint principle. In her study of Barbara Stanwyck’s career, Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Ella Smith includes an interview with cinematographer Joseph Walker, who photographed Ladies of Leisure. Walker had been advised by studio boss Harry Cohn to make sure that Stanwyck looked glamorous, in line with what the major studios did when they shot the stars. Capra disagreed with how she should be photographed, and stressed his anti-makeup agenda with Walker:
‘Yes, she does look wonderful—but I feel we are losing something. I think she is potentially a great actress, a unique personality, but we are not getting it on the screen. I want to shoot the sequence over with no make-up, no glamorous portraits—just show her as she really is and I think she will be great’.
Whenever Capra shows Stanwyck wearing cosmetics in a scene during Ladies of Leisure, it’s not applied in a glamorous style. In her first scene, Stanwyck steps out of a row boat, with a torn dress strap and smudged mascara, suggesting a narrow escape from rowdy men.
In another scene, Ralph Graves peels off Stanwyck’s false lashes and wipes off her makeup, decades before James Mason washed makeup from Judy Garland in A Star isBorn (1954). The society artist Graves plays thinks Stanwyck’s makeup obscures her true essence, a quality of innocence and hope that he hopes to capture on canvas. Stanwyck’s character wonders why he wants her to look homely, because she equates makeup with the nature of femininity, but since he’s paying by the hour, she submits.
Only briefly did Capra indulge the pleasure of cosmetics during a great scene for Barbara Stanwyck in The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), when Toshia Mori opens an ornate dressing table full of ornate bottles and jars to assist a woman in the seductive arts. Even then, Capra depicts makeup as a false masque she must assume to please the warlord character played by Nils Asther.
As Capra notes in his autobiography, during their first time working together, Stanwyck cringed at the sight of herself on a big screen when she had an emotional scene. Capra realised that after she watched the rushes, she adjusted her reactions to look more conventionally attractive on the screen. Stanwyck’s biographer Victoria Wilson, in Steel True, reports that Stanwyck didn’t like the way her mouth pulled to one side when she spoke quickly, nor did she enjoy seeing veins pop out on her throat, or the way her hands looked. Capra chose the most expedient solution and told Stanwyck to stay out of the screening room and avoid of the rushes.
Capra’s attitude about makeup is frustrating because it seems like a lack of vision from a man who was an innovator in many respects. Skilled makeup artists use a palette of shades just like a cinematographer uses light to paint a scene. The anti-makeup position that Capra takes sounds like arguments about female purity. The idea of a ‘pure’, natural, or unspoiled woman has all the hallmarks of a backward and regressive worldview. Capra’s aversion to face paint is so easily debunked with any number of Barbara Stanwyck pre-Code pictures where makeup enhances her performance.
Stanwyck once told an interviewer that Frank Capra taught her that acting is all about the eyes. The actor thinks and makes it real for the audience with their eyes. Often though, in the early part of her film career, Barbara Stanwyck shows us plenty with her mouth, and more so when she wears lipstick. The sound of her voice giving out to a man brings me pure joy, especially at a time when it’s easy to feel like life is nothing but chaos and injustice. Stanwyck referred to the moment in her pictures where she detonated onscreen as the ‘Get Outs’. For Stanwyck, the ‘Get Outs’ were the scenes where she shouted abuse at a man and showed him the door. In her pre-Code pictures, before Stanwyck absorbed lessons about studio acting, she was an emotive dynamo waiting to release pent-up frustration.
In her early films, Stanwyck didn’t care how she looked when she was angry. In a scene where she meets with lies, bully tactics, or the smug resolve of someone in a position of power (usually a man), her thermostat rises. When she reaches a boil, her mouth blasts open and contorts on the right side. During a ‘Get Out’, Barbara Stanwyck snarls a five-alarm tirade which always delivers a satisfying moment of truth. Whether she faces men who try to push women around or spoilt rich dames, Stanwyck puts them on notice with a fiery blast.