Semiotics from Ginger Rogers

By: Megan McGurk

When almost beggared and starved, with only a few crackers and an apple for an evening repast, a lecture from a well-fed man about the sexual dimorphism of seals seems indelicate if not outright vulgar. Spare a lady a disquisition of facts collected during the time you sat at a table reading while someone else prepared the dinner. A hungry woman would rather console herself that it’s no fun to swim around in a fur coat all day, instead of listening to the species defined by a male example and the female as its mere opposite. In Gregory LaCava’s Fifth Avenue Girl (1939), Ginger contests the male speaker’s authority in a brief exchange, issuing a robust protest, one that anticipates hallmarks of the personal-is-political vanguard still thirty years in the future.

Allan Scott’s screenplay contains one of the most striking rejections of a Cyclop’s-squint logic governing a man’s world. Whether you point to Adam’s rib or Freud’s penis-envy, storybooks have a long tradition of spotlighting men for the definition, quote and summary of human experience. Women, cast off as leftovers, become an afterthought, second-rate—bits of what the male embodies in whole form. Shabby patterns of representation always put men in the forefront. Ginger shows viewers how much the world expands when you resist playing an opposite role.

In front of the seal pond, Ginger makes it plain she has no intention of playing a passive audience member to a random blowhard. She interrupts and undertalks throughout his narration, mocking his claim at expert status; moreover, she steals his audience by directly addressing the sad rich man standing between them. Seals rate as one of the smartest of the carnivores, he says, only dogs are smarter. He corrects Ginger’s remark about how joyless swimming in a fur coat seems by saying they’re a different species. He foists his observations on Ginger and the forlorn well-heeled gentleman.

See that fella? That’s a male. Know how I can tell? He’s bigger than the female.

–You mean the female is smaller.

Yeah, that’s right—and lighter in colour.

–I see. The males are darker. And louder.

 

Ginger Rogers may be small, pale, soft-spoken and poor, but she has sense enough to side-step his lazy terms. Mr jibber-jabber fails to recognise that she’s not talking about seals. Ginger’s parting comment, that now she knows how the other half lives, reminds us in the flickering light that men never consider themselves by half measures.

As viewers often discover in woman’s pictures, women like Ginger Rogers have answers that men need rarely notice.

Tyrone Power’s Reversal of Fortune in Nightmare Alley (1947)

By: Megan McGurk

Tyrone Power’s beauty invites discussion. Unlike other uncommonly handsome men in Hollywood who seemed uneasy with nature’s gift, Power wore his good looks with the elegance of a bespoke suit. He always had a relaxed fit with women onscreen. Robert Taylor, on the other hand, was profligate with his handsome face, which he treated like a burden he couldn’t wait to outgrow (and he did—just look at him in the late 1950s where he looks like a dissolute husk of his glory days). Somehow it de-sexed Taylor, left him unmoored, made him feel effeminate and open to questions about his masculinity. Taylor had to butch it up at every turn in manly outdoor pursuit. He hid behind his looks in a smirking remove from leading ladies, and rarely sent up his screen image or displayed any degree of humour about his screen idol status, unless you count the brief scene in Her Cardboard Lover (1942), when he slips into Norma Shearer’s silk pyjamas, something he probably only did because Cary Grant had pulled it off in Bringing Up Baby (1938), without accusations of weakened manhood.

For actors such as Taylor, or Errol Flynn, a louche charmer in the 1930s, yet whom Olivia de Havilland failed to recognise two decades later for a dead-eyed vampire he had become, beauty was the province of muliebrity, not a trait for red-blooded he-men. Their beauty caused concern, it jarred the macho template Hollywood stamped on celluloid with stars like brawny Clark Gable or rangy Gary Cooper. Only perhaps Douglas Fairbanks, Jr compares as another male screen idol from the 1930s who wore beauty like an accessory rather than reluctant iron shackles worn to meet their doom. (I’m not including Archie Leach here because he grew more handsome with age. In the 1930s, he was good looking but not on par with Power, Taylor, Fairbanks or Flynn. And Charles Boyer stands in a class by himself).

Continue reading “Tyrone Power’s Reversal of Fortune in Nightmare Alley (1947)”

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.

Join the new Sass Mouth Dames Film Club: Series One, Pre-Codes. Dublin 12 Oct-9 Nov.

Get your tickets.

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.

Continue reading “Why We Need Sass Mouth Dames, Woman’s Pictures 1929-1959”

Joan Bennett, Artist: ‘They’ll be masterpieces’

By: Megan McGurk

Whenever an article talks about a New York ‘It’ girl, I automatically figure they must mean Joan Bennett. She did not match her sister Constance’s fame or salary, but because she flew a bit lower on the radar, she earned a cooler status than Constance could reach. Something in Joan’s wry manner—aloof but keen, a tell-tale squint that indicated missing glasses and bookish habits, along with an imperviousness toward Cary Grant’s mugging in Big Brown Eyes and Wedding Present (both from 1936), suggest a woman who knew her onions and could navigate any encounter with surefooted nonchalance. Joan Bennett, with her boarding school education and theatre denizen bona fides from a family tradition on the stage dating back to the mid-19th century, seems like the type who has read books you don’t know, owns records you don’t have, and hangs with people who would never invite you for cocktails.

By strange coincidence, Joan Bennett boasts more credits featuring plots about artists than any other women of the silver screen, probably since she manifests a bohemian sensibility that naturalises close circles with the brush and palette set. Cast next to characters who paint, she looks a dab hand to assume an artist role, and even appears more convincing in the creative role.

Despite the misleading title of Artists and Models Abroad (1938) which applies a loose definition of ‘artist’ to connote the stage rather than garret studio, if the film had concerned painters, viewers would assign the role to Bennett rather than her co-star, Jack Benny. Fans of woman’s pictures discern an equanimity Bennett possesses as the hallmark of an artistic temperament. Benny doesn’t look like he could be quiet or stand still long enough in front of an easel to finish anything. And how many socialites ran off to Paris to study art over the years? It would have been a plausible script for a plot that flounders except for a stunning makeover sequence.

Continue reading “Joan Bennett, Artist: ‘They’ll be masterpieces’”

Bette Davis & Miriam Hopkins: Rival Authors in Old Acquaintance (’43)

By: Megan McGurk

Sexual competition in Old Acquaintance (1943) distracts from the main event. Our primary order of concern regards the Bette Davis-Miriam Hopkins feud over book sales. John Loder seems like the type who asks for his slippers rather than whisper any racy propositions into the back of your neck. He’s too slow and measured; too reticent and mannered to arouse a lady’s blood. Stage the conflict around their ranking on the bestseller list, instead of who gets to change his pillowcases stained with black hair dye. Old Acquaintance rates at the top of the woman’s picture canon because of its plot about rival authors. No one gives a fig about who wins John Loder.

At the wrap party, Bette Davis presented director Vincent Sherman with a token gift to remember the production: a blown-up photograph of the director between his leading ladies set inside a boxing ring. As Sherman recalled in his memoir Studio Affairs, his position as director often reduced to referee, in keeping each woman in a separate corner. Long before Davis’ icy relationship with Joan Crawford snowballed into Hollywood legend, her grudge match with Miriam Hopkins traced back to a stock theatre company under George Cukor in 1928. Bette resented Miriam’s shameless promiscuity and felt Cukor encouraged it; moreover, she balked at the way he seemed to favour the southern belle. Later, Miriam didn’t like it when Bette had an affair with her husband (Anatole Litvak) during All This and Heaven, Too (1940). On set of Old Acquaintance, as Bette recounts in her memoir The Lonely Life, Miriam used little tricks to throw her co-star off or steal the camera, from leaning out of a shot to fidgeting and finding little bits of business to distract Bette. Maybe Miriam settled into an irascible mood because of her limited role as a petulant brat. Look for Miriam in the promotional posters–you’ll have trouble finding her. Jack Warner, studio head and executive producer, probably frog marched Miriam to play the heavy in a Bette Davis vehicle.

Anyone would rebel against a part limited to childish greed, and crappy bestsellers. Why should a woman who writes spicy bodice-rippers that sell like hotcakes fold into tawdry stereotypes, even in 1943? Miriam’s character somehow achieves success without any real depth or struggle. She just breezily pens huge volumes on a whim to compete with the high-brow novels that Bette’s character writes, but that no one reads or recommends. The high versus low cultural divide seems misplaced in a woman’s picture when the audience consumes both historical romance and serious literature. It’s a curious strategy to frame so much disdain for what your audience loves. What’s next, a treatise against hats?

Continue reading “Bette Davis & Miriam Hopkins: Rival Authors in Old Acquaintance (’43)”