Benjamin Franklin kept a checklist of 13 virtues that he monitored each day to reflect on his growth as an upstanding citizen. By contrast, Stanley Timberlake, played by Bette Davis, keeps a scorecard of vice. She runs off with her sister’s fiancé then drives him to commit suicide. She’s manipulative, greedy, reckless. For the coup de grâce, she pins a homicide on an innocent Black man. Olivia de Havilland, as Stanley’s unfortunate sister Roy, holds her own with a steady underplay. In one scene, Olivia takes her time putting on a hat, which is enough to tell the audience she’s no doormat. John Huston’s Southern Gothic melodrama reaches a steady boil.
MY REPUTATION (1946)
Before Douglas Sirk exposed narrow-minded views about widowhood in vivid Technicolor with All That Heaven Allows, Curtis Bernhardt painted a stark monochrome portrait of a community who expects a woman to put herself in mothballs once she loses her husband. Barbara Stanwyck’s character shares the same fate as many other women after the war. Should Jessica wear black, stay single, and avoid gossip? Or should she follow the advice of wing woman Eve Arden and see what happens with George Brent?
THE GHOST AND MRS MUIR (1947)
Gene Tierney takes her adorable daughter (Natalie Wood) and trusty housekeeper (Edna Best) to live in a cottage by the sea. Unlike past occupants, she refuses to leave when she learns it has a resident ghost, a former ship’s captain played by Rex Harrison. Instead of rattling chains or disturbing her sleep with a repertoire of sea shanties, the mariner allows the women to stay and even strikes a bargain: Gene can write his salty memoirs and make herself financially independent.
DAISY KENYON (1947)
Joan Crawford stars in a three-cornered romance, caught between a cynical married man (Dana Andrews), who has strung her along for years and a battle-scarred veteran (Henry Fonda), who rushes to commitment one minute and disappears the next. Otto Preminger fashions a postwar melodrama about hot-and-bothered men who upset the placid life of a successful career gal.
Be sound and wear a mask. Bring your vaccine cert.
Primrose Path (1940)
Ginger Rogers is supposed to follow the women in her family who work in the world’s oldest profession. She hides out in tomboy duds until one day she falls for Joel McCrea. Ashamed of her family, she tells a whopper about being thrown out of the house to hasten their nuptials. Trouble follows when he learns the truth. Director Gregory La Cava had an eye and ear for sass mouth dames–he was always on our side.
Screens 4 November
The Seventh Veil (1945)
I bet you can name at least a dozen pictures about a male genius and the woman who loved him. How many can you think of where the woman is the genius and the man devotes his life to serving her art? Ann Todd and James Mason flip the traditional script in a gorgeous tale about the collision of art and desire with some psychological twists.
Screens 11 November
Sleep, My Love (1948)
Claudette Colbert can’t figure out how she woke up on a train without having any memory of getting there. Nor can she account for other foggy recollections or why she’s sleepwalking on her balcony. Could it have anything to do with the strange man in thick glasses who scratched up her upholstery? Is it because of another strange man who seems so solicitous? Or is her handsome husband, played by Don Ameche, with that pillow talk voice, the one responsible? Douglas Sirk goes full Bluebeard.
Screens 18 November
Technically, this isn’t a woman’s picture. But there would be no other reason to watch it but for the sublime acid tongue, unabashed greed, and self-absorption of star Audrey Totter. If they had assembled 90 minutes of Audrey Totter scowling at men, I’d still be watching it. And Cyd Charisse is along for the ride.
Be sound and wear a mask over your nose and mouth.
MADAM SATAN (1930) screens 2 September
Kay Johnson plays a long-suffering wife with a cheating husband (Reginald Denny). To win him back, she uses a fake accent and wears a smoking hot devil ensemble (by Adrian) for a costume ball aboard a zeppelin. Cecil B DeMille’s picture has one of the wildest party scenes in the pre-Code era.
JEWEL ROBBERY (1932) screens 9 September
Kay Francis plays a society dame who falls for a robber (William Powell) during a heist. She has an exquisite wardrobe by Orry-Kelly, including a velvet gown that defies gravity.
THIRTY-DAY PRINCESS (1934) screens 16 September
One minute Sylvia Sidney is stealing a turkey dinner from the Automat, and the next, she’s propositioned with a job to impersonate a visiting royal for a month. A nosey reporter (Cary Grant) smells something fishy. Sylvia looks super cute (poor or rich) in designs by Howard Greer.
BOLERO (1934) screens 23 September
Carole Lombard joins up with a taxi dancer (George Raft) who dreams of opening his own nightclub in Paris. In real life, Raft paid the bills by pleasuring women on and off the dance floor before he signed a Hollywood contract. Carole is draped in silk and satin confections from Travis Banton.
THE SCARLETT EMPRESS (1934) screens 30 September
Playing Catherine the Great, Marlene Dietrich finds herself trapped in a loveless marriage to a debauched idiot (Sam Jaffe) and lusts after Count Alexi (John Lodge). Josef von Sternberg attempted to match the scenery with perversity of the Russian court. Travis Banton swaddles Marlene in an orgy of fur.
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.