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.
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.
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.