‘You ought to do something about your eyes’: Miriam Hopkins in Woman Chases Man (1937)

Miriam’s signature pose in Men Are Not Gods (1936)

 

By: Megan McGurk

Among the scenes depicting a woman’s libido on film, Miriam Hopkins lolling around on a bed lamenting the fact that she’s not a gentleman should rank at the top. While she’s remembered for her sexpot role as Gilda in Design for Living (1933), where she plays a woman enjoying a luscious three-way romance courtesy of Ernst Lubitsch, Miriam gets lost in the shuffle in favour of other screen goddesses from the era. She did not announce her desire in the same way that other women did on the screen. Miriam didn’t lower her lids and hug the shadows like Marlene Dietrich; she did not fall into a swoon like Garbo; nor did she adopt a suggestive slouch like Jean Harlow; and she didn’t drape herself in luxe high fashion like Joan Crawford. Miriam, often buttoned up to her neck, with a sober bow laced under her throat, could make a prim skirt suit appear as seductive as a silk bias cut gown. Her trademark used splayed hands across her hips and abdomen, as if to hold firmly in place the seat of desire. Miriam never left you in any doubt when her characters were gasping for it, especially in Woman Chases Man (1937). Posters for the screwball gem label her a ‘she-wolf’ which may misrepresent the romantic dynamic, but she serves as proxy for women (and men) in the audience who want to ogle Joel McCrea. She’s hot-to-trot for him in every scene.

Instead of obvious touches with wardrobe or boilerplate mechanics of allure, Miriam creates a subtle version of a grown woman’s sexual appetite. Miriam also straddles the line between seduction and screwball antics better than anyone, Carole Lombard included. Not many women can shift from a George Raft impression (talking out of both sides of her mouth at breakneck speed) in one scene to salivating over Joel McCrea in the next. Her desire for McCrea knocks against the restraints of a genteel background to  obliterate distinctions between a lady and a dame. Miriam’s debutante accent announces cotillions, mint juleps on the veranda, boarding schools, and echoes those familiar rules about what nice girls do and instead blows them a raspberry.

As Virginia Travis, a struggling architect, Miriam conspires with Charles Winninger’s failed entrepreneur B.J. Nolan to take his son through the hurdles, so that Kenneth (McCrea) will shell out from his inheritance and fund an experimental social housing project. But she’s distracted from the plan to eradicate tenements once the tall drink of man-water arrives. Suddenly, the petite blonde looks like a wolf in grandma’s clothing when her eyes land on the son. Joel looks so delectable from his first scene when he’s introduced in a manner that’s usually reserved for a socialite character in film (Claudette Colbert or Barbara Stanwyck, for example). Since we are in woman’s picture territory, our gaze lingers over McCrea lounging ship deck wearing glamorous black sunglasses with all the other gorgeous rich folks. He looks good in a suit, too, when he turns up to lecture his father about fiscal responsibility.

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Sass Mouth Dames Film Club: Series Two Pre-Codes

 

Join us for a film series from when Hollywood made films for women.

Hosted by Megan McGurk

We’re screening five Pre-Code woman’s pictures from 11 January-8 February

Get your tickets.

See you in the Denzille.

What Price Hollywood? (1932)

Screens 11 January

Constance Bennett plays a waitress in the Brown Derby who gets a renowned Hollywood director in her section and finagles a ticket to a big premiere and then a screen test. George Cukor’s picture gives women the playbook on how to become a star on the stairs. Considered the earliest version of A Star is Born dynamic about a woman whose career rises as a man’s falls, What Price Hollywood? examines the price of fame, while it also offers one of the best behind-the-scenes view of the motion picture industry.

Three on a Match (1932)

Screens 18 January

Director Mervyn LeRoy’s economy of storytelling leaves not a moment wasted. In 63 minutes, he traces the fortunes of three schoolgirls as they grow up. What happens to the bookish girl (Bette Davis) who went to business college? Or the bad girl (Joan Blondell) who skips class to smoke cigarettes with the boys? Or the rich girl in a boarding school (Ann Dvorak) who reads bodice rippers aloud after lights out? As adults, the trio struggle to make their own way. Ann Dvorak seems to have made an ideal match to a rich lawyer (Warren William) but everything leaves her cold. The picture also includes one of the frankest depictions of cocaine addiction in the Pre-Code era.

Bonus: Humphrey Bogart in an early role as a rough trade gangster.

Gold Diggers of 1933 

Screens 25 January

Another hit from Mervyn LeRoy and the best of the Busby Berkeley musicals, Gold Diggers combines glitz, glamour and a whole lot of wisecracks from sass mouth dames. Aline MacMahon, Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler and Ginger Rogers star in a Broadway show about the Depression. When the high-steppers are off-stage, they wage class war on a pair of rich men who declare them ‘cheap and vulgar’. If you ever wanted to learn how to get men to foot the bill for dinner or a new hat, Joan Blondell and Aline MacMahon have you covered. Don’t miss the spectacular musical numbers ‘Pettin’ in the Park’ and ‘Remember My Forgotten Man’.

Ann Vickers (1933)

Screens 1 February

Once upon a time, Hollywood could imagine a scenario with a woman who has an abortion and still goes on to have a happy and rewarding life. Irene Dunne plays a social worker who falls for a heel. Luckily, she has a dear friend who happens to run an abortion clinic in Cuba. Afterwards, she takes a job as warden in a woman’s prison. When Irene Dunne attempts to improve dire conditions, the men in charge frame her and threaten a scandal unless she leaves. She writes a bestselling expose about her time in prison. At a party a judge (Walter Huston) professes his admiration for her work. Unfortunately, he’s soon in the middle of his own scandal. Will Irene Dunne stand by her man?

Design for Living (1933)

Screens 8 February

Miriam Hopkins stars in Ernst Lubitsch’s masterpiece about a woman who picks up two men on a train, arranges a ‘no sex’ agreement, which she then abandons at the first opportunity. As an advertising executive, more successful than the two starving artists, Miriam mentors the painter (Gary Cooper) and the playwright (Fredric March). When things become complicated, she takes the easy way out in a marriage to straight-laced Edward Everett Horton. Will Miriam settle for monogamy or will the three-way romance win out?

 

Swaddle This: Joan Crawford in Fur

 

By: Megan McGurk

Letty Lynton (1932), well known for the exaggerated organza sleeve gown that Adrian designed to embellish Joan Crawford’s already significant wingspan, features so many more interesting clothes. Clarence Brown’s picture remains out of circulation after an author of a play no one remembers sued and won for plagiarism. It’s a crime against cineastes, because Letty’s wardrobe by Adrian features some of his best work in fusing costume with character. Joan Crawford, queen of underplay, performs an uncharacteristic bit of scenery chewing in the climax scene with Nils Asther. A single blob of mascara slides under her eye as a result. We won’t see Crawford with a smudged face again until she’s beaten and tortured by Nazis in Above Suspicion (1943), her last picture before she left MGM. The ‘Letty’ dress that sold half a million knockoffs pales in comparison to the gown she wears for a first date with Bob Montgomery, a white column gown with silver beading and sleeve inserts in white mink. Joan’s fur shoulder cuffs look like clouds of candy floss that reflect all the light in the room upon her face. She casts an ethereal dream vision to dazzle the spoilt Montgomery.

 

Adrian gave Joan two different duvoons to snuggle into for this picture. The first is a praline-coloured confection she wears to disembark the ship from South America. When she discovers Nils Asther’s Emile, an ex-lover who turns up like a bad penny to ruin the glow of her recent engagement, she barricades herself in the sumptuous fur to reject his demand that their romance continue. Joan’s Letty cocoons in another fur duvoon, this time in black sable, when she meets Nils Asther in his hotel room to put a stop to his sexual blackmail. Never mind why Joan’s character keeps a bottle of poison in her medicine cabinet, or why she intends to drink it herself as a means to escape Nils’s threat to expose her love letters. Wanda Tuchock and John Meehan’s script contains gems that match the sartorial flair on offer, such as Joan’s remark after she takes off the black duvoon, revealing a silver metallic dress, and asks ‘any wine left? I’m congealed.’ (Or earlier, right before she breaks up with Nils and some random former lover goes in for a smooch and Joan shuts him down ‘You know I never kiss anyone before one o’clock’). Between the armour-plated frock and the duvoon, viewers know style vouchsafe when we see it. Joan appears as impervious to his nefarious plan as if she were wearing a shield and sabre. Nils deserves what he gets when he says ‘women don’t think. They change their minds, that’s all’ and then he knocks Joan to the floor twice. Down the hatch, Emile.

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‘There’s nothing organically wrong with you’: Grey Suits on Women in Douglas Sirk’s Pictures

By: Megan McGurk

No doubt volumes abound on Douglas Sirk’s use of colour to throw into sharp relief the troubled recesses of the mid-century American family. In Written on the Wind (1956), for instance, yellow has never looked as lurid as when Sirk uses it to illustrate corrupt appetites of the spoilt rich, from Robert Stack’s two-seater convertible to Dorothy Malone’s polo neck when she attempts to seduce Rock Hudson by the river. Yellow seems apt to suggest bile of an overtaxed liver in all its technicolour excess. Or viewers could pick apart how he uses white dresses for Lana Turner and Sandra Dee in Imitation of Life (1959) to underscore the racial hierarchy that shrinks the scope of Susan Kohner’s life.

Surveying a candy floss palette he daubs across the screen, it’s easy to overlook those masterstrokes he composes with grey; more to the point, how Sirk uses women in grey suits to critique the way gender roles complicate desire and ambition. Bill Thomas receives costume design credit for All That Heaven Allows (1955), Written on the Wind (1956) and Imitation of Life (1959), but specifically for ‘gowns’, so it’s unclear whether he designed the suits or if they were taken off the rack. Since Sirk paid close attention to the focus of colour in his films, it seems safe to read grey suits as meaningful. More so than pink, grey captures the essence of muliebrity, because grey matches women in their struggle to gain purchase on respectability and be taken seriously. On the colour wheel, grey mutes the assumption of sex. The hue has the potential to stave off sexual overtures, unless you count the obsessive grey suit fetish Hitchcock manifests for James Stewart’s character while he stalks Kim Novak in Vertigo (1958), which may account for my visceral dislike of the film. If a woman in a grey suit has no respite from sex pests, what kind of sense can we locate in the world?  Women wear grey as a shield. It offers the possibility for multiple interpretations. Even though grey connotes ambition, it also represents the way women feel disappointed in their desire.

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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.