A Trio of Woman’s Pictures Directed by Ricardo Cortez

By Megan McGurk

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.

City Of Chance, lobbycard, from left, Donald Woods, Lynn Bari, C. Aubrey Smith, 1940. (Photo by LMPC via Getty Images)

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.

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)”

A Letter to Addie Ross: Take Three Husbands, Please

By: Megan McGurk

Let me begin by saying that I adore Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s A Letter to Three Wives (1949), even more so than his follow up All About Eve (1950). He has a knack for shining a searchlight on the way tiny details infiltrate a woman’s life to the point of absurd distraction. Nuance and small shades of meaning gain momentous importance that require surgical-grade analysis. Everything means something more, a casual remark bears the hallmark of doom if not properly deciphered. Eve Harrington was an amateur next to Addie Ross’ game playing repertoire. Eve only wants a stage career; Addie wants every man in town at her feet. Addie, who sends the three wives a letter saying she ran off with one of their husbands, may stand as one of film’s most notorious frenemies, but the husbands in this picture represent some of the most vile men in cinema, so much so that every time I watch it, I hope each husband has hightailed it out of town with the man-eater and done the wives a solid. Three wives endure hearing their husbands united in unqualified praise of Addie Ross, how she’s always the ideal woman:

That’s Addie for you. Always the right thing at the right time.

What Addie has is taste.

Addie has class.

Like a queen oughta look.

Mankiewicz’s film asks us to consider several questions (other than who ran off with Addie), including: what should you do with rude dinner guests who stay too long, spoil the courses by moving the meal from the dining table to trays in the living room, trade conversation for their choice of radio programme for entertainment, and break your husband’s favourite record? Well, if you value the work they provide, you keep your mouth shut, let them have their way, while you maintain a grin-fecker amiable countenance. The hostess, Ann Sothern’s Rita, writes five scripts a week for the radio advertising executives coming to dinner. If we apply the screenwriting rule that one page fills one minute of screen time, she’s writing 150 pages a week if they’re 30 minute programmes, or 300 pages if they run to an hour. Girlfriend juggles a busy schedule, and on top of that she knows she must stay up after the dinner guests leave to make the revisions they demand.

Among bad company, a wife depends on her husband to smooth things over, to help ease the strain of an evening. Unfortunately, Kirk Douglas, in the role of George, displays behaviour far worse than the dinner guests, Mrs and Mr Manleigh (played by Florence Bates and Hobart Cavanaugh). Rita supports the household with income from radio plays that her husband misses no opportunity to disparage. As the breadwinner, she absorbs withering comments about her creative efforts in an industry George likens to the decline of civilisation, a social problem on par with juvenile delinquency. Even though his wife pays the bills, George can’t be bothered to pick up scotch on the way home like Rita asked, because he thinks it’s too expensive. He debates the logic of filling candy dishes and cigarette boxes on the grounds of pretence, that the gesture supposes that they don’t eat or smoke when guests aren’t there, which makes absolutely no sense. Filling the dishes extends a touch of generosity, so guests have what they might need or want in abundance.  More likely, George’s objection to Rita’s efforts to impress the Manleighs stems from a tiresome belief that women shouldn’t be ambitious about a career.

Women have had plenty of practice in the supportive role. They remember to pick up the scotch, fill the candy dish, create a delicious menu among many other items on a long checklist when it comes to hosting a dinner party. As Mankiewicz’s film reminds us, husbands often rankle in the backseat role. Waste three hours of his time with dullards and it’s a capital offence, one that culminates in a scathing rebuke for guests at the front door. Wives, on the other hand, host so many boring dinners for their husband’s career that catalogued, they would fill the pages of a tedious book bound for the remainders table.

Continue reading “A Letter to Addie Ross: Take Three Husbands, Please”

Charles Boyer, Eyes Wide Open in Love Affair (1939)

By:Megan McGurk

Irene Dunne’s gift in a dramatic scene often pronounces itself in an utter disavowal of self-pity. Whether she was bereft with loneliness in Back Street (1932), blind in Magnificent Obsession (1935), saying a final farewell to the man she loved in When Tomorrow Comes (1939), or raising a baby alone in Unfinished Business (1941), she never succumbed to a woe-is-me wallow. She was too concerned with empathy for another player or how to best carry on. She has a line that drops from the remake, which makes the final scene more devastating. When Charles Boyer figures out what happened on the day she failed to meet him and starts toward to bedroom to find the painting and wheelchair, Dunne leans forward and asks him what time his boat sails in a light voice, as one last attempt to spare him the truth and allow him to leave her dreary apartment none the wiser. She’s not so preoccupied with her own situation that she loses sight of what the truth will do to the man she loves. For some reason, Deborah Kerr omits this bit of business in the remake and remains placid on the sofa, waiting for Cary Grant to discover the tell-tale sign of her tragic accident.

In an interview with James Bawden in 1974, Dunne recalled watching the film in a retrospective, and that afterward she rang Boyer to tell him how much she had enjoyed his performance. He replied so you finally saw me! He spent much of his career supporting women onscreen. Dunne shared a memory of how Boyer used to joke that it was time to get a haircut when he was in a picture co-starring with a lead actress. He said that the camera always lingered on the back of his head during a clinch, so he had to make sure it was tidy. Boyer’s masterclass underplay may have been easy to miss for a co-star, but no one in the audience could miss his deeply affecting performance of a man who had loved and lost.

The script for the final scene of Leo McCarey’s Love Affair (1939) remains almost identical in the director’s remake, An Affair to Remember (1957), but the scenes vary dramatically in each leading man’s delivery. As Nicky Ferrante, Cary Grant plays the scene in an altogether different emotional pitch from Charles Boyer’s Michel Marnet. Close up, there’s little to recommend Grant’s vanity-riddled performance over the rich emotional panoply Boyer gifts to viewers. Grant renders elevator music from Boyer’s grand symphony.

Continue reading “Charles Boyer, Eyes Wide Open in Love Affair (1939)”

‘There are rats like you everywhere’: Lana Turner in A Life of Her Own (1950)

By: Megan McGurk

George Cukor’s A Life of Her Own (1950) wastes no time reminding viewers how tough women have it. For instance, we can’t just walk into a room and sit down. Creepy Tom Ewell (sorry, but I run to the shower to apply salt scrub whenever I recall his oily, horn-dog play for Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch) lectures a wannabe model in his office about a woman’s appearance in any room as something that requires effort, which she must practice every minute she can (when she’s alone in her apartment, in her bedroom, on the street, or in the bathroom). Women should never ‘make up’, and should instead ‘make down’. We should walk on the balls of our feet like wild cats, rather than our heels, like bears. Two imaginary rails should corral each hip to modulate a smooth gait. We should sit in a graceful ‘S’ position which cranks our spine into a chiropractor’s nightmare because the silhouette pleases the eye:

Most women drop into a chair like a bag of meal and haul themselves out of it like a bag of coal.

We should stretch ourselves so that our neck pulls out from shoulders, shoulders out of the waist and the waist out of the hip. Lana Turner sits in a chair trying to commit his mixed metaphor tips to memory. Cats, bears, meal, coal, rails, got it? Meanwhile he would resemble a domino tile if not for the expanse of his well-fed middle. Ewell’s character Tom Caraway sports bad posture, a double chin, traits he excoriates in the job hopeful woman, not to mention his grease pocked complexion and sloppy demeanour. Somehow men who enjoy prosperous careers as curators of beautiful women always fall short of the aesthetic standards they demand of women. Femininity, by contrast to anything lacklustre machismo, rates a full-time occupation. Lana performs his inane specifications to the desired effect and lands a job.

Caraway assesses Lana Turner’s tallboy drum majorette inspired hat and smart waistcoat and quips that she doesn’t look like she’s from Kansas. Lana’s character Lily James responds with a steady understatement which points out that they have magazines and movies in Kansas. She adds, for his education we don’t all wear sun bonnets. Unlike many other films that paint small-town women as awkward fashion hayseeds (like Susan Hayward in My Foolish Heart), screenwriter Isobel Lennart (whose credits include Anchors Aweigh; East Side, West Side; Love Me or Leave Me and Funny Girl) realises that ambitious women in rural outposts practice for the thrill of Gotham with enough heated dedication to fry an egg. And director George Cukor knew that women have studied glossy mags and films stars for style tips since his 1932 masterpiece What Price Hollywood? Lily James didn’t work her tail off waiting tables and sweeping up hair in a salon to be turned away at the door for looking corn pone. She’s carefully dressed in a stylish ensemble, as evidence of the old dictum to dress for the job you want. She had plenty of time to do her homework while she worked a variety of jobs for six months to save the train fare.

Continue reading “‘There are rats like you everywhere’: Lana Turner in A Life of Her Own (1950)”