‘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.

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Rosalind Russell’s Power Move in the Dressing Room for Take a Letter, Darling (’42)

By: Megan McGurk

A fitting room seems an unlikely backdrop to stage a display of female power, except the one in Take a Letter, Darling (1942) will blow your socks off.  Rosalind Russell looks as powerful half-dressed as Louis B. Mayer was in a suit seated at his gigantic white desk at MGM. Since a changing room represents gender-divided space as much as the powder room, it serves as the perfect setting to rattle Fred MacMurray, whose character works in a subordinate position as Rosalind Russell’s secretary. Society dictates that men are not allowed, unless they wear a measuring tape around their neck and pin cushion on their arm. Perhaps the director, Mitchell Leisen, recognised the dramatic potential fitting rooms held after years of experience in fashion design. He created gowns for Gloria Swanson, Natacha Rambova and Mary Pickford to wear onscreen. He continued to design (often uncredited) throughout his tenure as director, making clothes for Marlene Dietrich in The Lady Is Willing (1942), Ginger Rogers in Lady in the Dark (1944), Paulette Goddard in Bride of Vengeance (1949) as well as Rosalind Russell for Take a Letter, Darling. Leisen’s proximity to women in fitting rooms behind the scenes informed his perspective behind the camera, which helped cultivate a sensitivity for what it was like for women who tried to get ahead in a man’s world. Leisen knew how women reveal themselves during intimate moments between costume changes. He also understood that an imperious woman maintains her aura, even when starkers in front of a mirror.

If men in charge repair to the steam room, golf course, or club to mix business, a lady boss unwinds as she chooses frocks to entertain clients. Rosalind Russell’s A.M. MacGregor runs a crack advertising firm while her partner (Robert Benchley) fritters away his time on novelty office games created for the man who has everything (golf putting, puzzles, ring toss, you name it). MacGregor’s concession to comfort in a hard nose pursuit of revenue falls to a pair of feathered slippers she wears around the office. When she learns of a shot at landing an account with a tobacco company giant, she rushes to Francesca’s on Fifth Avenue to equip herself with just the right sartorial lure for the CEO, a notorious woman hater.

When MacMurray enters the boutique, he initially compares with other men waiting for women to emerge from private dressing rooms in the back. Other men object when they hear MacMurray’s Tom Verney receive permission to enter number three. After all, if they’ve seen their wives change a million times, why should they be barred entry? In a whisper, the shop owner explains that he’s a secretary, which mollifies seated husbands, but Verney blanches and replies vehemently:

That’s a dirty lie!

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Gene Tierney’s Poor Appetite in Dragonwyck (’46)

By: Megan McGurk

Among the bits of business that actors must do on camera, eating proves one of the most difficult, far above the physical dexterity necessary for set pieces that include some athleticism. Maybe only love scenes appear more gruelling. When you’re wrapped up in the electric jolt of performance, something simple as the ability to chew and swallow seems nauseating, if not nerve wracking. I can’t stomach anything to eat before I give a lecture, so there’s no way I could handle a plate of food in the middle of one. No one eats better than George Sanders on film though. He somehow manages to take huge, gusty mouthfuls of food, which he enjoys unabashed, yet he never looks like a slob or a rabid beast, nor does he skimp on delivering his lines with customary caddish panache. He savours a chicken leg in Rebecca (1940) with so much elegance that you can almost see Laurence Olivier turn ashen at the sight of someone stealing the scene—all with a chicken leg stuck in his kisser. When Sanders plays a hedonist based on Gauguin’s biography in The Moon and Sixpence (1942), he takes a hefty piece of rack of lamb with his hands and strips the meat from bone in a few bites. It surpasses the culinary trick of peeling an orange in one piece, because fatty roasted lamb proves a great deal more slippery and juicy. He cleans the bone in seconds without pause or splattering his face and clothing. Had most actors tried that they would have resembled what viewers imagine Ty Power did to the chicken as the geek in Nightmare Alley (1947). Otherwise dapper men like Cary Grant take as few bites as possible in a meal scene. During the luncheon when he hosts the police inspector in To Catch a Thief (1955) he puts his napkin and utensils at rest after maybe three bites of quiche.

During the Depression, audiences saw plenty of women onscreen who sat with an appetite at table, who tucked into dinners they savoured when the next one was uncertain. Amid widespread hunger that culminated in bread lines and soup kitchens, circumstances permitted heroines to eat onscreen without censure. In Thirty Day Princess (1934), not only does Sylvia Sidney steal food from the Automat by slamming her hand against the display case holding a turkey leg and all the trimmings until it opens, she later uses a knife to shovel food in her mouth, much to the horror of straight-laced Cary Grant. For a woman with ‘prospects as high as the gutter’, she doesn’t have time to pay attention to table manners. She’s penniless and starving. She can’t get her fill fast enough.

After the 1930s viewers see fewer depictions of women enjoying food and more pretend eating in film. Marilyn Monroe wrestles with a candy bar in Clash by Night (1952) making it seem as though she’s taken a huge bite and has a cheek stuffed with chocolate, when it really appears to vanish in her mouth with just her tongue standing in for the treat. Instead of chewing the candy, she concentrates on licking her fingers, because I suppose men in the audience find more interesting. Monroe’s boyfriend echoes male displeasure at seeing women enjoy food when he first plucks the chocolate from her hands and warns ‘you’ll spread.’ Perhaps the worst fake eater award falls to Audrey Hepburn’s character in Charade (1963). She’s supposed to play a woman who eats her feelings, but meanwhile, it looks like she chokes and gags on each bite in an anorectic revulsion. Her arms rival match stick silhouette and her throat stretches paper thin from want. She’s the least likely binge eater in cinema.

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Constance Bennett: A Star is Born on the Stairs in What Price Hollywood? (’32)

By: Megan McGurk

By 1932, hundreds of girls arrived in Hollywood each week looking for the opportunity to make a screen test. While they cooled their heels, George Cukor gave them the playbook for how to nail one in What Price Hollywood? In his first masterpiece, Constance Bennett plays Mary Evans, a waitress in the Brown Derby, an ambitious woman who scans the glossies for style tips between Garbo impressions and fine-tuning her glamour-puss poses. When she finagles a plum director’s table, she not only scores a noteworthy entrance to a film premiere, she also wheedles a coveted screen test—through yodelling, rather than any tawdry manoeuvres under the sheets.

Mary’s screen test serves as a masterclass in acting craft. Every aspiring starlet in the balcony should have been taking notes. Lowell Sherman plays director Max Carey, a seasoned Hollywood hit-maker. He offers bare bones direction for Mary to descend from the middle of a staircase and deliver two simple lines to the actor standing at the bannister: ‘Hello, Buzzy. You haven’t proposed to me yet tonight’. Then she’s supposed to look and notice a dead body on the floor. To Mary and the audience, it seems like a snap. Do three little things (walk, speak, react) and then sign a contract.

Like Mary, the audience overlooks how many controlled actions need to dovetail with timing for a solid performance. An actor dilutes many isolated components down to one fluid gesture to appear natural. When Mary first attempts the scene, her shoulders graze earlobes they’re so hunched; stiff forearms hold clenched fists; heels pound each stair like a spade in parched soil; finally, two lines collapse into one, delivered at breakneck speed. Mary executes instructions without perception. Max’s pained expression tells the audience what they already know: she stinks.

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Barbara Stanwyck’s Sleuth in The Mad Miss Manton (’38)

By: Megan McGurk

When I suspect a potential convert to the church of the sass mouth dame, my missionary zeal homilises pleasures manifold in woman’s pictures, from watching women installed in rewarding careers, to those who clawed their way from poverty, left an unsatisfying home life, women who boosted each other to make dreams reality, along with women who made short work of men who stood in their way, while draped in exquisite clothes. You have settled for the false goddess of lowered lids and slinky gown vestiary in classic film, I preach, but has she fortified your interior life? Has a sexy dame ever bolstered your core sense of self in an hour of need? I want to submerge them in the restorative powers of woman’s pictures from the 1930s, when we flourished in stories beyond secondary love interest roles, boner management, a noir virgin/whore coin toss, or a bad reputation as deadlier than men twice our size packing guns.

Let me guide you to the promised land, oh my sister, where it’s all about us for a change, when glamour proved a safeguard, a method of protection from ransack and humiliation that awaited us in a man’s world. Votaries of woman’s pictures experience an epiphany that reveals keen seductive skills waste precious time. Sass mouth dames know how to save face and how to fight back—they use lipstick in a lionhearted way to meet the firing squad (Dishonored 1931) rather than roll a tube of lippy toward the feet of an unwitting dupe (The Postman Always Rings Twice 1946).

Barbara Stanwyck channels the sass mouth dame’s fondness for lipstick as a handy exclamation mark when she delivers a spirited warning to bothersome men from the press and police force in The Mad Miss Manton (1938). Backed by her crew of socialites, Stanwyck’s Melsa Manton vows to Henry Fonda’s reporter and Sam Levene’s officer:

You made liars and social parasites out of us. Now we girls are going to collect that million dollars from you. And as for you Inspector Brent, false arrest is a very serious charge and we’ll have your badge before we’re through with you. We’re going to make you all feel pretty small and silly. Who’s got a lipstick?

Their agenda includes crime solving and public vindication, but a lipstick reserve sets a boundary for poise, self-control, and a reminder that a lady upholds standards, even when dragged through the mud by a pack of blockheads. Glamour rituals remain the province of women; male preference never enters the picture. Stanwyck’s lippy acts as a battle cry.

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