Cecil B. DeMille’s ‘epic with sex’ was subjected to changes by the newly installed Production Code Administration, led by po-faced Joseph Breen. Even with the bluenose interference, DeMille’s production is full of lusty charm, glamorous design, and erotic choreography. Travis Banton’s costumes for Claudette Colbert will knock your eye out. And it clocks in at an economical one hour and forty minutes.
Screens 10 March
Marlene Dietrich marches into a jewellery shop with the same royal command she used for playing Catherine the Great, mounted on horseback, clearing the palace of enemies. The most glamorous jewel thief on the planet is prepared for every contingency, except falling for a big galoot from Detroit (Gary Cooper). Directed by Frank Borzage and produced by Ernst Lubitsch, it’s a prized gem of sexy romance.
Libeled Lady (1936)
Screens 17 March
Once you set aside disbelief that Jean Harlow wants to marry a ham-fisted thug like Spencer Tracy, the farcical hijinks and snappy dialogue of this stylish ensemble piece, also starring Myrna Loy and William Powell, create one of the bubbliest screwball comedies of classical Hollywood.
History Is Made at Night (1937)
Screens 24 March
Jean Arthur is almost raped during a scheme engineered by the wealthy husband she’s trying to divorce (Colin Clive wearing a permanent sneer). At the last minute, she’s rescued by Charles Boyer. Before dawn, she has fallen in love with the dashing head waiter. But the psycho ex refuses to let her go. Director Frank Borzage’s romantic melodrama argues that nothing can keep two lovers apart.
The Awful Truth (1937)
Screens 31 March
A fake tan and close quarters with a singing instructor are two random details misconstrued by a husband and wife. Irene Dunne and Cary Grant discover that love is doomed when faith goes out the window. Leo McCarey sets the gold standard for the screwball ‘comedy of remarriage,’ proving that inside every dedicated gag man beats the heart of an incurable romantic.
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.
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.