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.

Ginger Rogers: Venus on a Clam Shell in Primrose Path (1940)

By: Megan McGurk

In Gregory La Cava’s sensitive coming of age picture, Ginger Rogers watches Joel McCrea demonstrate how to find clams. It works out to be a bid for romance, one more swoon-inducing than a moonlit walk in a rose garden. Among flirtatious scenes, woman’s pictures found new ways to reinvent girl-meets-boy. Their beach encounter occasions Ginger’s sexual awakening. Delivered by way of clam shell, like a modern-day Venus, she decides to abandon a childish disguise and embrace womanhood. What better time to grow up than to receive more kisses from Joel McCrea?

La Cava selects a bit of shoreline adjacent to a dusty California road for the scene and anchors his picture in a grubby realism that resists flashy aesthetics to stage character growth. My favourite director pares down costume and scenery to underscore an earnest response. La Cava may indulge his version of working class virtue as unadorned, in shabby backgrounds punctuated by scripted double negatives and inelegant syntax in a story that presents sexy poses (for women) and university education (for men) as routes down a less than ideal path, but those objections seem begrudging in an otherwise heartfelt film.

McCrea’s Ed Wallace coaxes Ginger Rogers’ Ellie May Adams through the basics of clam digging. McCrea doesn’t know that she’s scrounging a hangover cure for her resigned alcoholic father, but he admires her pluck. He schools her in foraging arts as a compliment to her wit, which always signals a man above the crowd. They meet for the second time on the beach. The first time they met, in the previous scene, she was a hitchhiker eating a free meal at his lunch counter.

Unlike the ‘Porta-gee’ girls (the script’s colloquialism for Portuguese girls working in the local sardine cannery) who giggle at his behind the counter repertoire (McCrea pronounces it rep-ar-tee), Ellie criticises his banter with customers. In a startling rejection of age-old courtship advice that compels women to laugh at any man’s jokes, Ellie refuses to feign passive delight with Ed’s humour and blisters his cornpone lines one by one. She challenges his cock ‘o the café status and in doing so, she highlights their dynamic with word play and alternate punchlines from the first moment. He may have repertoire, but Ellie turns his solo act into an improvisational duo. As she steals the spotlight with wisecracks, she positions herself as an equal partner before they have traded names. While Ellie waits for Gramp (Henry Travers) to make her a sandwich, she critiques his stale routine. No wonder McCrea’s head snaps around in a reaction shot. Barely a minute at the counter and this so-called kid he had joked about playing truant bests him at his own game. Gramp pushes a plate in front of Ellie, suggesting she ignore Ed’s jokes:

Gramp: Don’t pay attention to him. His mind wanders.

Ellie Mae: Maybe it never came back.

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Irene Dunne’s Unfinished Business

By: Megan McGurk

Robert Montgomery usually trades upon breezy gin-marinated smarm in his romantic roles, such as the louse he plays in The Divorcee (1930), a man who takes advantage of Norma Shearer’s marriage trouble to wheedle sex, or the department shop heir who watches Joan Crawford undress after she appears in a fashion show in Our Blushing Brides from the same year. Rich boy with entitlement issues was his character pigeon-hole throughout the 1930s. He wore a groove in celluloid as louche playboys more comfortable handling a cocktail shaker than a leading lady. He’s a bit of a surprise in Gregory La Cava’s Unfinished Business (1941), because for the first time, he drops the detached bravado long enough to register empathy for a woman. Montgomery’s Tommy Duncan observes what escapes everyone else in the room: Irene Dunne’s humiliation. For a man who has enough privilege to buffer any acknowledgement of human suffering, he nonetheless catches Dunne’s emotional agony. And he applies a balm of comfort.

What leads Irene Dunne’s Nancy Andrews to table side humiliation begins when she joins the ranks of screen heroines who leave domestic obligations and claim a right to their own adventure. Garbo in Susan Lenox, Crawford in Possessed, Lombard in No Man of Her Own, Stanwyck in Baby Face, Crawford in The Damned Don’t Cry, rank among a legion of women in film who exchange traditional family roles for independence.

Once Irene Dunne’s Nancy watches her younger sister marry, she’s free from her mothering role, and able to leap headlong into a plan to become ‘unsettled’. Although the newlyweds extend a room for her in their house, by way of compensation for her sacrificed youth, Nancy decides to become a professional singer in Manhattan. At 43 years-old, Irene Dunne looks at least ten years younger, so we understand her reluctance to occupy a rocking chair and sexless doom. Viewers may regard La Cava’s picture as an updated version of John Stahl’s Back Street (1932), where this time around, Irene Dunne’s character need not scurry around the margins of a man’s life for two decades.

On the train to New York, the likelihood of romance Nancy had wished for dissipates with the grim bargain struck between Preston Foster’s Steve Duncan and his friend Frank (played by Dick Foran) to find the prettiest girl on the train. Once they fan out at opposites ends to inspect the women to win the $100 stakes, there’s no possibility for human connection. Their pact somehow resists age or reason. You could stage the same exact wager between men today without losing a shred of plausibility. Yes, this is how some men pass the time, by hunting women, just short of bagging and tagging their prey.  La Cava underscores their creepiness, and spares us any degree of glossy boys-will-be-boys treacle.

Unabashed, the men indulge in bouts of howling catch calls, heads thrown back, yearning for cave fires and dragging women by the hair. Steve and Frank consider themselves heroic Casanovas, except they appear more recognisable for what they are–spoilt middle-aged lechers with an empathy deficit.

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