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.
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.