Monday, September 29, 2014

'40s Career Girls and Marriage

The 1940s were a unique time for the career girl. From 1942 to 1945, the boys were away at war which left a large gap in the workforce. Campaign posters, such as the one that came to be associated with Rosie the Riveter, encouraged women to take men's vacant spots. Whether or not this caused a switch in career girls and marriage on film is difficult to say. The first movie on my list was released prior to the war while the final film made its debut at the end of the decade. In any case, viewing a married career girl on screen would not have been as big of an anomaly as the decade prior. Although much more subtle, the message that career girls and marriage don't mix continued to be sprinkled throughout the '40s with some revolutionary gems popping up here and there.
  • His Girl Friday (1940) - The decade kicks off with this wonderful exception to the career versus marriage rule. Typically, the woman forgoes a career for marriage. In this movie, quite the opposite occurs. Hilda Johnson (Rosalind Russell) attempts to give up her career as a newspaper reporter to marry the stable--and boring--Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy). However hard she tries, though, she cannot resist the thrill of chasing a good story. In the end, her career wins, and she skips marrying Bruce in favor of Walter Burns (Cary Grant), who would prefer his star reporter to retain that status. Their marriage will not interfere with breaking news stories. An interesting side note: Hildy was originally supposed to be a man. Howard Hawks changed the character's gender after his secretary read the lines, and he liked the way dialogue sounded (TCMDb). This unique union of career and marriage was accidental.
  • Woman of the Year (1942) - Rival reporters Tess Harding (Katharine Hepburn) and Sam Craig (Spencer Tracy) fall in love and marry. Neither give up their career, and it isn't long before Sam feels neglected. Like last week's Ann Carver's Profession (1933), the wife is to blame. When Tess adopts a little refugee boy, Sam objects, explaining that they don't have "the kind of home he'd be happy in" quickly followed by the more direct jab, "Now if you could just spare about ten-percent of [your] heart from the world at large and apply it at home..." Tess may be named "Woman of the Year," but in his eyes she is not living up to the task. He tells her as much on the night of her awards banquet, which she is more concerned about attending than finding someone to stay with the boy. Before she leaves, he comments, "The Outstanding Woman of the Year isn't a woman at all." Ouch!
    Later her aunt Ellen, also a career woman, gets ready to tie the knot and shares with Tess that she would rather be "the prize" than continue to win prizes. That does it. Tess decides to change, to try to become a traditional wife.
    Unlike Ann Carver, there is no melodramatic final scene--this is a comedy after all. Tess fails miserably in her domestic endeavors. Her waffles overflow, her toast pops over zealously, and her coffee bubbles over. Sam decides to meet her halfway. He'll accept her as long his last name makes the title: Tess Harding Craig. The final gesture of "launching" her PR guy informs the audience that he wears the pants in the family now. Tradition has (somewhat) prevailed.
  • Mildred Pierce (1945) - I would be remiss if I did not mention this well known celluloid career woman. Unlike the other ladies in this category, Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford) works in order to provide for her daughter Veda's (Ann Blyth) every whim. At one point, she even marries so her daughter has the social connections she (Veda) so desires. The movie is more a portrait of a self-sacrificing mother than a career girl who loves the work she does. Once Veda no longer needs her mother; i.e., goes to the big house, Mildred reunites with her first husband, and there is a sense that she will not be returning to the business world.

  • June Bride (1948) - When Linda Gilman (Bette Davis) crosses paths with her ex-beau Carey Jackson (Robert Montgomery), she tells him to forget she's a woman. She is now a career focused woman and wants no part in love. After all, he walked out on her three years prior. The message: a career woman is a bitter, scorned woman. How to cure it? (Because, the message reads, careers must be cured out of women.) True love, of course. The result is an enjoyable film filled with witty banter as Carey chases Linda, trying desperately to win her back. In the final minutes of the film, Linda has (surprise!) a change of heart and is determined to get Carey back. Up to this point, she has remained true to her career even while tinkering with love during moonlit moments. But then she offers to not only follow him wherever his stories take him, but also to do no more than carry his bags behind him. Somehow I can't image Bette Davis or her successful magazine editor character stooping so low. Message delivered nonetheless.
  • Adam's Rib (1949) - Amanda (Katharine Hepburn) and Adam Bonner (Spencer Tracy) are wife and husband lawyers who are able to have both successful careers and a successful marriage. The film chronicles a difficult time in their relationship as they take on opposing sides of a court cases. They push through with some laughs and lots of love (including one very memorable love pat, which brought to light the issue of whether or not it is okay for a husband to hit his wife even in jest) to demonstrate that a career girl can have a successful marriage. 

Going through the list of films this week, there are a few examples of women who were able to have successful careers and be happily married. Hildy (we assume), Tess, and Amanda. (Shout out for Rosalind Russell's and Katharine Hepburn's strong women roles!) Being a mother--and a working one at that, I couldn't help but notice something, er, someone missing from the equation: children. I wonder, would all have ended well if these women had a brood to raise at home? Or would we see a shift in the message--career and marriage can occur from time to time, but never with children? Another message worth exploring later down the road.

Join me next week as I continue to explore Career Girls and Marriage during the 1950s.

Monday, September 22, 2014

'30s Career Girls and Marriage

Sometimes the occasional rogue woman will try to "live like a man," finding contentment in her career. This week I examine what happens in a pair of films from the 1930s.

  • Female (1933) - What a dazzling display of girl power! Alison Drake (Ruth Chatterton) is the CEO of a large company and runs it with finesse and efficiency. She also treats men as they so often treat women. One by one, she invites her male employees home to "talk business." She sets the mood with music and Vodka and has her fun with them. The following morning, she dismisses them at the office. When they become "jealous, moody men," she transfers them out of state. Her career is her life, and she loves it.
    Chatterton in Female - LOVE this powerful dress!
    She meets her match in Jim Throne (George Brent), who is not so easily seduced. He chides her for thinking she's above "love and children, the things women were born for" (ah yes, the every girl should marry message in the movies). Alison is converted. She misses an important meeting to fetch her man and let him know she is his. Girl power? In the end she gives it all up, a gift to the man she wants to marry. Jim will run the business, and she'll run the home--complete with nine children. Now, I'm not advocating women use and abuse men, but the movie's ending was a bit of a let down. So much for the image of a powerful woman... 
  • Ann Carver's Profession (1933) - Here is another woman who loves her career. Ann Carver (Fay Wray) is "aching to go to work" instead of hanging around the home all day. Her husband Bill (Gene Raymond) approves until she gets a $5000 bonus for a court win compared to his measly $10 raise. Bill's delicate male ego is further bruised when he gets no love from his workaholic wife while she entertains business associates. (Hmmm....interesting double standard here. If it was he who entertained, would she be allowed a complaint? I think not.) Ann tries to smooth things over with her unhappy hubby. And behold--a pleasant surprise--she actually admits that she would be lying if she said she wanted to give up her career. Poor guy (ha!) feels forced to take a job as a crooner to make more money and give up his architect job in the process. It is her boss's (Claude Gillingwater) turn to dole out the advice, "a man can't stand the burden of obligation. Especially to a wife." (Good golly--really?!)
    Long story short, Bill becomes linked to a murder, and his wife must come to the rescue. In her final plea to the jury she blames herself for her husband falling into bad company. She believes she deserves the jury's "contempt" rather than her husband "for her blindness and stupidity." She explains she was like a "machine" with her work and "drove him out." She asks the jury to "pity any woman who has the most precious thing in life and blindly sacrificed it." She announces that the conclusion of the case will also be the end of her career as it has brought her "nothing but heartache and despair." Bill is found not guilty, she gives up her career, and they live happily ever after. Message? Career girls and marriage don't mix.
Join me next week as I continue to explore Career Girls and Marriage during the 1940s.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Every Girl Should Be Married

Sinatra & Reynolds
For better or worse, movies have been telling us that matrimonial bliss is the key to true happiness. More specifically, it--along with children--are the only way for a woman to be truly fulfilled. Men, on the other hand, might be content to live out their bachelor lives, finding satisfaction in their careers and multiple visitors in their beds. Therefore, the message goes, it is up to the woman to resort to trickery to help her chosen mate realize domestic bliss. A few examples through the decades:

  • Double Harness (1933) - Joan (Ann Harding), who is on verge of spinsterhood, declares, "Marriage is a woman's business," and goes about getting herself hitched. She arranges for her father to catch her with her boyfriend (William Powell) in a compromising situation, resulting in their "forced" marriage. Both find happiness when they discover they are also in love with each other. 

  • Every Girl Should Be Married (1948) - When Anabel (Betsy Drake) sets her sights on Madison (Cary Grant), an unmarried doctor, she does not have the pre-code convenience of being found in a negligee in Madison's apartment. No worries--she has many other tricks up her sleeve, including inciting all the women attending one of Madison's lectures to admit they used trickery to trap their husbands. Speaking of which... 

  • The Tender Trap (1955) - At this point in cinematic history, husband-trapping is a fact of life, so why not make a humorous romp of it? Like Powell's and Grant's characters, Charlie (Frank Sinatra) is a confirmed bachelor and there is a woman, Julie (Debbie Reynolds), with designs to snare him. Julie's plan doesn't succeed in the short run, but by the end of the movie--and a quick lapse of a year--Charlie proposes to her. All is well that ends well.

  • Sunday in New York (1963) - Eileen (Jane Fonda) goes to her brother (Cliff Robertson) to find out "what the right procedure is in snaring a suitable man for the laudable purpose of making a home together and life with children and church-going and growing old together as is mentioned in both testaments and many other highly respected sources." Translation: she needs help attaining that highest womanly goal--holy matrimony. Unlike Joan of the early 30s, she is not willing to put out to get a proposal. And unfortunately the ploys of Anabel and Julie have not worked either. The trap is in question not whether to trap. Because what else would a single twenty-two year old American gal do?  

In 2003, the whimsical Down With Love paid homage to this favorite movie plot of yesteryear, that of the great lengths women go in order to snag a husband. At the same time, it is poking fun too. *spoiler alert* 
We find out the events that have unfolded throughout the movie are part of Barbara's (Renee Zellweger) elaborate scheme to entrap Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor). This updated version contends with another factor, though: her career, which is put on equal footing with--if not higher than--marriage. Well, almost... Come back next week for a look at Career Girls and Marriage.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Dance and Art in An American in Paris

Some love it. Some hate it. An American in Paris is ranked 68th on AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies list (1998) and 9th on AFI's Greatest Movie Musicals (2006), yet it also made Premiere magazine's 20 Most Overrated Movies list.

I understand people questioning the film's worthiness to belong to such illustrious lists as those put forth by AFI. The first times I watched the movie, I wanted to skip the big production at the end of the film and get to the final kiss. But then, I was in my early teens and impatient. I loved every musical I had ever seen, so it really bugged me that I didn't get the big deal about this one. So what did I do? What any classic-loving-girl would do: I watched it again. And again. And again. Maybe not repeatedly all in one sitting. Not even all in one month or year. But I persistently returned to the film at different points of my life. And you know what? Age helped me appreciate the musical in ways that I had missed during my first viewings. 

Over the years I have developed my own theory as to the significance of the film's last elaborate dance sequence--a theory that I tried unsuccessfully to back up with research, so maybe it's all in my head. But what I did discover during the research phase proved the artistic importance of the number nonetheless. Vincent Minnelli (the director) and Gene Kelly (the star and choreographer) intended the final ballet sequence to represent Paris as seen through a painter's eyes. Great care was taken in creating backdrops and costumes that reflected the various Parisian painting styles: 

first Raoul Dufy (1877-1953), 

then Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), 

followed by Maurice Utrillo (1883-1955), 

Henri Rousseau (1844-1910), 

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), 

and finally Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901).

In Cinema and Painting: How Art is Used in Film, Angela Dalle Vacche gives a convincing argument that the dance is symbolic of Jerry's inner turmoil over his identity as a painter. He is at a crossroads--does he accept the aid of a lady benefactress or continue to be a starving artist? The ballet, a dream-like sequence, gives us and him the answer. Lise represents Parisian art; she is Rousseau's gypsy girl in one part of the ballet and Toulouse-Lautrec's Jane Avril in another. By falling in love with her, Jerry chooses art over "the entrepreneurial aggressiveness of [the American] Milo" (27), which is represented by the women in red and white who chase him. (Even Milo's name suggests the statue, Venus de Milo, cold and without feeling.) Vacche reasons that this "suggests that an American male can be a painter in Paris as long as he marries a French girl" (27) although she admits the movie "does not completely resolve the rivalry between art and love, between unbound male creativity and the routine to which marriage leads" (17). Even in marrying a French girl, he is married.

According to Vacche, "Minnelli and his collaborators did not conceive the ballet as a story with a clear, logical development but as a series of psychic associations" (22). However, long before the convenience of the internet, I came to a different conclusion about the final dance production. Kelly typically tells a story with his dance routines, so it is certainly possible that his choreography had more of a plot than Vacche attributes to it. I saw the ballet as a retelling of the main characters' (Lise and Jerry) romance via dance. It begins with Jerry running through Paris finding and "dancing" with scarlet women (symbolically dressed in red) until he finds Lise, the rose among the flowers. She evaporates, leaving his arms full of a flowers. The dance transitions to innocent giddiness when he finds Lise again, Jerry in his straw hat with his fellow GIs and Lise with her schoolgirl friends. This is followed by a sensual dance, symbolizing the passionate side of romance. But I kept getting stuck on that white-clad version of Jerry with his silly hat. Then one year, I thought I finally figured it out...

This may get a little radical for some. Be forewarned. I realize now that Kelly is dressed as Chocolat and Caron as Jane Avril of Toulouse-Lautrec's paintings, but Kelly's choreography (we're talking all of the dancers' movements here) along with his and the women's costumes make it look like he may be representing a part of Lise and Jerry's relationship that could not have been shown under other circumstances. Watch it and see if you get what I mean.

Pay no attention to the title of the YouTube Video.
I am not alluding to Kelly's derriere.

The number says what the plot could not in those days of heavy censorship. As an added bonus, I discovered per IMDb, Leslie Caron mentioned that the censors had a problem with an earlier number in which Caron's character danced--in their eyes--a little too suggestively with a chair. A TCM article by Scott McGee also mentioned Kelly had trouble with censors in regards to her flapper outfit in the same sequence. With the last number, I believe he got the last laugh.