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.

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