The Women: Jungle Red Claws

#30 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

The Women turns on a gimmick—no men appear in the film.  It boasts the trio of Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, and Rosalind Russell in the leading roles.

The screenplay is by Anita Loos (Red-Headed Woman), based on the popular play written by Clare Boothe.  It is directed by a man, the delightful George Cukor who was known as the “women’s director,” and one we’ll meet again in future films.

And yet the joke on the poster is that the movie filled with 135 women is “all about men.”

This isn’t true.  Though the main plot line is a fight over a man (the entirely offscreen Mr. Stephen Haines), the film is an exploration of women’s relationships.

The lead actresses in this comedy were in very different phases of their careers.

The wonderful Norma Shearer plays Mary Haines, the happily married wife and mother who discovers her husband is carrying on an affair with a shopgirl.  Shearer was nearing the end of her career and The Women is her last significant film.

Joan Crawford is deliciously devious as Crystal Allen, the ruthless shopgirl in the husband stealing business.  Crawford was in the middle of her long career, still one of MGM’s top stars and six years away from her comeback in Mildred Pierce.

And Rosalind Russell stole the show as Mary Haines’ friend and an insufferable gossip.  Russell was a relative newcomer and a year away from her star making turn in His Girl Friday with Cary Grant.

(You can also get your first glimpse at a very young Joan Fontaine, whose performance here shows why she was cast as the naive and unsophisticated Mrs. DeWinter in Hitchcock’s Rebecca.)

Mary Haines is the last one to know of her husband’s infidelity, and learns of it from the woman who does her nails, rather than any of her wide circle of friends who have been gossiping about it for days.  The film tracks how Mary loses Stephen to Crystal and ultimately gains him back again with the help of her friends.

But make no mistake—this is no feminist manifesto.

“I’ve had two years to grow claws, Mother. Jungle red!”

When Mary first discovers her husband’s infidelity, she is ready to confront him and perhaps divorce him.  Yet her mother’s advice is to pretend she knows nothing about it, continue being the perfect wife, and wait until Stephen gets it out of his system.

(You don’t forget you’re in 1939 when you’re watching this film.)

She does confront Crystal, and the movie is a delightful romp of gossipy harpies, wild divorceés, and vicious catfights.

It’s a funny yet quite unflattering view of women.  

I recommend it heartily.

And despite all the real progress women have made in the world since 1939, there are some uncomfortable truths about women—and men—that are as true today as they were in Clare Booth’s day.  It blunts it with humor, of course, but The Women points out that sometimes your friends are thrilled by your misfortune.  That though we all disavow spreading ugly rumors, most relish delivering a juicy morsel of gossip to someone not yet in the know.  And that when men reach a certain age, their eyes—if not their hands—often stray to novel (and younger) flesh.

It’ll make you laugh.  If you put aside 2020 values, it’ll make you laugh even more.

For people who don’t see the point in watching movies that were new when their grandmother was a child, it can be difficult to explain their appeal.  As Dr. Phil says, “you either get it or you don’t.”  There’s the fashion—the hats, the cigarettes, the dressing gowns.  The glamour of the old Hollywood stars that have that something that still draws you in.  The mystique of black and white.

All this is true.  But old movies are also a treasure hunt, and sometimes they throw up a nugget that is so spectacular it reminds you these films are time capsules and history as much as entertainment.  Something that hits a 2020 audience much different than a 1939 audience.

There’s such a moment in The Women—it comes near the end of the film, when Mary and her mother are discussing the benefits of living alone.  

Mary’s mother says, “Heaven knows it’s marvelous to be able to spread out in bed like a swastika.”

The throwaway line is played for a minor laugh.  It goes without saying that in 1939, the swastika was not yet a universally denounced symbol of hate and genocide.  Adolf Hitler was in power in Germany, of course, and World War II would begin that same year.  (Though U.S. involvement would not begin for several years.)  It shows how quickly the world can change—and perhaps how the United States had buried its head in the sand at what it initially saw as Europe’s private affair.

It’s a moment that made me sit up straight and bark out a stunned laugh of surprise.  It’s not funny, of course.

But then again, in 1939 it was.  These films are a product of their time, the same as the films we see today.

It makes me wonder what we’re laughing at today that will make audiences cringe in eighty years.  Not the stuff that is deliberately provocative—as I don’t believe the swastika line was in The Women.  The stuff we’re not even blinking an eye at that will make the folks of 2101 happy they don’t live in the unenlightened, backward world of 2020 that we believe is so modern.  They’ll marvel at how slow paced and simple our fast and crazy modern world is.

Yes, even with our contentious election and pandemic and racial unrest.  Knowing how the story ends, they’ll smear over 2020 with the grease of nostalgia, just as we do with the movies of 1939.  For even with their glamorous hats and dressing gowns, that generation lived through two World Wars and a Great Depression.

Perhaps this is too serious a blog for a film that is really just a rollicking good time and should be enjoyed as such.  It’s a movie that highlights the talents of three major stars and a director, and is a worthy jewel in the crown of 1939.

(And please, don’t bother with the 2008 remake with Meg Ryan.  Trust me on this.)

If It Doesn’t Fit…

#10 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Norma Shearer followed up her Oscar winning performance in The Divorcée with A Free Soul, the story of Jan Ashe, a woman who is caught between three men—her straightlaced, respectable fiance (Leslie Howard), a charming and exciting gangster (Clark Gable), and the true love of her life, her father (Lionel Barrymore.)

Her father, Stephen Ashe, is a brilliant lawyer, yet his uppercrust family have shunned him due to his alcoholism and tendency toward representing criminals and lowlifes.  Loyal Jan stands with him against his family and tries to moderate his alcohol intake with little success.  Stephen loves his daughter and her doting, but because of his preoccupation with the bottle and the courtroom, he lets her run wild, the “free soul” of the title.

Early in the film, Stepen defends gangster Ace Wilfong of a murder charge.  The main piece of evidence condemning Ace is the hat found at the scene of the crime, along with witness testimony stating a hatless Ace left the scene shorty after the murder.

In a scene that made me wonder if Johnnie Cochran has seen the film, Stephen instructs Ace to stand and put on the hat, which turns out to be comically small for Ace’s head.

I could practically hear him say, “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”

Life imitates art, indeed.  For the benefit of our readers under thirty-five, I’m referring to the moment in the O.J. Simpson murder trial when O.J. put on the bloody gloves found at the scene, and held his hands up to show the jury that the gloves were too small.  Not as small as Ace’s hat, but both cases were won in that performative moment, regardless of the rest of the evidence.

Ace is handsome, charming, and trouble, so of course Jan immediately falls in love with him and breaks off her engagement with the loving and stable Dwight.  Jan and Ace embark on a whirlwind romance, complete with clandestine overnight visits.

Jan thinks the affair is great fun, but things turn serious when Ace tells her father he wants to marry her.  Stephen is outraged at the idea—he has no problem drinking Ace’s bootleg booze and getting him off for murder, but has no intention of letting his daughter marry a lowlife gangster.

Angry and insulted, Ace returns to his apartment to find Jan waiting for him.  When he proposes to her (without telling her of his encounter with her father), she too brushes off the idea of marriage, albeit with more tact.  Ace realizes Jan sees him as nothing more than her dirty little secret and has no intention of taking their relationship public.

He is angry, but when Jan lays back on the divan, arms outstretched and says, “C’mon.  Put ‘em around me,” he obliges.

When Stephen finds them together, he drags Jan away and she is stunned at his anger and the depths of his disappointment.  They realize they are both out of control—Stephen’s drinking has escalated, and Jan is entangled with the wrong sort of man.  They make a bargain:  Jan will never see Ace again if Stephen quits drinking.

This movie calls to mind Jeannette Walls’ memoir The Glass Castle, another story of a daughter who idolizes her alcoholic father.  As with A Free Soul, the daughter runs wild and the most poignant scene involves young Jeannette asking her father to give up drinking.  In Jeannett’s case, she has asked him to stop drinking as her tenth birthday present.

In both stories, the fathers make the promise to stop drinking, knowing they cannot keep it.

In Jan’s case, she returns to Ace when her father starts drinking again.  But Ace’s wounded pride has made him both violent and possessive, and when Jan again refuses to marry him, he promises to expose to the world that they have slept together, marking her as a ruined woman no decent man would want.

Except good old Dwight still wants her.  Though meant to be heroic, Dwight comes off as a bit of a patsy when he takes it upon himself to shoot Ace dead to protect Jan’s nonexistent virtue.

This sets up a dramatic final courtroom scene, where an off-the-rails Stephen pulls himself together enough to defend Dwight.  He puts Jan on the stand and she confesses all.  She is distraught and ashamed of her behavior, and Stephen takes the blame, saying that she had no choice but to grow up wild with a drunkard who associated with criminals as a father.

It’s a rousing speech, one that won Lionel Barrymore his only Oscar.

The film also garnered Shearer’s third of an eventual five nominations for Best Actress.  

It was also one of the films that catapulted Clark Gable into leading man status.

Overall, it’s a very good film that holds up over time.  Shearer is delightfully charming, and Gable is Gable in all his glory.

It was, of course, hugely controversial at the time.  In particular, the scene where Jan holds out her arms to Ace was nearly universally cut by the regional censors.

Though the censor board was mostly ignored in the pre-code era, after the Warner Brothers films and A Free Soul, the board insisted the studios not make anymore gangster films.

It’s funny that A Free Soul is the straw that broke the camel’s back.  It’s much less violent than Little Caesar or Public Enemy, but it committed two sins that those films, for all their transgressions, did not.

First, Little Caesar and Tom Powers pay for their crimes with their lives.  And while Jan is humiliated in open court, she ultimately gets a happy ending when Dwight is acquitted and they go off to New York to start a new life together.  

Second, and most damningly, A Free Soul glorifies a woman having sex outside of marriage.  More shockingly, she refuses when Ace proposes.  

The studios, fearing government-mandated censorship, complied with the edict and put the gangster films on ice.

But as we’ll see next week, there was a way to make movies outside the studio system.  If you had enough money and enough moxie, you could make whatever picture you wanted.

Twenty-six year old business magnate Howard Hughes had plenty of both.

Down Hollywood’s Primrose Path

#8 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Part II: A Toothless Code

We’ve been having fun, haven’t we?  In the first part of this blog, we’ve watched Garbo at her best—seducing unwitting men to their doom in Mata Hari, overcoming her fallen woman past in Anna Christie, and succumbing to a romantic death of doom in Camille.  We’ve watched a young swashbuckling Clark Gable sail the high seas in Mutiny on the Bounty, and delighted in Joan Crawford and John Barrymore’s double entendres in Grand HotelDracula and Frankenstein scared us out of our wits, and King Kong had us reaching for the popcorn.

Audiences in the 1930s were having fun too.  Lots of fun.  Hollywood had made the successful transition from silent pictures to talkies, and audiences were addicted to the movies.

But not everyone was having fun.  Some people didn’t like these movies.  

Who couldn’t like these movies?

Martin Quigley, for one.

Quigley published the Exhibitor’s Herald, a movie industry trade paper.  He was a Catholic, and he was concerned about the sex and violence portrayed on the silver screen.

But let’s back up a moment.  We’ll get back to old Quigley and the Catholic crusade against Hollywood in a minute.

The story of movie censorship is a long and winding road.

If you believe movie censorship was a mistake, Mutual Film vs. Ohio was the original sin.  In this 1915 case, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that films were merchandise and not art, and thus were not protected under the free speech amendment.

This paved the way for state and local censorship boards.  Eight states had censorship boards:  Florida, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetes, New York, Ohio, Virginia, and (I’m sorry to say) Pennsylvania.  There were dozens of local boards.

A state employee watched movies all day (what a job!), searching for objectionable content.  The Supreme Court’s ruling gave these boards complete authority to cut scenes from films at will, without any approval from filmmakers. 

And cut they did.  Their decisions were capricious and inconsistent.  Kansas, a dry state, cut out any scenes of drinking.  Ohio cut anything that could have a negative impact on young minds.  Maryland was particularly touchy about disrespect of the law.

They mercilessly cut key scenes necessary to basic plotlines.  They could—and often did—butcher a film to the point where it did not make sense to its audience.  

It wasn’t ideal, but Hollywood could deal with regional censorship boards.  

The threat of federal government censorship, however, was terrifying.

Because the racier the film, the better it did at the box office.

Federal censorship was a threat to the bottom line.

Re-enter Martin Quigley.  Quigley believed that the state censorship boards were not enough, that there needed to be a uniform code of conduct from the studios.  It wasn’t enough just to cut out the worst bits—care should be taken to make decent, clean films that would portray good morals.

And all films should be suitable for children.

Quigley wasn’t alone—increasingly loud complaints and boycotting threats came from the Boy Scouts, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, and the International Federation of Catholic Alumnae.  

Something had to be done.

So when Quigley came to William Hays, director of the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association, with a draft of rules he’d written to govern the production of movies, Hays was all ears.

Hays convened a committee of studio executives, including Irving Thalberg, head of production at MGM.  Thalberg worked with Hays’ staff and Quigley’s allies to further revise the code of conduct.

Details were hammered out, concessions were made, and on March 31, 1930 Hollywood announced The Production Code.

The code prohibited (among other things), profanity, nudity, excessive violence, illegal drugs, white slavery, interracial relationships, and lustful kissing.  

Martin Quigley, movie killjoy

All the ingredients of a great movie.

The studio heads announced their intentions to the press, patted themselves on the back, and went back to Hollywood and kept right on making the same “filthy” films.

Because although the Hays Office had good intentions, they didn’t have ultimate authority over films, and by then the studios were in a war to recover the rapidly declining ticket sales as the Great Depression settled across the country.

Pollyannaish stories of morality were not going to get desperate people back into theater seats.

Audiences wanted sin.

Hollywood was going to give it to them, code or no code.

Thus began a four year battle between the studios and the reformers, a battle that the reformers would ultimately win in 1934, when Hollywood began strictly enforcing the code that would strangle filmmakers for the next thirty-four years.

During the next series of posts, we’ll explore that battle and the best of the pre-code films.  These are films made from 1930-1934, those four deliciously sinful years between the development and strict enforcement of the code.  

Irving Thalberg—who had helped write the code—went back to MGM and made The Divorcée, starring his delightful wife, Norma Shearer.

The Divorcée was decidedly not the type of film Quigley had in mind for enriching young minds.

Jerry (Shearer) and Ted (Chester Morris) are the perfect modern couple.  They’re desperately in love, drink and dance with their circle of glamourous friends, and Ted is supportive of Jerry’s demanding career.

Then Ted has a one-night stand.  He insists it was meaningless (all evidence confirms this) and implores Jerry not to wreck their perfect life over it.  He leaves for a business trip, confident he has smoothed things over with his wife.

But when Ted returns to find that Jerry has, as she says, “balanced their accounts” by having her own meaningless fling, things go sideways.

In the best scene of the film, the couple has a knock-down-drag-out fight where Jerry skewers Ted’s hypocrisy.  

“Loose women are great, but not in the home, eh Ted?” she thunders.

Finally, she delivers her killer exit line:

“So look for me in the future where the primroses grow and pack your man’s pride with the rest. From now on, you’re the only man in the world that my door is closed to.”

(I like to imagine old Martin Quigley with his head in his hands over that one.)

Ted can’t forgive her affair, and Jerry can’t forgive his double-standard, and to the surprise of all their friends, this golden couple ends up in divorce court.

Jerry spends her days as the life of the party as Ted sinks deeper into drinking and depression.  Inwardly Jerry is as bad off as Ted, and their shared misery telegraphs the deep love they still share.

Will they be able to forgive and find their way back to one another?

This is a fantastic film, made ninety years ago and yet the story of a progressive couple that cannot live up to their own ideals is as relevant as ever.

The film was nominated for Best Picture, and Norma Shearer won a well deserved Best Actress Oscar.

Watch it tonight.  Have your morals corrupted.  You won’t regret it.

There’s nothing Martin Quigley can do to stop you.

*Source: Sin In Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood, Mark Vieira