Friday, June 27, 2003

FEMALE (1933)

One of the most interesting pre-Code movies that Turner Classic showed in last month's "Complicated Women" series. Ruth Chatterton is very good as Alison Drake, the head of an automotive company. At the office, she is all work: serious and commanding and good at getting results. But she also keeps an eye open for hunky young men at work. She invites them to her mansion in the evening for a little slap and tickle, strictly on-the-side flings. The next day, they had better be all business; if they moon about romantically or push her for another date, they are likely to get sent to the Montreal office. One young man, Philip Reed, is worshipfully romantic but not lustfully inclinced enough for her taste, so he gets sent all the way to Paris, to study art! (I suspect the character was coded gay.) One night, thinking she needs to get out of her rut, she is on the prowl at a carnival when she meets George Brent. Sparks fly and the next day, she finds out that he is a master engineer just hired by the company. Their affair gets serious, but when he proposes marriage, she more or less laughs in his face, so he splits. Ultimately, she runs after him and agrees to renounce the company if he'll marry her.

That ending makes hash of much that has gone before, forcing a strong and independent woman to settle down at the cost of her career--the situation reminded me a bit of the plot of the recent comedy DOWN WITH LOVE, with Renee Zellweger as an author who seems to advocate casual affairs for women over falling in love. Until the end, however, the film is fun and different. Ferdinand Gottschalk is her secretary, who definitely is coded gay, except for his apparent romantic interest in Ruth Donnelly--they make a rather unconvincing couple in the same way that Edward Everett Horton and Helen Broderick (or Alice Brady) do in the Astaire/Rogers musicals. Other men in Chatterton's life include Johnny Mack Brown, Gavin Gordon, and Douglas Dumbrille. In her office, she has the biggest phone receiver I've ever seen! A few memorable lines: "Unethical? What's that got to do with business?"; "For some women, men are a household necessity--I'd rather have a canary."; she tells her maid, who has been complaining about her husband, "You wouldn't have these problems if you were a fallen woman." I haven't been terribly impressed with Chatterton before, but she's great here. Brent is also good, more charismatic than I've ever seen him. Highly recommended.

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