Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! Today’s post is the latest addition in our series of Pre-Code Essentials. Here’s the updated list.
47. Female (1933)
A female CEO who’s used to buying love meets her match in an independent young executive. Starring Ruth Chatterton, George Brent, Lois Wilson, Johnny Mack Brown, Ruth Donnelly and Ferdinand Gottschalk. Screenplay by Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola. Suggested by a story by Donald Henderson Clark. Directed by Michael Curtiz. Distributed by First National Pictures.
“Alison Drake, the president of a large automobile company, is cynical about love and casually seduces the attractive men in her company, but her meaningless affairs only add to her boredom and confirm her belief that men, like women, can be bought with money and power. One night, in search of excitement, Alison goes to a shooting gallery and meets Jim Thorne, who declines her sexual advances. The next day, when Jim shows up at her office, Alison learns that he is the renown engineer she is expecting. She coolly discusses business with him and then invites him to her home. Expecting another conquest, Alison is surprised when Jim rebuffs her again. Determined to break him, Alison successfully gets Jim alone on a country picnic, and this time, he succumbs to her charms. When he asks her to marry him, though, it is she who turns him down. Furious, he quits… and leaves town. Alison, realizing that she is truly in love, follows him, but misses a very critical business meeting. When she finally catches up with Jim, she tearfully admits that she was willing to risk bankruptcy to find him. This time, he willingly accepts her.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
Female earns its place on our list of Pre-Code Essentials simply on the merits of its classic role reversal premise, which has Ruth Chatterton, who’s making her debut on this blog, playing a high-powered female executive who, at the start of the picture, does unto men what they’ve been doing to women for centuries: she bosses them, she seduces them, she disposes them. If there were nothing else to the picture but this basic story structure in support, it would still be a Pre-Code Essential, for never during the Studio Era while they were adhering to the Production Code would a woman be allowed such authority — and given the power to exercise it in a way that didn’t mitigate her humanity. That is, while the script does attempt to mine humor from the swapping of gender roles (after all, the Pre-Code era, when it was living up to its potential, never wanted to ignore a basic human impulse like humor), it doesn’t turn its leading lady into a caricature who’s so broadly drawn that her only options are either conform by the final reel or remain a noxious stereotype. No, Ruth Chatterton, an incredibly honest and humane performer (no B.S., no fakery), is playing a woman — a female — who is in a position that most women weren’t. And, by the way, she’s doing it well.
Yet, even though I maintain that the premise alone makes this a commendable example of its era, the film’s storytelling has been fodder for much discussion, as the picture treks the perhaps predictable course of our heroine meeting and falling for a man (George Brent) who can’t handle the subversion of gender norms, which thus forces her to consider rejecting her life as businesswoman in favor of romance — the traditional role. But such a plain reading of suppressed liberty and coercion under societal rules (that films produced under the Production Code would soon propagate) does a disservice to the Pre-Code genre. First of all, our protagonist is in a position where she can CHOOSE what happens to her; she’s not going to be punished for giving up a career. She might not get the man, but there won’t be external tragedies — she’s not going to become penniless, go into prostitution, and die of an unnamed disease. Secondly, for a picture that’s as knowing about societal expectations as Female, and indeed capitalizes upon them for both comedic and dramatic gain, why would we not expect this same awareness to transcend throughout the picture — even in the happy, syrupy ending?
In other words, the fact that our “boss lady” decides that she’s willing to give up her career for a man, if that’s what it takes to get him, isn’t just a comment that one fictional character is making to another — it’s a comment that the film is making to the audience: this is what’s expected of you. But then there’s no judgment as to whether or not she should have to choose one or the other — a decision that men, single or married, seldom have to make — in order to get the love interest; the audience members are able to decide for themselves whether or not this is something our heroine needs to do. And in fact, in the final scene, during which “true love” seems to conquer all, there exists a palpable irony — as if the film is telling the audience that societal norms transcend into the moviemaking process as well: the world forces women into domesticity, and Hollywood is forcing the characters in its films to do the same. This isn’t some earnest Post-War “the man is my life, I don’t need a career” tripe. This is a “you can take the business because I’m not supposed to have it and you.” And that’s a truly Pre-Code sentiment — self-aware, a bit bitter, but never without its humor. Thus, Female is an Essential. Must-see!
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in again on Tuesday for more Seinfeld!