Female (1933); Dir. Michael Curtiz

Alice Drake (Ruth Chatterton) inherited her father’s automobile manufacturing business, a behemoth if you judge from the panorama outside her office window of a factory as far as the eye can see. She is just a “female”, but she has taken to the job like a fish to water. She is a terrifying boss. She is on top of her game. She barks orders to the men sitting around the huge conference table, and they nod and hurry off to get to work. She is driven. Even when she gets her nightly massage at her palatial home, she chatters away about the business, all while reading a magazine on automobiles. She doesn’t take No for an answer. If there’s an engineer out there working on a revolutionary clutch system, and if he’s under contract to another outfit, she doesn’t care: Get him. Do whatever you have to do. Get him. It may be unethical, but that doesn’t stop her.

At night, she has a little habit of inviting home male employees, under the guise of talking about work (they usually approach her with a new idea, something they need to discuss with her), and seducing them. Because this is a pre-Code movie, her conquests are shown with zero euphemism. And there are multiple scenes, to give you the idea that this is something she does with regularity, and it is an open secret at the factory. She is a woman who flies above the morality of the day. She dominates the board room by day, and eats men alive by night. She has a slam-dunk seduction system, which she has learned (through probably much trial and error) works well in almost all cases. The man arrives, blue prints or reports in hand, he begins to fumble about, talking about work, as she lounges on the couch, in a gown, ravishing him with her eyes. At some point during the night, she presses a button (always nearby), and we see the “room” light up as a button in the servant’s quarters: LIBRARY, SWIMMING POOL. This tells the butler that it is time to bring the vodka to whatever room she is in. It’s always vodka. Vodka loosens men up. In comes the vodka. She forces him to drink a couple of shots, and then finally reveals what she wants from him, when she takes a silken pillow and throws it onto a divan in the corner. (Director Michael Curtiz films these repetitive scenes with identical shots – following the pillow to the divan, closeup of the vodka bottle, closeup of the room-button lighting up – so we get the sense of how often she does this).

She’s a man-eater, true, but it is presented that she behaves this way in order to get her sexual needs met. Period. Very subversive, since she isn’t a fallen woman in the slightest. She is a voracious and successful businesswoman. She seduces men in this blunt manner because she doesn’t want the distraction of a personal life. She has no personal life. She doesn’t want anything from men besides their cocks. She’s not a femme fatale, weaving a web of destruction and deceit in order to destroy men, or get their money. She has more money than she knows what to do with. She clearly enjoys sex, and goes after it in the same way she goes after the new automatic-gear system. And once she makes the conquest, she’s done with them. It’s rather an awful example of sexual harassment, but expectations are up-ended because she’s a woman. What recourse is left these men? They play by her rules, or they are liable to get shipped off to the Montreal office (as happens to one of her suitors who makes the mistake of falling in love with her).

Alice is unembarrassed by any of this. There are great scenes of her in her vast office at the factory (the sets are phenomenal in Female), fielding multiple phone calls, dealing with secretary’s interruptions, and barking off orders to subordinates. She is able to make quick decisions on the fly. She is nobody’s fool. She is also able to delegate (“Talk to the Transportation manager” she says – or “Talk to Finance about that”), and for a good portion of the film we are not aware that there is anything “missing” for her. She is not secretly lovelorn, or yearning for domestic happiness. This is Pre-Code, remember. She is exactly what she seems to be.

One night, she throws a party for her employees. She dances with a man who wants to sell her insurance. She is trailed by people who need things from her. She doesn’t enjoy parties. She can’t enjoy herself. Her role is set. She has set it up that way. You don’t feel that she is trapped, not really, until the party scene, when, fed up with everything, she gets into her car and drives off into the night. She wants to be a “real” person, and see what it feels like to maneuver in a world where she is not known and feared and sucked up to. She goes to an arcade and there meets a man named Jim Thorne (played by George Brent, Ruth Chatterton’s real-life husband at the time). They compete at a shooting gallery (shades of Gun Crazy), and have hamburgers and a beer. He treats her with humor and a bit of confusion (she comes on a bit strong, it’s in her nature), and says good-bye to her in a pointed “Here is where we stop” manner. She doesn’t get it. He says, “I don’t take pick-ups home.” So even in “real” life, Alice shows her true colors. But this guy, not knowing her powerful position, isn’t swayed. He is kind, but he rejects her.

Naturally, the following day, it is revealed that he is actually the hot-shot engineer her company poached from another company. He is ushered into her office, sees the pick-up he met the night before, and thinks she’s playing a joke on him. No, no joke. She runs the place. She is now his boss.

Female is a story filmed with the utmost economy. In very short order, Alice becomes obsessed with this Jim Thorne, he who resisted her advances (twice: she also has him up to her mansion and does the whole pillow-divan-vodka routine, which affects him not at all), and turns her world upside down. How can she “get” him? Can a leopard change her spots? Her clearly gay male secretary tells her that men like a woman who is “feminine”, and that Jim Thorne “needs a woman to admire him, look up to him. He is a bit primitive perhaps. He needs someone to protect.” Alice begins plotting. She tricks him into meeting her out in the wilderness, where she feigns fear at things like snakes and scary noises. She speaks in a high mellifluous voice, completely different from her everyday rat-a-tat-tat delivery. She pretends to not know how to light the campfire. All of this isn’t played for laughs, not exactly. It is a true attempt on her part (a borderline sociopath, if you ask me) to behave like a real person. He falls for it. Maybe she does too.

Her subsequent breakdown in front of the board (“I want to be a real woman”) rings a bit false, in light of her behavior up until this point. But that was so often the case with these subversive pre-Code films. I touch on that in my review of Torch Singer here. The civilized world of mores and values is so completely turned on its ear in some of these movies that the last 5 seconds, where everything is “righted” often feel oddly dark, when they are clearly supposed to be a happy ending. Hot Saturday (which I discuss here) is another example. The two leads, Cary Grant and Nancy Carroll, basically drive off into the sunset, but because of all that has come before, the audience is left with a wary hope that any of it will “work out”. Not after everything we have seen. And instead of a sop to the censors (as these endings often were), they seem like a chastened human desire to believe that things will work out for the best, all evidence to the contrary. Even the comedies seem “dark” in this light. Female is in that continuum. Her “performance” as a damsel in distress in the woods does not ring true. This character would not fall apart trying to light a bonfire. But her attempt is somewhat touching, if looked at as a woman who doesn’t quite belong to the human race, trying to – tentatively – join the dance of romance and human connection. Jim Thorne says to her, out in the woods, “You’re like four different people. You’re the pick-up I met at the shooting gallery, you’re the woman at the office, you’re the woman at your house last night …. I didn’t like her.” Alice asks, “Why not?” He says casually, “I guess because I’m a man. I like to do my own hunting.” She considers this and replies, “I see.” She asks him, “Which girl do you think he is real?” He says, looking at her lying in the grass in her flowy girlie dress, “This one.”

Perhaps this does not bode well for their ultimate happy ending. Alice, to me, seems most “real” when sitting behind her desk, the vast factory churning away outside the window, taking calls, firing off orders, and making plans. Will this character ever be content sitting at home, bearing children (she tells Jim she “wants nine children”, something that made me laugh when I first saw it. Really, Alice? You want nine children? For realz?), and cooking and cleaning for her husband? I don’t buy it. I don’t think she buys it either.

But we all have to lie to ourselves to get through our days. We have fictions that we agree to believe, to make things easier, simpler, in the hopes that we can change or grow. Alice is not lonely, I never get that from her. But what I do get is an overwhelming boredom with the way her life is set up, a feeling that nothing new can ever happen, as long as everyone in her sight is bowing and scraping before her. Here, in Jim Thorne, a “primitive” man, she meets her match.

While not on par with the Tracy-Hepburn films which cover identical territory, Female is a fascinating role-reversal film with a terrific performance by Ruth Chatterton. She retired from films only 5 years later, and went on to do stage work, before retiring from that and becoming a successful writer. She was 40 when she made Female, and brings a mature sense of patience and stillness to the role, not to mention the sense that this is a woman who knows what she needs. She is not “acting out” in an adolescent way with her nightly sexual conquests. She is not enamored with the wild side, or “rebellion” or being a “bad girl”. She’s not a teenager who has fallen into promiscuity due to poor choices. Everything Alice does is deliberate. She is a workaholic who needs to unwind at night, something that any male in a similar position would understand. Sex is a good way to unwind, perhaps the best. Everyone who works at the factory is male, so when she plays her cards right, she has a never-ending supply of one-night stands at her beck and call. This is crazy subversive stuff, and Ruth Chatterton plays it with a calm understanding of what this character is all about. It’s a very good performance.

George Brent is appealing as the engineer Jim Thorne, and while the ending does not convince, you do get the sense that if anyone could catch this woman, it would be this man. He is his own man, already. He needs nothing from her. He can walk away any time. To someone like Alice, desperate enough to go hang out at an arcade in the middle of the night in order to get a taste of what it means to be normal, Jim Thorne is a welcome change.

All of that being said, I give ‘em a year or two. Tops.

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13 Responses to Female (1933); Dir. Michael Curtiz

  1. Beckie says:

    Hi,
    I learn so much from reading your blog. Do you have an explanation of “pre-code”? I did a quick look, but didn’t turn up anything. Thanks!

  2. sheila says:

    The Hays Code – brought into existence in 1930 but not really enforced until 1934 (because of really gritty explicit movies such as Public Enemy and Baby Face). The “Pre-Code” movies are from that brief moment in time after the invention of sound – when all bets were off, and things were portrayed in a realistic manner. The misunderstanding about the Code is that it is just about sex and violence. not true. The Code is a much more dangerous document than that (you can find it online). Miscegenation was forbidden, religion needed to be treated in a certain way, authority figures – the portrayal of drug use was strictly forbidden – the Code goes on for pages and pages.

    The movies of the 30s and 40s, struggling under the Hays Code, often are even more subversive than the Pre-Code movies – because they have to get their points across thru innuendo. Some of my favorite movies are from the 30s and 40s – and you can see how much people could “get away with” if they were clever enough – but it really is a shock to watch the Pre-Code films (early 30s films) with how FRANK they were about topics such as sex/drugs/pregnancy and other soon-to-be taboo subjects.

    Here’s the Pre-Code Wikipedia page.

  3. sheila says:

    To give an obvious example: Alice Drake in “Female” is, I suppose, a “bad” woman because she has sex outside of marriage and has sex because it’s fun. In the Post-Code world, she would need to “pay” in some way for her “bad”-ness. Regular morals and values needed to be upheld. But in the Pre-Code movies, people aren’t punished – at least not any more so than the regular punishment that humans run into all the time, when things do not go their way. Alice Drake is not pilloried, or shamed, or shunned. On the contrary. She is a winner from beginning to end. Totally Pre-Code values. Not so black-and-white.

    There are countless examples but that’s the most obvious one. I’ve written a lot about Pre-Code movies – if you click on the tag for this post labeled “Pre-Code”, you can see some more of my reviews of this time period.

  4. Gina C says:

    Ruth Chatterton portrays the wife of an automobile manufacturer in 1936 film Dodsworth which was shown on TCM earlier this year, before that I was not familiar with her work. According to wiki, Dodsworth was toward the end of her film career. Might be interesting to watch after Female.

    Also pre-Code Bitter Tea of General Yen 1933, with Barbara Stanwyck, was shown on TCM also earlier this year, definitely would like to hear your thoughts on that film.

  5. sheila says:

    Gina – I have seen Dodsworth – another really good performance from her!

    I love that Barbara Stanwyck movie – pre-Code movies are a passion of mine, and she’s the best. Have you seen Night Nurse??

  6. DBW says:

    It’s interesting that you end this with a prediction their relationship won’t last, given your last post on Richard Gere mentioned Pretty Woman. I always thought the idea that the Julia Roberts and Gere characters would have a lasting relationship to be laughable at best. Yet, I know several women who love the Cinderella aspect of that movie. I think they are actively ignoring reality to feel good about the potential lasting power of that twosome.

  7. sheila says:

    Well, Cinderella is a good story. I don’t fault women for their happily-ever-after fantasies in the same way I don’t fault men for their Superhero-inspired fantasies (at least cinematically). It’s a satisfying story: a prince comes along to swoop you away. I have entertained it myself. There’s a reason those stories sell, because they speak to a deep emotional need in people – yes, maybe women, but we’re part of the population too so our fantasies should be portrayed as well.

    What separates the Pre-Code films is that they are dark, gritty, realistic films with “happy” endings tacked on – so the whole thing feels totally unbalanced in a very interesting way. Pretty Woman is a True Believer movie, start to finish – which is why it’s not quite satisfying (although I think she is terrific in it). If it was pre-Code movie, there would have been much more difficult scenes about her as a prostitute and the compromises she had to make – the horrible men she had to sleep with, the underworld she would have had to deal with – drugs and all kinds of unsavory things – she would not have remained so innocent, she would have been way more fallen and jaded. Pre-Code movies weren’t afraid of reality. (Like Claudette Colbert in Torch Singer – which is a similar story, but with a much more bleak outlook).

  8. sheila says:

    And I agree that Julia Roberts and Richard Gere don’t stand much of a chance in Pretty Woman – but not because of how they met, or the unlikelihood of a prostitute finding love with a high-powered businessman. It’s because he wouldn’t freakin’ lend her a hand out of the limo when she was wearing a long red ballgown. That is a TOTAL red flag!!

  9. sheila says:

    Also, never underestimate the healing and strengthening power of “actively ignoring reality”. Sometimes that is all that one has to keep going. As Meryl Streep once said, “Denial is very very valuable.”

  10. DBW says:

    Not sure what you mean by men’s cinematic fantasies(James Bond). I never entertained such flights myself(John Wayne), and always wondered about men who let themselves get caught up in such reveries(Redford and Newman). “Ignoring reality” is the fuel that powers the DBW Experience.

  11. sheila says:

    HAHAHAHAHAHAHA

    The parentheticals are genius!!!

  12. george says:

    Sheila,

    Always pleasantly surprised by pre-code movies Female turned out to be my favorite. The point about the economy of the story was something I especially liked. No setups, no sleight of character, no secret passions. It wasn’t just the guys sent to Montreal who knew what was going on.

    I also recall, apropos of nothing in particular, having Mae West pop into my mind while watching Ruth Chatterton in this role. Can’t recall the circumstances within the movie that brought that on but do recall thinking Alice Drake could have been Mae West if West had dialed turned the ‘camp’ dial off.

  13. sheila says:

    George – Yes, it’s a very knowing and smart script. Again, I didn’t find her breakdown very convincing (she played it fine – just felt it a bit clunky, script-wise) – but the rest of the film is so realistic and blunt that it still manages to survive.

    She’s great.

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