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.