by Maria Dibattista
A review by David Thomson
The men and women in American colleges these days sometimes reckon that
the movies began with Jaws and Star Wars, and then congratulate
themselves on a sufficient sense of history to accommodate films made
before they were born. A few weeks ago, on an Ivy League campus, I was
told by a film professor that students shown East of Eden and Rebel
Without a Cause had felt that James Dean was whiny. Well, such a case
can be made: Dean was never short on self-pity, and that gloomy mood was
over-indulged by the Actors Studio confusion with words. Yet these students
went further: they identified with the parents.
This campus wasn't Princeton, I hasten to add, which is where Maria DiBattista
teaches. I can imagine her best students having a blast in her courses,
though I wouldn't mind the occasional skeptical question in a book that
sometimes reads like ecstatic lecture transcripts. But Ms. DiBattista
(which isn't a cool way of addressing a "dame") has justice as well as
enthusiasm on her side in judging that the greatest of Hollywood movies
now seem to be the grown-up comedies, from romantic to screwball the
ones, she would say, that celebrate "fast-talking dames" and were made
nearly sixty years ago.
The greatest movies, but maybe not the most enduring: just because your
video store stocks The Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby, and
The Lady Eve doesn't guarantee that they are seen or taken in.
To look at today's films, to have to listen to their dialogue, leaves
the matter of influence in awful doubt. On the other hand, kids collapse
in mirth over the sight gags in There's Something About Mary and
American Pie, and they repeat lines from Austin Powers so
often that you want to pass laws restoring silence (or at least silents)
to the cinema. So I have to wonder whether the best of our best our comedies
of sentiment, language, and identity as well as romance are most honored
on our lofty campuses, along with The Faerie Queene and Tristram
More of this anxiety anon. I want first to recommend DiBattista's book,
which is the best on its subject since Stanley Cavell's Pursuits of
Happiness (1981) and Molly Haskell's From Reverence to Rape (1974).
Unlike those two books, DiBattista's has no subtitle. You know that it
is a movie book by its jacket and the illustrations. But it is fair to
the book (as well as a warning of its limitations) to say that the author
is celebrating ideal figures and their talk without being confined to
the screen. We are dealing with a plausible application to all of life.
Thus DiBattista asserts in her preface that "even as a teenager I knew
that I never wanted to appear that bereft [as bereft as Marilyn Monroe]
of words and self-confidence, even if it meant that I could never hope
to attract, much less entrance, some man."
Then, in her closing, DiBattista reminds her readers of Henry James's
advice to young women graduating from Bryn Mawr in 1905:
There is no immediate nor even real danger, as James
feared, of American women simply handing over their most precious property,
but they may be lulled into letting it fall into disuse or disrepair.
All the more reason to attend to the vigilant women I celebrate in this
book. They had a real feeling for the position, and respect for the
value of the American language. Their fast talk was their dowry but
also their legacy, one that we should take care not give or fritter
away [sic]. These women were of their time but ahead of it, too. If
we are lucky, we can still catch up with them.
It is a large and generous hope, and one that makes us feel more deprived
nowadays, after nearly fifty years of movies lacking eloquent or even
articulate women (no matter that our respect for women has improved in
DiBattista's airy pleasure comes from the enclosed contentment of literary
studies in academia: that Milton and Middlemarch are alike in addressing
our present moral preoccupations (as opposed to their own). And so the
bravest and the most admirable thing about DiBattista's book is her standing
up to sing the praises of heroines who are both the characters in her
favorite movies and the actresses who played them. She is most fluent
as a writer in her extended essays, or arias, on the stars: Jean Harlow,
Carole Lombard, Ginger Rogers, Myrna Loy, Jean Arthur, and Claudette Colbert.
Her voice is less assured, more academic and speculative, more driven
to fanciful extremes, in her raptures on Bringing Up Baby, The
Awful Truth, Ninotchka, His Girl Friday, and The
Lady Eve (where her star-gazing admiration falls on Katharine Hepburn,
Irene Dunne, Greta Garbo or Garbo's laugh, Rosalind Russell, and Barbara
Stanwyck). There are vivid insights along the way, and often the writing
is excellent: this is an academic book in which you feel the author's
desire to be worthy of her own heroines.
Most of the time DiBattista proves this worth by saying things that will
educate students, and would likely have entertained the film-makers whom
she admires. Of Carole Lombard's Irene in My Man Godfrey, she says
that "her fast talk is the fast talk of a child who breathlessly wants
to get her words out before she is cut off." Of the hat that Garbo surveys
and then wears in Ninotchka, she remarks that "its base is softly
conical but its apex is a comic hybrid between a dunce cap and a smokestack.
I hazard to describe it as a hat with disappointed or curtailed phallic
aspirations, ending as it does as a jagged rather than majestic peak."
And here she is, keeping pace with some of the best dialogue of the era,
describing a moment from After the Thin Man: "When [Nora's] cousin
Selma Landis (Elissa Landi) asks permission to reward Nicky with a kiss,
Nora consents, even while issuing a warning: `Go right ahead, but I warn
you, it's a hard habit to get out of.' Sexual affection has seldom received
so droll a tribute. Nora's compliments are as addictive as Nicky's kisses."
It is difficult to be certain about such things, but I think that simple
yet elegant line was written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett (working,
it is said, from a Dashiell Hammett story) on a project directed by W.S.
Van Dyke II. I cite those names because DiBattista never mentions them,
which is odd in view of her sturdy respect for women (and, one assumes,
men) with a voice. Creators also deserve to be named. It is a part of
DiBattista's approach that she prefers to regard the works as finished
gems that have little context or history. But wary film scholars need
to keep tighter grasp of the circumstances in which movies were fashioned.
Milton and George Eliot may have known that they were making art, but
none of the film-makers whom this book treasures ever possessed such confidence.
In the 1930s especially, they hoped that they were cooking up entertainment,
but they knew that whatever played best would be the finished product.
DiBattista does make a stab at historical context. She has the feeling
that, more or less with the coming of sound, a revolution hit American
speech. She quotes Edmund Wilson lamenting in 1926 "the slowness of American
speech. The truth is that Americans still drawl in the city as well as
in the country: not even New York, unlike Paris or London, has a language
of the quick intelligence." But then she rejoices at the way slang, a
jazzy vernacular, and hip new verbal inventions sprang up, and she jumps
on Virginia Woolf's excitement at Americans making "the language adapt
itself to their needs":
In England, save for the impetus given by the war, the
word-coining power has lapsed; our writers vary the metres of their
poetry, remodel the rhythms of prose, but one may search English fiction
in vain for a single new word. It is significant that when we want to
freshen our speech we borrow from America poppycock, rambunctious,
flip-flop, booster, good-mixer all the expressive ugly vigorous slang
which creeps into use among us first in talk, later in writing, comes
from across the Atlantic.
I'm not sure how subject to proof that is, let alone how much it affected
the status of women; but it is the most provocative part of DiBattista's
book, and so important as to supersede the virtues of the given films
and actresses, just as it may help to explain our present tongue-tied
films. It begins to tell us something significant about the Hollywood
that made the pictures that DiBattista likes but to which she seems deaf.
Can there be only three, four, or five years between, say, The Wind
(1928), Sunrise (1927), and The Crowd (1928) and Trouble
in Paradise (1932), Scarface (1932), City Streets (1931),
and Morocco (1930)? After all, nine years is all that separates
Lethal Weapon and Lethal Weapon 4. I do not mean to scold
silent pictures for being silent. That exigency drove them, often, into
demented flights of "beauty," just as it provoked unnatural goodness and
evil in many of its characters. But with the coming of sound an astonishing
release of naturalism rushed in, as if to liberate a medium that had been
under siege for so long.
It may be a matter of taste (or prejudice), but the straining visual
poetry of silent cinema was abruptly jettisoned in favor of a smart, efficient,
and prosaic way of photographing conversation. You can see it in Lubitsch,
Capra, Hawks, and many others, and it is a style that doesn't date. I
happen to prefer it to the expressionism of Sunrise and The
Crowd, but that preference hardly matters beside the greedy, comprehensive
way in which talk became the new engine of films. Snarls and wisecracking
ushered in a mass of new players (Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Cary Grant,
Bogart, the famously laconic Gary Cooper you can't be laconic in silent
films! as well as the women). Some of those guys talked as fast as the
dames. But they were all dependent on the microphone and the writers and
the directors (from Broadway, magazines, newspapers, and even literature)
who could handle dialogue.
Consider also that color as a complete system arrived in film in 1935,
but it did not become the dominant form until the late 1950s, and even
now a determined director can insist on black-and-white for Raging
Bull or Schindler's List. But sound, by contrast, was universal
within a couple of years of Jolson's first utterances save Chaplin's
work, and he could hold his own because he was secure and separate in
the business. (When he did talk, and lecture, in The Great Dictator,
there were many who wished he had shut up for longer.)
DiBattista does not ask herself why sound was so eagerly adopted, or
what its impact was. This is a pity, because sound was what lifted her
blooming dames from their soil. Surely it is worth noting how talkies
broadly coincided with the wide use of radio and records. In about a decade,
voices were everywhere, a novel forest of intimacy surrounding the listener.
All of a sudden, fame was borne on the voice. Radio was not just sports,
the comics, the news, and drama; it was the advertisements, too, and their
unique rapidity, fearful of being turned off. The new rage for voices
lapped over into the craze for songs (and the songwriting that we now
regard as the fruit of a golden age). All this is the essential running
soundtrack behind talk in movies, and its density includes the new demotic
of Hemingway and the jazzy wordplay of Dos Passos, along with a montage
of voices that includes Will Rogers, Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, Walter
Winchell, Jack Benny, Amos 'n' Andy, Roosevelt, Hitler, Orson Welles,
and Father Coughlin.
Fast-Talking Dames never hears that surround-sound, but hammers
its own title without mercy. The more I heard that stress, without explanation,
the uneasier I became. Take "fast," for instance. DiBattista is wild about
speed, and sometimes she seems to be writing too fast to think clearly.
Quick thinking is surely a sign of life and spirit, especially when you
are doing ten rounds with Cary Grant in His Girl Friday. But speed
for speed's sake can be monotonous and grating. All the great ladies whom
DiBattista cherishes varied their pacing: Stanwyck, Lombard, Hepburn,
Dunne. There is nothing like an apt hesitation, once you're up to speed.
There is nothing like a pause to reveal the other person's loss of words
So it is masochistic for DiBattista to exclude Mae West: "She may be the
mistress of double entendre (as of all else), but she is decidedly slow,
even lethargic, in speed and movement." That is dotty; but it is a modest
omission compared with the reluctance to delight in the stealthy bearing
and voice of Dietrich in her films for Josef von Sternberg. Dietrich never
attempted to be the modern American woman, to be sure, but their seven
films (from The Blue Angel to The Devil Is a Woman) are
models of sultry talk and a new appreciation of how words and pregnant
hesitation can signal a woman's authority.
Von Sternberg would be written off as an arrogant eccentric (a fate in
which he exulted), and Dietrich was never the same without him. Their
films were not big at the box office, but they were so daring as to be
very influential in Hollywood. I would add that someone named Jules Furthman
wrote several of them Morocco, Shanghai Express, and Blonde
Venus the same Furthman who would help to write To Have and Have
Not and The Big Sleep a decade later. And if DiBattista cannot
hear the same languid yet incisive feminine rhythm going from Morocco
to To Have and Have Not, and if she misses Bacall's little lesson
to Bogart ("You do know how to whistle, don't you, Steve?"), or how in
The Big Sleep they join in the exhilarating, love-making Marxian phone
call to the police, then she has an ear unworthy of her ideal about dames.
And if she or anyone retorts that those two Hawks films from 1944-1946
are not comedies on a par with Hawks's Bringing Up Baby, His
Girl Friday, and Ball of Fire then I would demand to know
why their audiences laugh so much.
DiBattista is altogether too casual about authorship. Excluding Mae West
from her club is peculiarly misguided in that West has an asset that the
team needs. Stanwyck, Dunne, Lombard, and so on were enchanting players,
but they were hired to fill their parts, and they spoke the lines given
to them. Mae West, by contrast, wrote a great deal of what she said. She
had something like control in her pictures. That was one reason (and not
the only one) why she could order the guys around.
No matter that she serves on the women's studies faculty at Princeton,
DiBattista takes pains to distance herself from "the feminist critique
of film as a tool of ideological oppression and the camera as a[n] instrument
of the `male gaze,' catering to voyeurism and fetishists." I am grateful
to her for this freedom from dogma, but still this book does glorify the
American girl of the 1930s and early 1940s, and it takes an authentic,
sisterly pleasure in the sight and the sound of the great "dames" already
noted and don't forget Ginger Rogers and Jean Harlow, both of whom are
very well treated here. And it does so in a rhapsodic tone, and with a
lack of discussion of how these films were made, or of the society that
produced them, that makes it dangerously easy to regard these actresses
as life forces who simply willed their great movies into being and for
DiBattista's gaze. Time and again, as she retrieves a moment from a film
and makes it radiant, she forgets to reveal who wrote it, or even who
directed it. The overall assumption of the book is to ignore many men's
names even as it appreciates their gaze.
There are a few intriguing exceptions, well worth further research. (A
certain Viña Delmar wrote The Awful Truth, and little is
known about her beyond the rare wit and generosity of that film.) Still,
for the most part men ordained, directed, wrote, and made these pictures.
You might answer, Well, of course they did: men did nearly everything
on films in those days, so how could it not be so? But what also needs
to be stressed is that Hollywood was in those days a very male and very
macho club, in which the exploitation of women was taken for granted.
To pick only one example: in discussing Bringing Up Baby (and her
exploration of this film is a tour de force, even if the tower wavers
in its own loftiness), DiBattista asks us to recollect that the Howard
Hawks who indulged in the occasional overhead view of the structure of
a scene was actually educated as an engineer. Fair enough: Hawks was a
mechanical engineering major at Cornell, though Todd McCarthy's thorough
biography makes it clear that drinking, gambling, girls, and racing cars
were his chief preoccupations there. But if let us welcome the chance the
realities of Hollywood are to intrude on Bringing Up Baby, why
not add to the engineer's eye the widespread contemporary estimate that
Howard Hawks was one of his community's most dedicated womanizers? I have
felt for decades that Hawks's treatment of women, while filled with admiration,
appreciation, and humor, is that of someone who would happily have died
trying to fuck them all.
Not that I see any need to be censorious about that. Hawks was uncommonly
detached (or selfish), and one of his wives Nancy Hawks, known as "Slim" has
said that beneath the cool Anglo dandy exterior there beat the heart of
a gambler, a steady liar, and a fantasist. She had reason to know. She
helped to discover Lauren Bacall ("Slim" in To Have and Have Not),
and then she had the rueful pleasure of seeing Howard's customary "gaze"
interrupted by Bacall's falling for Bogart. But there was ironic justice
in that turn of events, because Hawks always did interruption superbly
well, and the master being usurped is a very Hawksian story. (Von Sternberg
filmed it several times, starting with Morocco.)
I urge Dibattista to view these exceptional films as springing from their
moment and their network. Hollywood in the age of Hawks (it is inescapable
now that he was the most adventurous director of the time) was in flux,
doing all it could to move up in terms of class. For talkies coincided
with, and helped to propel, the urge of many in Hollywood (second-generation
Jews, Ivy League types like Hawks, as well as the Eastern intellectuals
employed and enriched by sound) to detach themselves from the raw, immigrant
showbiz character most linked to silent pictures, to justify their rare
booty, and to be as smart as good theater and new novels.
Sound lost a significant part of the audience the part whose English
was not good enough to keep up with talkative plots. But a kind of social
climbing pushed that acceleration, just as it rejoiced in the chance to
mingle with cafe society, literary names, and the upper-class WASP establishment.
The most striking instance of that was the friendship between David Selznick
and Jock Whitney that led to the partnership that made Gone With the
Wind. But there were other ties, too, and a lot of marriages and socializing
across class limits.
It was no accident that so many English or English-sounding actors and
actresses thrived in this climate. There was a socially driven reverence
for correct speech, and talking in sentences in the movies helped such
English natives (or children of empire) as Cary Grant, Boris Karloff,
Clive Brook, Norma Shearer, Leslie Howard, Charles Laughton, Robert Donat,
Greer Garson, Claude Rains, Basil Rathbone, Walter Pidgeon, Herbert Marshall,
David Niven, Merle Oberon, Errol Flynn, Laurence Olivier, George Sanders,
Olivia de Havilland, Joan Fontaine, Elizabeth Taylor, and the English
woman who won the great American search for Scarlett, Vivien Leigh. And
this is to say nothing of the skilled English players in supporting roles
(from Roland Young to Sydney Greenstreet, from Sir C. Aubrey Smith to
Freddie Bartholomew) or, most striking, the range of American-born players
who could do (on screen and off) passable English accents Adolphe Menjou,
Irene Dunne, Myrna Loy, Fredric March, William Powell, Melvyn Douglas,
Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Franchot Tone, Margaret Sullavan, Katharine Hepburn,
Bette Davis, Rosalind Russell and the real Continentals: Garbo, Dietrich,
Boyer, Claudette Colbert, Maurice Chevalier, and Ingrid Bergman.
This was an era of dialogue coaches retained by studios, and of elocution
classes ordered for the children of Hollywood's nouveau riche. Famously,
sound had killed the careers of players with "bad" or "uneducated" voices which
often was a euphemism for class distinction, for voices so coarse or so
common they let down the aspirations of Hollywood. For there was a mixture
of Anglophilia and anti-Semitism (often in Jewish families) that made
Englishness very desirable.
That was one strand. There were also true American voices that came with
sound, people such as Cagney, Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, Gable, Tracy,
Groucho, and Stanwyck (though she could do English very well, as witness
The Lady Eve). Still, I believe that the prestige of correct English
voices, and the feeling that they could best handle words with smooth
speed, is essential to the films under consideration in DiBattista's book.
And this principle, in turn, may help us to understand why the flame of
passionate comedy of language and manners died away when American movies
became more open to those unburdened by education.
There was also a certain English sportiveness and this leads me to dispute
DiBattista's satisfied view of His Girl Friday. She likes that
film a lot, and regards it as the epitome of "Female Rampant." I like
it even more, but I think that it is a metaphor for Hollywood's great
game, a kind of playfulness preferred by grown-up boys. In His Girl
Friday (which was Hawks's cunning switch on the Hecht-MacArthur play
The Front Page), Walter (Cary Grant), a newspaper editor, and Hildy
(Rosalind Russell), his ace writer, are divorced. She comes to the paper's
office to make her final farewell and to introduce her husband-to-be,
Bruce (Ralph Bellamy). Whereupon Walter sets in motion an intrigue (played
to maybe the fastest sustained dialogue ever filmed) that will reveal
to Hildy that newspapers are her life, while Bruce is a bore.
This film has been known as one of the comedies of re-marriage, a term
set out fully by Stanley Cavell in his fine book. It was Cavell's belief,
or hope, and one largely shared by DiBattista, that the action helps to
re-educate both man and woman into a fit state for true marriage. I see
it rather as a game played for the benefit of a society gone wild on promiscuity
and divorce. The newsroom is a metaphor for the cockpit of Hollywood pitilessly
professional, yet as addictive as the stage. Walter and Hildy, while being
far too cool and sophisticated (too English) to spell it out, have cottoned
to the notion that the high fun in life and love is in the wooing. Marriage
is so dull: you will have noted how seldom Hollywood actually covered
it, then and now. So Walter and Hildy play the dangerous game of breaking
up, so that they can find each other again and fall in love. Falling,
you see, is the rapture and the rush that Hollywood believed in.
No point is more acute in arguing this case than the sheer, amiable impossibility
of Ralph Bellamy as the new husband. Indeed, Bellamy had taken a similarly
forlorn role in The Awful Truth, and Bruce is dismissed (crushed
even) by Walter early in this movie because he looks like that chap in
the movies, Ralph Bellamy. Does DiBattista really credit that Hildy has
fallen in love with this stiff? (The whole idea that a man decent, upright,
and not ugly should be a stiff, out of his class, a no-hoper, is very
English.) For the very reasons that DiBattista likes Hildy her smarts,
her quickness, her talk, her life it is plain that she could not endure
the placid Bruce. She has found him, the type of types, to set the game
in motion, the way you pick up a ball. And like a ball Bruce is to be
batted around by expert players. Hildy surely knows this. Why else does
she go the office at the eleventh hour to introduce him? A woman intent
on a new life wouldn't do that.
But films are not life and not quite art (though these come closer than
Hollywood ever managed). They are, I believe, a kind of rule book for
Hollywood aristocracy, one dominated by lecherous, manipulative men, so
often divorced that they were spurred on to find some justification. So
"the comedies of re-marriage" may serve as their fig leaf, but the term
should not mask the full genius and rascal superiority of those adorable
movies. Like croquet, fast talk and good talk are killer sports that
have gone out of fashion.
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