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The New Republic Online
Thursday, September 20th, 2001


 

Fast-Talking Dames

by Maria Dibattista

Voices Carry

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 Shandy.

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 the meantime).

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 and arguments.

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 Via 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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