Female (1933) Directed by Michael Curtiz, William Wellman and William Dieterle. Ruth Chatterton, George Brent, Lois Wilson (60 min).
Alison Drake has been running her father’s automobile factory since his death, ruthlessly making business decisions and sexually harassing her male employees. Will the new hire, a dishy engineer, make her realize she ought to mend her #himtoo ways? Chatterton had been a Broadway star since 1912, and made her name in “weepies” in which women sacrifice endlessly for their men–she was Oscar nominated twice for it. A woman of a certain age (OK, 40) she sparks off her real-life, 12 years younger husband, Brent, as they duel over who will wear the trousers at Drake Motors. Is the ending a maddening cop-out, or thrillingly subversive? You decide.
Ruth Chatterton was born in 1893 in New York City. After her parents separated, her mother was destitute, and at 14, while visiting an aunt in Washington D. C., Ruth got a job in the chorus for $5.00 a week. She worked her way up through regional stock companies, and by 1912, she was on Broadway, where she became a huge star two years later in the play Daddy Long Legs. She called it dismissively “a sweety part in a sweety play” (Shingler 141) and told the interviewer she would rather be an actress than a star. As she continued her stage career, she became an avatar of sophistication, her cultured voice, her chic and her confidence distinguished her from many of her contemporaries.
Here is a portrait of Ruth Chatterton in her Broadway days. I’m guessing this is from the late ‘teens. Very much in the style of Baron de Meyer.
The movies were interested, but at first would not meet her salary demands. With the dawn of the talkies, Broadway was raided for new talent who had a “voice.” She made her screen debut in 1928, opposite Emil Jannings, who had won the first Oscar for Best Actor. In 1931 she told an interviewer, “I have been fortunate in many things. In Henry Miller, I believe I had the finest director the stage has known. In Jannings, I had the finest actor the screen has known. Both wanted to help me, because they saw I wanted to help myself. Jannings figuratively led me by the hand through the kindergarten of my new schooling. How can one fail, when others give such help, and have such faith?” (FIR 9).
Of course, one of the prized attributes of the new talkie actors was their “mid-Atlantic accent” halfway between American and British, that to our ears sounds terribly affected. Born in Harlem, she doubtless altered her natural speech to master this accent. The first talkies were quite stiff, as it was believed that people needed to speak slowly and clearly to be understood, and this accent was considered classy.
Fan magazine photo. Prop cat or pet cat?
Many people remained convinced that sound films were a crude replacement for the eloquent visual storytelling of the silent screen. As one of the early recruits to talkies, she defended them in 1930, “The best talking pictures combine the fine techniques of the silent with skillful use of the spoken word—to great effect and usually big success. There is no reason the beauty occasionally realized in silent pictures can’t return” (FIR 10).
Her first Oscar nomination was in 1929 for Madame X, a classic tear jerker in which a woman leaves her husband and child for her lover, and, reaping the wages of sin, eventually commits a murder. She is defended by her son, now an attorney, who is unaware of her identity. She was nominated the following year for Sarah and Son, where she played an opera singer searching for her lost child. She was considered to be “The First Lady of the Screen.” She came to Warner Brothers in 1932 with a salary of $8,000 a week, and the right to choose her own material, as a popular and prestigious star. She divorced her first husband, actor Ralph Forbes, and the day after her decree became final, married George Brent, causing a bit of a scandal. They were only married for two years, but of the six films she did at Warners, four co-starred Brent.
Her career began to wane in 1935, as she was certainly the oldest leading lady in Hollywood. She bought an airplane, became one of the few female licensed pilots and flew cross country several times. She was a good friend of Amelia Earhart and sponsored a cross country air race under her name. But, her last American picture is considered her finest role, in Dodsworth, as the restless wife of Walter Houston in the film version of Sinclair Lewis’ novel. She returned to the stage, married again, and began writing novels, and worked on radio and tv until her death in 1962.
George Brent was born George Nolan in County Galway, Ireland in 1904. He studied at the University of Dublin, but left to become a courier for the Irish Republican Army from 1919-1922. Although he was already acting with the famous Abbey Theatre Players of he supposedly left Ireland hastily with a price on his head for his revolutionary activities. He arrived in the US toured with Abie’s Irish Rose, acted in stock and on Broadway before making a Hollywood debut. He signed with Warner Brothers in 1932 and remained there for ten years. He was Bette Davis’ most frequent co-star, and in spite of his five marriages (Chatterton was his second) had an affair with her, as well.
The page from Hilda Price’s scrapbook reads: George Brent–Fugitive from Ireland. From Dublin, Ireland. comes the adventuring George Brent. He had hardly begun a stage career in the old country when the Irish revolution flamed into being, and George served as dispatch bearer. The British were constantly on his trail because of his value to the Irish cause. If he were captured, it meant time in an English prison. So, when things began to get too hot for him he made his way to America. There the interrupted career began again. George makes his screen bow with Ruth Chatterton in The Rich Are Always With Us.
Hilda Price must have really liked The Rich Are Always With Us. She has several pictures each of Chatterton and Brent, and a full page ad for the film. The caption for this photograph reads: Ruth Chatterton is anxiously waiting to see how the public will react to her first Warner picture, “The Rich Are Always With Us.” She is now in daily conference with writers discussing her next story. As yet it has hardly a theme, much less a title. During the production fo her first Warner picture, Ruth lived constantly in her studio bungalow. Although she had a reputation for temperament at Paramount, the Warner crowd says she is grand. She recently directed husband Forbes in a stage play he’s producing called “Let Us Divorce.” NB: I think this last is a reference to the fact they were actaully divorcing.
When I was a kid growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, there was a station that showed old Warner Brothers movies in a package. The Busby Berkeley films were included, but none of the other Pre-Codes, which were not available, because even in the 1960s and 70s, they were still too hot for tv. It wasn’t until places like Film Forum in New York started screening Pre-Code series in the 1990s that these films reappeared. This happened because the Library of Congress has the negatives to every film made at Warner Brothers before 1950, and Mike Mashon, the Head of the Moving Picture Branch loves Pre-Code films, and has made them available both to institutions that can show reel to reel 35mm, and to the studio, which has reissued them in crisp DVD form.
A film like Female still seems to break all the rules. Watching Alison take all the prerogatives of a man, really almost ninety years ago(!!) is still thrilling. Watching her role play a performative femininity until she hits precisely the right character to woo Jim is fascinating, and according to one author, a comic book version of the film stresses “how the character stages scenes of feminine ‘weakness’ to snare the auto design engineer played by George Brent” (Desjardins 38).
When I was a kid, I poured over The Movies by Richard Griffith. This photo was in the book on page 287 captioned: “Surrounded by her executives, tycoon Ruth Chatterton firmly makes a world-shaking decision. As potent a day-dream figure for women as the confession gals, Miss Chatterton played the self-made president of a giant corporation who refuses to marry because she does not want to share her power. Instead, she asks her male subordinates to come up and see her some time, only she always sets the time.”
Her nineteen costume changes were designed by Warner Brothers top designer, Orry-Kelly. Chatterton had arrived in Hollywood a big Broadway star with a strong sense of how she should present herself to the public. Although McConathy and Vreeland report “Irritated by Warner’s low budget for costumes, Chatterton usually supplied her own clothes, not so much because she fancied the snob appeal of New York and Paris designers, but because she depended on being seen in the most flattering way” McConathy and Vreeland 122). In a more recent book, this story is contradicted. Orry-Kelly’s first assignment at Warners was in 1932 for Chatterton in The Rich Are Always With Us. “The producer and cinematographer both worried that the wardrobe that the organza-and ruffle-loving Chatterton would be bringing from New York would be wrong for her character. Chatterton surprised both men when she arrived for her wardrobe tests sporting smart clothes that made her look both younger and thinner on camera. They wondered where she had purchased her new wardrobe. ‘Mr. Orry-Kelly, the new designer in wardrobe, made them especially for me,’ Chatterton answered” (Jorgensen and Scoggins 169). How are we to know? But, they look like Orry-Kelly to me.
This outfit is totally Orry-Kelly. He loved plaid in the early 1930s.
Here are the more girlish ruffles Chatterton was said to favor.
There were three directors on this film, William Dieterle began it, and when he became ill, he was replaced with William Wellman, who directs some of my favorite Pre-Codes. Re-takes of scenes with Johnny Mack Brown (as Cooper) were shot by Michael Curtiz, who ended up with final screen credit. Brown was an All-American halfback at the University of Alabama, who signed a contract with MGM in 1926. He wasn’t much of an actor, and quickly slid from “A” productions to “B” Westerns, where he spent most of his career.
On the left is director William Wellman, with Brent and Chatterton in another film, Lily Taylor.
The exteriors of Alison’s house are of Ennis House, a Mayan Revival home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1924. Constructed of interlocking, patterned concrete blocks, Ennis House is built on top of a hill in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles. It’s been in the movies more than 80 times, but Female is the first appearance. You may recognize it from other films, including the 1959 House on Haunted Hill, Mulholland Drive, and Blade Runner. On tv’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it’s “The Mansion” where Angelus, Spike and Drusilla live. Not currently open to the public after earthquake and storm damage, the house is owned by billionaire Ron Burkle, a venture capitalist, but it’s for sale (and has been for almost a year) for $23 million.
Here is a tour of the house: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CJF5JAekN6A
The new hire at the censor board, Dr. James Wingate, had a strong objection to Female’s script. He wrote, “It is made very plain that she has been in the habit of sustaining her freedom from marriage and at the same time satisfying a too definitely indicated sex hunger” (LaSalle 118). Warner Brothers made a note, but did nothing to change the script.
According to Vito Russo in The Celluloid Closet, the year 1933 had the most allusions to homosexuality in films until after the Code was dismantled in the late 1960s. “The fact that most early movie sissies were homosexual only if one chose to see them as being homosexual was simply a reflection of the fact that the existence of homosexuals in society was acknowledged only when society chose to do so.” Which means, you can decide to interpret these characters and situations as gay or not.
Alison’s fussy personal secretary is played by Ferdinand Gottschalk. He was born in 1858! That’s 161 years ago! Before the Civil War! He was a stage actor who was in films from 1917 to 1938. Unlike some actors, he did not always play characters who might be coded as gay. Gavin Gordon has the small part of Briggs. He was hand-picked by Greta Garbo to be her lover in the dreadful Romance, but his performance was such a disaster that he was quickly demoted to supporting roles. He was gay, and reportedly the long-time companion of character actor Edward Everett Horton, who specialized in the fluttery best friend on-screen (William J. Mann, the definitive chronicler of gay Hollywood says Gordon’s name is not mentioned in any of Horton’s correspondence, though). Most notable is the character played by Phillip Reed, Freddie Claybourne, who, to modern eyes, is clearly rejected as a conquest by the heroine for his sexual orientation.
Chatterton, Gottschalk, Gordon
The social engineering of Hollywood films usually demand that women be taught that marriage, children and home are to be their true vocation, and Female appears to be capitulating. Yet, is there any other film, from any era, in which a woman is the CEO of an automobile company? Danny on Pre-Code.com urges us to check the signage at the fair towards the end, in an attempt to resolve the ending. Kathryn Scola collaborated with Gene Markey (a man) on the screenplay, as they had on Baby Face. I can’t speak to the content of the novel by Donald Henderson Clarke, since it is only available in a first edition for $150.00.
Carina Chocano references Molly Haskell’s landmark 1974 From Reverence to Rape, “’We can for example, deplore the fact that in every movie where a woman excelled as a professional she had to be brought to heel in them, but only as long as we acknowledge the corollary: that at least women worked in the films of the 30s and 40s. Not only that, but even if their stories ended in tears, we remembered them for their grit, their intelligence, their courage, and their intermediate victories. We remembered them for being heroes and badasses” (Chocano 66).
“Ruth Chatterton” by Chauncey L. Carr in January 1962 Films in Review, The Great Movie Stars by David Shipman, http://pre-code.com/female-1933/ , https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0107575/ http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/person/21881%7C58299/George-Brent/ , Complicated Women by Mick LaSalle, “Not of Hollywood” by Mary Desjardins in “Glamour in a Golden Age” edited by Adrienne L. McLean, A Woman’s View by Jeanine Basinger, Sin in Soft Focus by Mick Lasalle, When Warners Brought Broadway to Hollywood 1923-1939 by Martin Shingler, You Play the Girl by Carina Chocano, The Movies by Richard Griffith, The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies by Vito Russo, Behind the Screen: How Gays and Lesbians Shaped Hollywood 1919-1969 by William J. Mann, Forbidden Hollywood: When Sin Ruled the Movies by Mark A. Viera, Hollywood Costume Design by David Chierichetti, Hollywood Costume: Glamour! Glitter! Romance! By Dale McConathy and Diana Vreeland, Creating the Illusion by Jay Jorgensen and Donald L. Scoggins.