BOOK REVIEW / Drudges in nice dresses: A woman's view: How Hollywood Spoke to Women 1930-1960 by Jeanine Basinger: Chatto, pounds 14.99

HOW Hollywood spoke to women in its heyday, according to American film historian Jeanine Basinger, is through a muddled discourse which covertly subverted conventional female roles while appearing to reinforce them. This is a beguiling but ultimately unprovable proposition, for virtually every Hollywood movie that Basinger discusses is open to several contradictory interpretations.

Her definition of a women's film is one which places at the centre of its universe 'a female who is trying to deal with the emotional, social, and psychological problems that are specifically connected to the fact that she is a woman'. This excludes most westerns, say, but is elastic enough to include thrillers like Double Indemnity. But the quintessential women's film for Basinger is Now, Voyager - so much so that a still of Bette Davis clutching a handkerchief as Charlotte Vale appears on both front and back covers of A Woman's View. The film makes a 'powerful, if subversive statement', Basinger argues, because it is the story of 'a strong woman who, having survived and defeated a destructive mother, successfully goes on to live her own life the way she herself chooses'.

There is an alternative and equally plausible way of looking at Now, Voyager. It can be seen as a hymn to the transformative power of a male authority figure - Bette Davis's transformation from downtrodden daughter to glamorous globetrotter is entirely the work of one of the world's 'foremost psychiatrists', played by Claude Rains. The film also - and very mawkishly - bestows iconic status on the notion of female altruism, for Davis ultimately gives up the married man she loves, settling instead for friendship and a role as surrogate mother to his daughter.

Davis winds up with a dead mother, no sex life, and one of the most ridiculous lines in film history: 'Don't let's ask for the moon,' she tells her lover Paul Henreid, 'when we have the stars.' It has never been obvious to me that either type of celestial object is more desirable than the other, and the 'overt repression' Basinger identifies as central to the women's film seems to me far more obviously present in Now, Voyager than the 'covert liberation' she would like to discern in this and many other women's movies.

What is most difficult for us to know, and therefore what Basinger scarcely addresses, is what contemporary female viewers made of these films. Did they stream out of the cinemas feeling empowered by Davis's refusal to marry a man she didn't love, and admiring of her decision to settle for celibacy rather than the drudgery of married life as they themselves knew it? Or did they take away the message that a woman's role must inevitably involve sacrifice of one sort or another, and that the only difference between themselves and Bette Davis was that the latter wore nicer dresses?

In the absence of such knowledge, Basinger's book argues its case through lengthy analyses of hundreds of old movies. She discusses what they appear to be saying about men, marriage, work and motherhood; she is funny and opinionated, writing less like an academic - she is Professor of Film Studies at Wesleyan University - than as ardent and knowledgeable fan. 'When one thinks of fashion and glamour,' she writes magisterially at one point, 'Kay Francis should be the standard by which eveything else is measured.'

Her most interesting insights frequently arise from discussions of remakes, in which the same story is retold in ways that are significantly altered to accommodate changing public attitudes. What Price Hollywood? (1932), a glittering fantasy starring Constance Bennett as a waitress who becomes a movie star, evolved into a tragic vehicle for Judy Garland in 1954, when it resurfaced as A Star is Born; Basinger suggests that the later film reflects growing cynicism about Hollywood and its capacity to deliver such rags-to-riches transformations.

Yet for all the jauntiness of Basinger's style, A Woman's View eventually sinks under the sheer weight of its plot summaries. Page after page is given over to mechanical descriptions of films along the lines of 'in Paris, Stanwyck works, doing a good job. When Brent arrives there some time later, he notices her and soon is romancing her'. There is so much of this stuff that all the films begin to blur into one long, preposterous sequence in which Ginger Rogers, Marlene Dietrich, Joan Fontaine and Bette Davis quarrel, become opera stars, murder their husbands, run away to join the circus and rescue infants from blazing houses. Some of Basinger's best points inevitably get lost along the way, turning what could have been an engaging short essay into a daunting cinematic marathon.

(Photograph omitted)

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