It's a gal thing...

They were tough-talking, go-getting, no-nonsense women. But most importantly, they were real. The Thirties and Forties were the golden age for females on film, says David Thomson, but why has it been downhill from there? And can the movies be blamed for making us more promiscuous?
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The Independent Culture

Isn't it perfect that a movie should be called The Women? Indeed, it's one of those great archetypal titles that describe the movies as a whole and not just one particular story. I can think of other titles like that - They Live by Night, I Saw What You Did, or (to invent one, but which encapsulated my first feelings about going to the movies) Are You Brave Enough to Go Into the Dark and Look at Ladies? In another way, that whole wondering is a critical commentary on great films like Vertigo, Blue Velvet and Celine and Julie Go Boating. Of course, I write as a man, and I know that all these huge statements can be flipped around to suit either sex. But deep down I have this feeling that the movies came to men and women at a certain moment in history as a gift or a mercy - as a way of helping us handle the great fear of sex. It may even be that the movies began to die as we got the idea that we were hip with sex.

Isn't it perfect that a movie should be called The Women? Indeed, it's one of those great archetypal titles that describe the movies as a whole and not just one particular story. I can think of other titles like that - They Live by Night, I Saw What You Did, or (to invent one, but which encapsulated my first feelings about going to the movies) Are You Brave Enough to Go Into the Dark and Look at Ladies? In another way, that whole wondering is a critical commentary on great films like Vertigo, Blue Velvet and Celine and Julie Go Boating. Of course, I write as a man, and I know that all these huge statements can be flipped around to suit either sex. But deep down I have this feeling that the movies came to men and women at a certain moment in history as a gift or a mercy - as a way of helping us handle the great fear of sex. It may even be that the movies began to die as we got the idea that we were hip with sex.

But back to The Women. Made in 1939 and now being revived (with a remake in the pipeline), it's a very enjoyable film, even if 1939 provided intense competition. Years ahead of its time, and a great deal in advance in wit, speed and true feeling, it's a bit like a premonition of The First Wives Club (1996). In other words, it's a movie about the unofficial club for bruised but sophisticated ladies in which all men are revealed as snakes and heels - but essential.

The 1939 movie was written by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin (top-of-the-line screenwriters) and adapted from the Broadway play by Clare Boothe. Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times didn't much like the play: he flinched from the stinging portrait of "some of the most odious harpies ever collected in one play". What he may have meant to say was that it was an all-female cast. No matter, the show ran 657 performances in 1936-7. The movie is pretty faithful to the play (though MGM, thinking their title dictated their audience, put a fashion show into the movie just to keep the girls happy and give them a break from the fast dialogue).

The gist of the story is that bitchy Rosalind Russell persuades the sweet and good (but boring) Norma Shearer to change manicurist because that betrayer (Joan Crawford) is having an affair with Norma's husband. It then involves a trip to Reno - the divorce capital of America since 1931 when the pioneering state of Nevada cut the residence qualification for divorce. The movie turned out to be a reunion for people who might have been in Gone With the Wind: not just stars Crawford, Shearer, Paulette Goddard and Joan Fontaine, but director George Cukor, who had been lined up for the Civil War epic. He had tested many Scarletts - including Vivien Leigh - but had gone stale on the film's romantic scenes and given Clark Gable the impression that he favoured Leigh (because Cukor was known as a "women's director" - code for being gay).

And, as I say, The Women is a pleasant, sharp movie - but midway through those rich eras, the Thirties and the Forties, it has so much competition in the matter of handling women well. After all, how are women to get their just desserts on screen if the men in the story are only on the phone, or the steady subject of women's talk? The great thing about the movies of that age was that sometimes, as the women talked, the snakes that were men took an elegant, fast-talk licking. And sometimes - best of all - the men and women just talked to each other, like natural human beings, and grown-ups.

You are no doubt asking, "What is a grown up?" It has nothing to do with size or years. No, a grown-up is a human being who can think, feel and talk for himself or herself, and who - more or less - takes responsibility for his or her actions. I know you're going to think this is crazy, but once upon a time there were such people in pictures.

Yes, I am being facetious, but I have a very serious point to make about our movies. Whether or not we like this phenomenon, early in the 20th century, it became clear that the movies were a medium of indirect education, maybe all the more persuasive because they gave so little evident air of didactic purpose. We learn our history from movies, and history suffers, nowhere more plainly than in the "legend" of the American West. The allegedly great director of Westerns, John Ford, once said, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." But that is so damning (and its damage in the US has been so great) that one marvels at the tolerance still given by some to Ford.

Similarly, the movies made an extraordinary "educational" impact on our sense of women (and men, of course), sex and love. To take just one example: the incidence of divorce increased dramatically in the age of movies. There are non-movie causes for that, of course, but don't forget the publicised way famous movie people did get divorced; or the habit in screen stories to encourage the notion that if you had a true love in the world it need not be the first person you met; and finally, the voyeurism and promiscuity indulged by the movies themselves - in that week after week we came back to our place in the dark and adored and desired a different man or woman. Or both - there's a theory that the movies quietly fostered a gay sensibility, and it's true that many classic movies have a fertile gay sub-text.

In the first decades of cinema history, the businessmen and even the artists were a little slow to see just how far the mechanics of film had made ordinary human beauty not just iconic but erotic. In other words, I don't think anyone understood immediately just how sexy the movies were.

But as the feeling dawned so pretty girls were named and hired and put on our screens week after week. In that process, the female soul was radically divided: there were the virgins, the very good girls - as typified by Lillian Gish, and to a rather cheekier degree by Mary Pickford. These women were models for human behaviour, even if they were already a little antiquated. For instance, D W Griffith was still honouring Gish's saintly woman as the First World War and its aftermath introduced the "jazz baby", the flapper, the "wild kid" - the kind of woman best celebrated by the fabulous Clara Bow and the young Gloria Swanson. And then there was the bad girl, the femme fatale, the temptress. That is a tradition that includes Theda Bara - the enchantress women in Cecil B De Mille films - and even Louise Brooks - though Brooks was too candid and carnal for American tastes and only found full expression in Germany, in G W Pabst's Pandora's Box.

It's notable in as great a film - and as late a silent film - as Sunrise (1927), that the demarcation between the sweet wife, a country girl (played by Janet Gaynor) and the brazen, seductive city woman (Margaret Livingston) still obtains, without a hint of irony or doubt. That the screen still insisted on good and bad women was one of the things that made film so dubious as an art, and which compared terribly with the complex heroine figures in Henry James, Edith Wharton and even F Scott Fitzgerald. Once upon a time, a select few might have read The Portrait of a Lady or The House of Mirth or even The Great Gatsby with a view to developing a fuller understanding of love, moral commitment and social responsibility. But people were watching Swanson, Bow and Garbo and learning how to wear make-up and clothes, how to kiss and smoke and how to make eyes at boys. Of course, it all made formal education - the thing that happens in classrooms - that much harder.

The miracle of sound was to make a kind of marriage of Edith Wharton and how to make eyes at boys in the mind and lifestyle of the modern woman. That's a rather glib way of putting it perhaps, and I don't mean to say that there weren't movies that continued to portray women as uncomplaining drudges and obedient brides - uncritical loyalists to dumb men, and worse. And that's largely because so many movies were made by or dictated by men who wanted their fantasies and their privileged lifestyle protected.

Nor is it the case that the idealising and idolising photography of women was diminished in the Thirties and Forties. Indeed, that is the age that we now associate with erotic glamour: it is the period in which Marlene Dietrich was a shimmering flame in the films she made with Josef von Sternberg (The Blue Angel, Morocco, The Scarlet Empress, The Devil is a Woman), the young Lauren Bacall became famous as the ridiculously sultry and insolent girl, leaning in the shadowy doorways of Howard Hawks' dreams, and Rita Hayworth was something the boys in the Pacific jungles might be ready to die for. The movies - you can argue - have never looked better.

But you have only to take those three examples to show a new attitude emerging. Josef von Sternberg, who discovered and then bedded Dietrich in the classical way of the film director, was also an artist, filled with a pained, delicious irony. He actually wanted to make films in which women made fools of men. And thus his films with Dietrich celebrate her - they love her, it's fair to say - yet they also signal an awareness of her fickleness, her readiness to move on, her need to behave, as it were, like a man.

Equally, when Hawks found Bacall - and surely planned to enjoy her personally - he turned her into his ideal: a girl who acted old, tough and cynical; who wore smart but odd clothes; and who cracked jokes before the guy, Bogart, could open his mouth. That Bacall woman in To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep isn't exactly Jamesian, but she was a terrific encouragement to American women in the Forties, and a proof that women could think and talk - the kinds of behaviour that are most destructive to bombastic male self-sufficiency.

Rita Hayworth started out in life as the tool of a domineering father and an older husband. She was pursued by studio boss, Harry Cohn, and she married badly - to people like Orson Welles, Aly Khan and Dick Haymes. But in a few years she'd moved from being a sweet pin-up and the most fluid partner Fred Astaire ever had to Gilda, in which the woman is so much more honest and intelligent than the men in her life.

And still we haven't touched upon the real glory of women in the movies - the romantic and screwball comedies of the Thirties and Forties. You can propose that these movies drew upon an exceptional generation of actresses who could talk as well as they looked - and surely we miss Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Carole Lombard, Claudette Colbert, Irene Dunne, Barbara Stanwyck and Jean Harlow. You can credit the pictures to a quite exceptional group of urbane, witty and tender directors - Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, Howard Hawks, Mitchell Leisen, Leo McCarey, Gregory La Cava, Frank Capra, George Cukor. You can even point to a generation of writers who could make dialogue idiomatic and moral, funny and serious at the same time - Jules Furthman, Ben Hecht, Sidney Buchman, Donald Ogden Stewart, Samson Raphaelson, Robert Riskin, Sturges again, Billy Wilder. You have to leave space for the superb males who partnered these women, who joined in the witty slanging matches with zest - Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Fred MacMurray, Jimmy Stewart, Fredric March, Henry Fonda.

I would happily add to the party the brilliance of certain designers, costumiers and photographers - for this was a group effort. And don't forget the audience. In the Thirties and Forties, more of the smartest people went to the movies than before or since. That is no small matter, for a medium is always a reflection of its audience. And the Forties is the last age in which mainstream films were made for adults, and in which the intricacies of plot held pressing questions on how to live. It is also the period (well in advance of the famous breakthrough of feminism in the Sixties and Seventies) in which women looked and sounded at their best on American screens. That doesn't mean they were superwomen, as unreal in their triumph as many male heroes. No, I'm thinking of women who behaved naturally, who thought and felt, and who were swell company.

As time goes by, it's clearer that that age and genre are the real treasury of Hollywood cinema. And notice, please, I'm not counting the famous women's movies, in which women were victims of one kind or another, pictures made for self-pity and melancholy. I'm talking about films where it seems good to be alive, where banter and flirtation are as music, where women were chumps and champs, and sometimes in the same movie (as witness Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story).

The list of worthy pictures is too long for this space, but try these some winter night and realise how far modern movies have slipped back. (Women are icons still, and victims. But how seldom they talk.) So take a look at Margaret Sullavan in The Shop Around the Corner; at Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey; at Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve; at Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night; at Katharine Hepburn in Holiday; at Bette Davis in The Letter; at Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth; at Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday; at Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce.

What happened? Well, I think one vital thing was a loss of courage or character in America itself - a loss that has become catastrophic and which can be seen throughout American art and politics. And it's strange that feminism has come, and endured, yet scarcely affected our movies or our literature.

In truth, there is still no equal rights amendment and in America women still get paid 76 cents on the dollar. On the other hand, women do have more opportunity. But there are American films where women are still no more than pin-ups, stooges and consolation for men.

Let me end with this example. One of the great American directors of the Sixties and Seventies was Sam Peckinpah, though he was a throwback to a world of male supremacy. His greatest film, to my mind, is Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, a movie in which women hardly feature except for one scene where Pat Garrett (James Coburn) trysts with three obliging and largely silent prostitutes. It is a sexy, funny scene and I'm not saying it's out of place in that movie.

But Peckinpah filmed another scene, where Garrett goes home to his wife (a Mexican woman), only to get such a deserved and thorough tongue-lashing from her that he creeps away, neglecting even his dinner. It is scathing, memorable and very important as a corrective to the male dream that dominates the rest of the film. I love the encounter. But it is not in the movie - I have it in a video that came from the film's editor. It is a domestic sidelight that Peckinpah himself omitted. And it is just one scene that reminds us how far in supposedly modern and more equal times women still don't have a voice. For it is that voice, and the presentation of attitude, that means so much more to how we live than vaunted sex appeal and dress sense.

'The Women' is re-released on Friday as part of the George Cukor season at the NFT, London SE1 (020 7928 3232), running to 30 November

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