Outfits to die for

Gabriele Annan

  • A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women 1930-60 by Jeanine Basinger
    Chatto, 528 pp, £14.99, January 1994, ISBN 0 7011 6093 4

You could call this a post-feminist work – ‘post’ even the new-wave feminism-with-a-smile of writers like Naomi Wolf. Jeanine Basinger seems out not so much to deconstruct Hollywood as to defuse the horror myth of its patriarchal Weltanschauung. The patriarchalism is there all right, but riddled with subversion. Her attitude is most clearly seen when she deals with Shirley Temple. Temple films are women’s films according to Basinger’s completely acceptable definition of the genre: films where the woman – in this case Temple – ‘is always the centre of the universe ... and her concerns are always related to love, family, choices, and all the other usual things’. Basinger starts off with a run-through of some of Temple’s more thought-provoking sequences:

In Our Little Girl (1935) she says, ‘Maybe if I growed like a weed I could marry Daddy.’ In Captain January (1936) there is a fantasy scene in which Temple sings a love song to a man while he is dressed in baby clothes. She is dressed as a nurse and feeding him with a gigantic baby bottle and a huge dish of cod liver oil ... in Poor Little Rich Girl (1936) ... Temple actually sings to her daddy: ‘In every dream I caress you, Marry me and let me be your wife.’

Basinger’s conclusion, though, is not what one might expect:

Poor Shirley Temple! Much gets made over these smarmy scenes, and much has been made over her sexy little body, her pouty mouth, her flirtatious ways. No less an authority than Graham Greene pointed out, after seeing Captain January, that she had an appeal ‘interestingly decadent’. All of this infuriates the grown-up Temple, and who can blame her? All she really did was tap her guts out in a series of well-made, unpretentious and entertaining little films designed to lift a Depression audience out of its worries. These sinister interpretations of her work reflect changing times and changing awareness. What they boil down to is more screenwriting than incest, more plot development than child abuse.

This passage sounds as though it was lifted from the Sunday Telegraph. But it is followed by a piece of feminist orthodoxy: ‘When Temple flirts and waits on her daddy and does anything he wants, it looks like what it is: a weird form of slavery. When a daddy lavishes everything on Temple because he finds her cute and adorable and likes looking at her, it’s impossible not to notice that he’s reducing her to an object.’ so which Temple has the Toni? Are we to believe the intention or the subtext? Basinger’s sensible answer is: both. ‘Can anyone really presume to claim that women’s films can be seen in one way and one way only?’

The overt message in women’s films is that a woman’s destiny is love, and that she must sacrifice her own desires and interests to those of her man and her children. A career can be an escape from a bad man (who could be a father as well as a lover or husband) or from want; it can give independence and riches, but it is not as satisfying, let alone as virtuous, as love, and should not be embarked on for its own sake. Until the Sixties a career was OK only if it was chosen from necessity because a woman’s man had let her down: a standard occurrence in women’s films – the consequence of desertion, drink, incompetence or death, which is just another form of desertion. The other path to independence and riches was being a bad woman – manipulative, even criminal, or else promiscuous or a combination of all three. On the other hand, the career woman and the bad woman were shown in luxurious surroundings and – more potently still – in fabulous clothes. So, as the blurb explains, there is ‘a second, subversive message. “Bad” women may get their comeuppance in the final scenes, but the bulk of the film shows them enjoying careers, sex, mink and jewels.’ Basinger points out the amazing importance of fashion in these films: actresses had to wear a different costume for every scene, and in stills and fanzines they were shown, not in mere clothes, but in lavishly accessorised outfits to die for. Glamour was a release from humdrum existence.

The woman’s film ‘worked out of paradox. It both held women in social bondage and released them into a dream of potency and freedom. It drew women in with images of what was lacking in their own lives and sent them home reassured that their own lives were the right thing after all.’ Besides, women’s films showed women to be superior to men, with more intuition, more feeling, more nous (men never know what’s really going on so they are easy to trick), and a greater readiness for self-sacrifice. Of course men sacrifice themselves too, and they get to do it with panache, their sacrifice crowned either with success or by a hero’s death. Noble women, on the other hand, are ‘presented as slogging on ... and on and on’.

No wonder women get angry, but the movies provide a release for anger too. Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell are the twin goddesses of anger, one tragic, the other comic. Film by film, Crawford’s anger turns in on itself until she grows into an icon of masochism; whereas Russell progresses from merry mockery of men to chronic sneering and physical knock-about. At this point the film characters and the actresses begin to merge, at least in the audience’s mind. One of the most enjoyable chapters in Basinger’s book, ‘The Stars Who Play Her’, posits three categories of star: unreal women, real women and exaggerated women. Unreal women are beautiful beyond the ordinary, not supposed to be role models, and appeal chiefly to men. Garbo and Lamarr are in this category, and sex objects like Monroe and Hayworth. Real women are not too beautiful, and range from sweet girls next door to more feisty types like Ginger Rogers and Jean Arthur, Myrna Loy, June Allyson and Jeanne Crain belong here, and their purpose is to reassure the women in the audience and reaffirm the goals of society. Exaggerated women is the category with the biggest stars: ‘ferocious women like Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck and Katharine Hepburn’, on the one hand, and, on the other, excessively noble women like Loretta Young and Greer Garson. Garson was preceded by Norma Shearer and followed Deborah Kerr – ‘and lest anyone think we have left such female characters behind in the liberated Eighties and Nineties, consider Meryl Steep.’ Well, there is bound to be disagreement about some of these placings, but categories are a game, after all, and Basinger is very inventive at it.

She presents, for example, the category of the ‘asexual male’, an essential player in many scenarios who exists to give support and advice. Paul Henreid in Casablanca is a good general example, but, in addition to older relations and colleagues, there are specialised subcategories like lawyers, doctors, psychiatrists and impresarios (see if you can think of at least five of each). Categories are not just for people. Genres and standard sequences can be fitted into them, like ‘climbing films’ about social ascent, and ‘happy interludes’ which add poignancy in tragic films. They may show the woman profile to profile with her man speeding through sunny seas on a yacht, but more typically they will both be in a cosy kitchen frying up a dream image of the life they’ll never lead together.

Basinger’s stills are cunningly chosen, and if one feels a bit sad they aren’t bigger and glossier, that is a frivolous response to what is, after all, an academic work. Basinger enlivens it with her wit and comical insight; with delectable chunks of quoted dialogue; and with flashbacks to her own precocious movie-going childhood in South Dakota. At the age of eight she wondered why Mildred Pierce didn’t get herself a better boyfriend. ‘Even as children, we knew how much of what we were seeing was untrue, wishful, escapist. What were we – idiots? I am always astonished at how much writing about old movies assumes that the audience believed everything in them.’ My own youthful enthusiasm for movies was dampened (though not much) by compulsory visits to an old aunt who insisted on relating the plot of whatever had been on at the Notting Hill Coronet that week. Reading Basinger’s book at times brought back that ordeal. In order to support her arguments – and she is both argumentative and thorough – Basinger summarises the plots of an incredible number of movies (not blenching at B movies), and as I munched my way through summaries running sometimes to five or six pages, I recalled the boredom and mental confusion of those visits to W8. More important, however, is the fact that her book contains not a word of jargon, whether psychological, sociological or feminist. This in itself is a triumph. Basinger’s pace is bouncy and her idiom colloquial to sassy. There are lots of jokes, and some of them are very good.