Say thank you

Clive James

  • Fast-Talking Dames by Maria DiBattista
    Yale, 365 pp, £19.95, June 2001, ISBN 0 300 08815 9

A bit of a fast-talking dame herself, Maria DiBattista is justifiably excited by the characteristic flip lip of her prewar and wartime Hollywood heroines. In her mind, I imagine, she is of their number: Jean Harlow, Rosalind Russell, Irene Dunne, Barbara Stanwyck, Carole Lombard, Katharine Hepburn, Maria DiBattista. A professor of English and comparative literature at Princeton, and published by Yale, she is heaped with Ivy League credentials but laudably determined not to be stifled by them. Especially in its wide-ranging and sometimes over-informative notes (Charles Baudelaire? Oh, that Baudelaire) the book occasionally lapses into the tenure-seeking stodge of an academic thesis, as if its governing spirit emanated from the assembled professors in Ball of Fire. But mostly she keeps in mind how Barbara Stanwyck, in that same movie, perched on the edge of the desk and talked rings around the fuddy-duddies. She would rather sound like that. The bright students who attend her seminars are in luck. It must sound like lunch at the wits’ table in the studio commissary. This is the way feminism ought to be. DiBattista’s suggestion – potentially a revolutionary one – is that this is the way it once was: the whole of what we have come to know and value as female equality in recent times was prefigured on the popular screen before the end of World War Two. If she had followed up on some of the implications of this suggestion, she would have written an important book. Alas, she was talking too fast to hear herself think. Even so, Fast-Talking Dames could be the start of something big.

If her judgment had not been so good on the fine detail, she might have had a better chance of applying it to the big picture. But the fine detail was too fascinating to leave alone. Those perfect mouths with the epigrams coming out as neatly as the lipstick went on: how to step back from all that? Best not to try. DiBattista does not do very much quoting from the scripts, perhaps for copyright reasons. She is no better than anybody else at paraphrasing a funny exchange of dialogue: a funny exchange of dialogue is already a paraphrase, and never benefits from being retailed at second hand. But she can tell which of the dames could really talk the talk. Myrna Loy gets high marks, and not just for the Thin Man movies. There are no prizes for spotting that she was good in those. But DiBattista can see that Loy was already good in her supporting role as the narcoleptic man-eater in Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight in 1932. Ginger Rogers is rightly praised for Roxie Hart, Carole Lombard for Twentieth Century, Irene Dunne for The Awful Truth, Rosalind Russell for His Girl Friday. Apart from these recognised talents, which even a dullard can assess correctly just by agreeing with everybody else, there are unrecognised talents whose worth she is able to weigh at a glance. With Marion Davies a glance is all you get. Nowadays her movies are hard to find, but DiBattista has seen enough of William Randolph Hearst’s mistress working at her other job to reach the proper conclusion: she had a disarming gift for delivering a line. Just the gift, in fact, that Marilyn Monroe didn’t have. All the blah about Monroe’s lighting up the screen is well enough justified, but she never lit it up with her handling of dialogue. Words made her nervous and she still makes us nervous for her by the way she says them. DiBattista can tell what Monroe couldn’t do because DiBattista can tell what Judy Holliday could do. When the movies sexed up and dumbed down in the 1950s, it was a nice question which was the bigger victim: Monroe, who had exactly what the studio bosses wanted, or Holliday, who had more. When the camera dollied in for Monroe’s butt-shot in Niagara, it was all over for Holliday, who also had a cute behind – cuter than Monroe’s, as it happened – but fatally persisted with the belief that her mouth, and its closely attendant brain, should be the centre of interest. You could say that the star of Born Yesterday was born before her time, but it is equally true, and much more interesting, to say that she was born after it.

The postwar transition from smart Hollywood to stupid Hollywood gets us into the area of all the socio-political implications DiBattista doesn’t deal with, or at any rate hasn’t yet dealt with for publication. The sooner she does, the better. Film history can do without a treatise on the subject: it is fun to see a library-card-carrying scholar getting swept away when she talks about screen comedy, but nowadays, to make your mark as a media critic, you have to write at least as well as they do in the medium you criticise, and whoever wrote Wag the Dog knows that ‘credence’ does not mean ‘credibility’, whereas DiBattista thinks it does. Feminism, however, has a missing chapter in its history, a glaring lacuna that distorts the whole account from the 1950s onwards. Within arm’s reach, our author has the material to fill the gap. Most of the 1960s feminists grew up when Doris Day was the fastest-talking dame on the screen. DiBattista has a refreshing admiration for Day’s technical accomplishments, which were indeed considerable, but there is no disguising the fact that the declension from His Girl Friday to Pillow Talk was precipitous on every scale except the financial. You can mine a whole seam of Postmodern irony in the consideration that Cary Grant and Rock Hudson were both faced with at least as tortuous a journey towards usurping the standard masculine gender pattern as their female opposite numbers, but what matters is that for the Doris Day character in Pillow Talk the ideal lay in domesticity, not in her job. She wanted to be part of a couple. In His Girl Friday Rosalind Russell wanted to be part of the action. And Pillow Talk was meant to be the height of sophistication. A more typical female role model of the conformist period was June Allyson, pouting loyally at home while James Stewart, camped out in the Mojave Desert, manfully concerned himself with the creation of the Strategic Air Command – a theme that took advantage of the B-36’s capacity to fill the Cinemascope screen. The letterbox format was less suited to June Allyson’s face, but she did her best. She not only pouted in Cinemascope, she lisped in four-track stereophonic sound, flooding the auditorium with an audiovisual guarantee that a woman’s kiss was a susurrating highway back to the womb. It wasn’t her fault, poor dear. Twenty years earlier she might have been trading poisoned darts with John Barrymore. But she and her sorority sisters were condemned to representing a girdled, uplifted world whose only edges were in the bones and stitching of their foundation garments. Faced with so much overwhelmingly off-putting evidence, the feminists, and especially the American ones, took it for granted that Hollywood was designedly engaged in proselytising for the stereotype of the aggressively submissive home-maker, all petticoats fully starched. What DiBattista now needs to tell us is why they never pointed out that in an earlier period Hollywood had been engaged in doing precisely the opposite.

One of the reasons might turn out to be that in the crucial postwar period the classic movies weren’t all that freely available, even on the late-night television reruns that the Americans collectively call the Late Show. Some of the classic movies were in danger of extinction. Reluctant as his Postmodern worshippers might be to credit it, Howard Hawks, for example, was regarded during his busy heyday as only one step up from a Poverty Row director, like Don Siegel in the next generation. Though I hardly realised it at the time – and I was there for every showing – the Howard Hawks retrospective season at the National Film Theatre in the early 1960s was a feat of rediscovery as well as organisation. The Cinémathèque in Paris played an important role, but the Museum of Modern Art in New York was the key venue for the preservation of Hollywood’s greatest period of achievement. Hollywood itself never was, and Peter Bogdanovich’s originality as a curator lay in his awareness that it never would be. (Until the prospect of sales to television saved the day, Hollywood’s instinctive homage to a great original film was not only to remake it, but to burn its negative.) The preservation of the American film industry’s richest stretch of poetry is a copybook instance of criticism and scholarship being at their best when they serve creativity without any ulterior motive. The whole era had to be dug up again, like Troy from beneath a sea of sand and the ruins of many lesser cities with the same name. But if a conspiracy theory is preferred, there is always the chance that the feminist cheerleaders, far from being unaware of the fact that Hollywood had once projected female equality, were aware of it but didn’t want to emphasise it, lest they kick a hole in the their own case, which depended on the supposed axiom that every man’s hand was raised against them. The prewar, wartime and immediate postwar films that promoted the ideal of female equality were male initiatives. Females participated, often gloriously: but the films that featured DiBattista’s beloved fast-talking dames were designed, manufactured and marketed by men.

How did that happen? Well, first of all, let there be no doubt that it was so. Apart from Mae West, who sometimes owned a share of her film properties and always took pride in writing the lines she spoke (DiBattista is correct to observe that she spoke them too slowly, but that was because West never quite grasped that the same audience is quicker on the uptake in a cinema than in a theatre), the fast-talking dames spoke the lines that were set down for them. On this point, DiBattista inadvertently proves that time given to Charles Baudelaire is time taken away from finding out how movies are made. There is no reason to be ashamed of that, and it is not necessarily a disqualifying fault even for a film critic. Pauline Kael developed a tremendous reputation without having very many clues about how films got put together. But even Kael was aware that actors don’t usually write their own dialogue. Sometimes they are so good at delivering it that you would swear they are making it up, but they aren’t. (As Lord Bragg once found to his discomfort, it is very dangerous to assume that Gene Hackman can be interviewed for an hour of airtime on the assumption that the actual chap is the same fluent character we see on the big screen.) When talking about the films of Joseph Mankiewicz and Preston Sturges, both of whom she admires – two more testaments to her acumen – DiBattista is obliged to concede in each case that the writer-director is the shaping spirit. But in most other cases you would swear she believed that the actress was thinking the stuff up. She can’t really believe that, but she carries on as if to submit to the reality would be less fun: as, indeed, it is. There are actors who are deadly bores when not given lines written by someone else: we would rather think of them as being brilliant, or at any rate interesting. I myself, who have been hanging around show business for most of my life, am apt to talk of how tough Steve McQueen was in Bullitt. Reality says that Steve McQueen never did anything tough in Bullitt beyond working his usual shit-heel trick of stealing 16 pairs of new trousers from the wardrobe budget. Movies mythologise their stars, and the best reason for wading through the stellar autobiographies, no matter how crudely ghosted, is to remind ourselves occasionally that the person up there on the screen was born in a bed, not in a bath of light. This admonition particularly applies to our author, who has put herself in the dangerous position of appearing to suppose that her heroines not only believed what they so fluently said, but might actually have thought of it just before they said it. When dealing with the great tradition of screen comedy in the 1930s, there could be no surer method of reducing a complex cultural event to an uninformative cartoon. In Ninotchka, for example, Greta Garbo jokes incandescently with actors who are refugees from Hitler pretending to be refugees from Stalin. The incarnation of a graceful, all-comprehending vision, a nymph poised between two converging armies of thugs, she bewitchingly articulates a liberal view of contemporary politics so sophisticated that it amounts to the prophetic. But she didn’t think of any of it. The screenwriter, Billy Wilder, was remembering pre-Hitler Europe and the director, Ernst Lubitsch, was remembering his visits to Moscow. Garbo could barely remember the boat from Sweden, and her idea of a threatening mass movement was too much fan mail.

But when it comes to the movie stars, keeping your wits about you is hard work, because scrambling your wits is what they are in business to do. It is easier and more fun to talk about the fictional personae as if they were real, and it is hard not to be grateful when the real personality goes even a short way towards matching up with the fictional one. Carole Lombard was a scatological delight in real life. Clark Gable adored her foul tongue, and when we dote on one of her studio portraits and imagine that lush mouth saying a dirty word we would need to be saints not to get excited. But if she had actually been capable of making up the lines she said in front of the film camera she would have been more than a beautiful wildcat, she would have been a genius. Anita Loos wrote a couple of films for Jean Harlow early in her career. It was a rare case of a writer writing what the actress might have said anyway. Later on, there were very few instances of a woman star speaking even another woman’s mind, let alone her own. What she was speaking was the combined and distilled wisdom of a male committee, up to and including the head of production. Occasionally there was a female writer on the writing teams of the screwball comedies, but none of them had a female director. It never happened at the time, and with the qualified exception of Elaine May it never happened at all until the advent of Nora Ephron, several decades in the future. The fast-talking dames were chosen for the part by men. Among the major film properties as the war approached, only The Philadelphia Story had a female participant in its command structure. Katharine Hepburn had stood beside Philip Barry while he was writing the play for Broadway; she bought a controlling interest in it; and she would not allow it to be made in Hollywood without herself in the starring role. Had she not had the financial leverage, she would not have been given the part. (I interviewed her once, and that’s what she told me.) The studios ensured that no woman ever acquired that kind of power over a major property again, and the same determination still applies today. Goldie Hawn and Jodie Foster can occasionally get small movies made on their terms, but big movies never. The stakes are too high. As Meryl Streep proved in Postcards from the Edge, she can sing almost as well as she can act. She had all the qualifications for playing the title role in the film of Evita and spent years trying to land it. But the role went to Madonna because the movie needed the audience who bought her records, and if that audience really cared about singing it would never have bought them.

For the feminist who takes the standard line on male exploitation of the female, the best answer to the 1930s film-comedy conundrum is probably right there. It was a question of money. The fast-talking babes were allowed to strut their stuff because the product sold. Give the women what they want, especially if what they want is what they can’t have: give them a dream. As a conspiracy theory, it checks out, with the usual proviso that conspiracy theories always do, and that’s what’s wrong with them. (If, on the other hand, the prewar ideal of female independence was only a sop to lull the women in the audience rather than a model to inspire them, then the postwar ideal of domesticity might have been similarly devoid of a reliably measurable effect.) This is where it helps to have been around for a while. I can remember my mother’s memories of Myrna Loy in the Thin Man movies: I can remember her memories when they were fresh. In Sydney before the war, my mother and father had nothing except each other. The Depression forced both of them out of school in their early teens. Their working life was spent on the production lines if they were lucky. But they knew the way they wanted to sound to each other. They wanted to sound like Nick and Nora Charles: William Powell and Myrna Loy in the Thin Man movies. An industrial product had come all the way across the Pacific to raise their hopes with its images of freedom, justice and egalitarian elegance. It was cultural imperialism if you like, but to say that the cultural imperialism was without a spiritual component is to make a very large assumption. You would have to assume that the fast-talking dames said all those witty things without anyone concerned believing any of it for a minute. It seems unlikely. Not even Goebbels could run a film industry based entirely on cynicism. He tried, but it didn’t work.

The liberal Hollywood that produced the fast-talking dames was closed down after the war, by the red scare and by television. The second threat was as effective as the first. A film studio system possessing the monopoly of an outlet could afford to test its audience. Fighting for a share, the outlet suddenly found itself in the contrary position: the audience was testing it. No more high-speed dialogue to flatter those who were bright enough to get it, and flatter them doubly because there were those who didn’t. Everybody had to get everything. It was democracy: or rather, it was an ideological component within democracy, an egalitarian emphasis made dictatorial. Prewar film feminism had never been ideological in that sense: it had been concerned with equality – brilliantly concerned – but not with sameness. The feminine appeal of the fast-talking dames had been multiplied by their brain power, not eroded by it. That might have been the surest sign that men were dominant in the creative effort: the surest sign and the greatest weakness. When DiBattista and her students start to brainstorm the subject, they might quickly decide that the whole dazzling upsurge was a male chauvinist fantasy after all. Sensuality had not been sidelined, just sharpened up so as to race the motors of a smoother class of guy.

Much can be said to negate the achievement, but nothing to undo it. The films got made, and by a miracle they are still there, to remind us that there was once a continuous, sophisticated cultural effort to ameliorate common experience, week in and week out, all over the world. The comedies were chapters in a book that was all the more instructive for being so delightful. No doubt their collective message about female independence would have been more pure if Irene Dunne had physically resembled Kate Millett and Carole Lombard had been a ringer for Andrea Dworkin, but the box-office would have suffered, as it would suffer today if every movie were cast by the Coen brothers. What we need now from DiBattista and her beavering sophomores is an explanation of how an industry in the grip of market forces could have been a force for humanism. Inevitably our intrepid explorers will have to deal with questions arising, some of them charged with embarrassment. What if there never could have been any successful feminism in the first place without friendly men to further it? Logic always suggested that this might be so – if men naturally command the physical power to repress women, it is hard to see how they could give it up except voluntarily – but the films of Hollywood’s first age of eloquence provide something more persuasive than logic: they provide evidence. What if an advanced industrial society is the only kind in which female equality can even be conceived of? The more we learn from ethnology about mankind’s state of nature, the more it sounds as if it were designed to kill women, and the more we hear about forms of society putatively commendable for their authenticity, the more the authenticity sounds like a state of nature. And what if liberal democracy is the only political system by which an advanced industrial society can sustain itself? It is very hard to convince any modern progressive ideology that it would be tolerated only in the context it presumes to oppose. Perhaps, in the case of feminism, the best way to start would be by trying to persuade it that it is not an ideology at all, but a demand for justice. Similarly, the great film comedies didn’t represent a strict case of cultural imperialism, if imperialism necessarily entails an imposition by force. An imposition by influence is far more likely to be irreversible. DiBattista could usefully do a whole book just on The Philadelphia Story, right through to its latter-day transmogrification into High Society, a vehicle for the future Princess of Monaco and her two-note singing voice. (The alert reader will detect that my jealous bile springs from loving admiration: not only would Grace Kelly have been perfect for the 1930s, she played her roles in the 1950s as if the 1930s had never gone away. No lisping pout for her.) About The Philadephia Story, there is a salient fact which the diligent DiBattista is bound to unearth, so let me get in first, with hopes of being credited in a footnote. When the victorious Japanese paraded through the streets of Singapore, they were right to suppose it meant the end of the British Empire, but wrong to suppose it meant the beginning of theirs. Above the rows of flashing bayonets there were eloquent billboards to announce that the most luxurious cinema in town had a new American film showing. Guess which one.