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.

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