Saturday, April 25, 2015

Stubs – Female

Female (1933) Starring: Ruth Chatterton, George Brent, Lois Wilson, Johnny Mack Brown, Ruth Donnelly, Ferdinand Gottschalk. Directed by Michael Curtiz. Screenplay by Gene Markey, Kathryn Scola. Suggested by the novel Female by Donald Henderson Clarke. Produced by Robert Presnell. Run Time: 60 minutes. U.S. Black and White. Drama

It should come as a surprise to no one that films made in Hollywood from 1930 until 1968, were made under censorship guidelines called the Motion Picture Production Code. These guidelines were drawn up to self-regulate the motion picture industry. But until 1934, the code wasn’t enforced. That changed with the establishment of the Breen office, the precursor to the MPAA, headed by Joseph Breen.

Films made before 1934 are referred to as Pre-code. While they often deal with subjects the code prohibits, they are not necessarily filled with blood or nudity. However, they do deal with subject matters that the code would prohibit or at least restrict being dealt with openly. Such is the case with Female (1933).

Alison Drake (Ruth Chatterton) is the powerful president of Drake Automotive.

Alison Drake (Ruth Chatterton) is the president of a large automobile company, Drake Automotive, which she took over after her father's death, is cynical about love. Her life is almost immediately contrasted against that of her old friend, Harriet (Lois Wilson), who drops by for a visit on her road trip to Rochester. Alison invites her to spend the night at her mansion. Unlike Alison, Harriet is married with three children. But in exchange, Alison is pampered by a team of servants, including a masseuse.

Alison likes being pampered.

That night, in addition to Harriet, Alison invites one of her new department heads, George C. Cooper (Johnny Mack Brown), to her house under the pretense of talking business. At 9:30, Harriet excuses herself for the night and to call her husband. Alone with Cooper, Alison is disinterested in discussing Cooper’s sales idea. Plying him with vodka, brought by her butler James (Robert Greig), and music, a recording Shanghai Lil playing, she seduces Cooper, who naturally falls immediately in love with her.

Allison is more interested in George than his sales ideas.

The next morning, Alison’s work day starts while she is still in bed. She is given stock quotes (taken over the phone) along with her breakfast. When she gets to the office, she is cool to Cooper, but it is quickly apparent he is not the first man at the office she’s slept with. Briggs (Gavin Gordon), one of her male secretaries, admits his undying love for her.

Alison has her weaselly office manager, Pettigrew (Ferdinand Gottschalk), transfer Briggs to the Montreal office and hire female secretaries to replace the male ones. When flowers arrive from Cooper, she calls him into her office and tells him not to read anything into what had happened. Pettigrew is then dispatched to the Comptroller to have a bonus check drawn up for Cooper. Based on their conversation, it is clear Cooper is now one of many who have received the usual amount of bonus.

Miss Frothingham (Ruth Donnelly) arrives and almost instantly becomes the target for Pettigrew’s own come-ons.

Alison naturally has a pipe organ in her house.

Meanwhile, Alison invites another employee, a young designer named Claybourne (Phillip Reed) to her house. This time Shanghai Lil is being played on a pipe organ in the house while Alison. Despite her hard press and the offer of vodka, Claybourne is more of a romantic than even Alison can stomach. When he admits that he doesn’t know much about women, she lets him off the hook and offers to have Pettigrew arrange for him to go to Paris to study art.

Claybourne (Phillup Reed) is too much of a romantic for Alison and gets sent to Paris to study art.

At a board meeting, Alison tells her department heads that their new line of cars needs a new feature to separate it from the other brands out there. When one of her department heads says that it would take a year for them to develop such technology, she is informed by another that someone has already invented it, a man named Jim Thorne. Even though he is under contract to a competitor, Alison is adamant that they sign him.

Later, after a party at her house for her dealers, and a proposal of marriage from Mumford (Douglas Dumbrille), one of her biggest distributors, she flees. Driving into the city, she is fascinated by a man at a shooting gallery. Alison is pretty good, too, but not as good as the man. She follows him to a food truck for a beer. When a street person tries to become a part of their conversation, they excuse themselves and go dancing. Afterwards, they go back to the food truck for a hamburger. When once again the stranger gets too familiar, the man excuses himself. Alison follows after him, but the man rebuffs her, saying he doesn’t take pick-ups home.

Jim Thorne (George Brent) doesn't know he's buying a hamburger for his new boss.

The next day, they bump into each other at the factory. The man introduces himself as Jim Thorne (George Brent), but treats her like she’s a secretary. Later, when Alison calls him into her office, he still thinks she’s a nobody and treats her as such. Only when others treat her with the respect of the head of a company does he clue in. Once again, she invited him over for dinner to discuss his designs for his automatic transmission.

She tries to ply him with vodka, but it has no effect on him, as he had worked in Russia for a time and used to brush his teeth with vodka. He once again rebuffs her advances and tells her he is only interested in business. But Alison doesn’t give up on Thorne. She hires a private investigator and is keenly interested when she finds out that he had dinner with Miss Joyce (Jean Muir), his secretary. She even considers sacking Joyce but doesn’t.

The next day, Jim discovers his pick-up is really his boss.

When Pettigrew tells her that men, like Thorne, want a woman who is a more down-to-earth, Alison tricks Thorne into a private picnic by the lake where she pretends to be helpless. It’s a little different approach for her, but it works. However, when Thorne gets a marriage license, she turns down his proposal. Mad, he quits the company and drives away. Even though Drake Motors needs an infusion of cash, Alison has a momentary breakdown, before gaining her composure. She tells the board that she will personally go to New York to talk to bankers. But instead, she chases after Thorne. She finds that she’s gaining on him when she quizzes people at gas stations and greasy spoons along the route the police have told her he’s taking. On a whim, she stops at a carnival with a shooting gallery and Thorne is there shooting.

Eventually Alison gives up everything for the love of a good man.

She tearfully admits to him that she’s willing to risk bankruptcy to be with him. He accepts her love, then, affirming that no one will take her company away from her, drives her to an airport to catch a flight to New York so she can make her meetings later in the afternoon. As they drive, she happily reveals that after their marriage, she will let him run the company so she can stay home and raise the children. She plans to have nine.

While not a name many are familiar with nowadays, Ruth Chatterton was, for a time, a very accomplished actress in Hollywood. Her first film was 1928’s Sins of the Fathers, a silent-made sound released film starring Emil Jannings. (Like many films from this time period, the film is reportedly lost.) With stage experience, she was in demand as the studios switched from silent films to sound. While she was signed to Paramount, she received a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her part in MGM’s Madame X (1929). The following year she received a second nomination for her role in Sarah and Son (1930). She left Paramount for Warner Bros., where she starred in Female.

She appeared in Samuel Goldwyn’s Dodsworth (1936) and gave what many feel was her best performance, but for which she wasn’t nominated. Warner Bros. was looking for younger and more bankable stars, Ruth was born in 1892, so she moved to England. Her final film was A Royal Divorce (1938). She did come out of retirement in the 1950’s to appear on television in such productions as an adaptation of Dodsworth on CBS.

While Michael Curtiz is credited as the director, he was really only brought in for some reshooting. William Dieterle was originally signed to direct, but he became ill and was replaced by William Wellman, who directed Wings (1927), Other Men's Women (1931) and The Public Enemy (1931). When filming was completed, Jack Warner decided that he didn’t like the original actor who was playing Cooper. Wellman wasn’t available for reshoots with Johnny Mack Brown, having started shooting College Coach (1933), so Curtiz was assigned. Though he did not direct most of the film, he was given the director’s credit on the film. It is all about timing.

The Ennis house in Los Angeles, designed by Frank Lloyd
 Wright, was used for exterior shots of Alison's mansion.

Exteriors of Alison’s mansion were filmed at Frank Lloyd Wright designed Ennis house in Los Feliz. An example of Wright’s textile block design, the house is constructed of interlocking pre-cast concrete blocks. Shot on a budget of between $260,000 to $286,000, Female made about $451,000 worldwide. Not an overwhelming success.

Despite being Pre-Code and dealing with sex, the film, like most studio films at this time, was devoid of nudity. There are hints of it, as we see Alison get a massage and then take a shower, but she is covered up when we see her. The sex is depicted subtly: a throw pillow on the floor and carafe of vodka delivered by the butler and the audience knows what’s supposed to happen next.

The basic premise of Female that what all women, no matter how successful, really want is to be married and have children, has been proven to be antiquated. A career is no longer something a woman only has until she’s married and/or has children. Portraying a woman as running a major corporation, making cars no less, and bossing around men was probably provocative at the time. Even though we still have a disparity in pay between men and women, the glass ceiling has been broken if not shattered. Today, several very large companies are run by women, including General Motors, which is run by Mary Barra.

Until Alison is in love, she is not a very likeable character. While she is the boss at Drake, she is cold, calculating, ruthless and out for herself both financially and sexually. I can hear the argument that these would be more acceptable traits for a male lead than with a woman. That may be true, but I would venture that they probably wouldn’t necessarily be the hero of the film, even back then, and they probably wouldn’t be any more likeable than Alison was with those same traits.

This film could easily be a what-not-to-do example in a seminar on workplace sexual harassment. Not only does Alison sleep with her employees and try to either buy them off or punish them, which I believe is the definition of creating a hostile workplace, [perhaps Drake Motors was facing bankruptcy due to all of the payouts Alison was forced to make] but Pettigrew, who is Alison’s version of Dracula’s Renfield, also gets into the act, inviting Miss Frothingham up to his lonely apartment to look at some pictures. However, this sort of treatment of employees is depicted in many films, especially pre-Code ones; what was new here was a female boss doing this to her male employees. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, but not good for any other barnyard poultry put into uncomfortable situations.

As Alison asserts correctly, men, like women, can be attracted to money and power. The idea that a woman could be single and sexually active was not appropriate subject matter under the Production Code, so Female was a film that couldn’t be made for another 35 years. Not a great film, but it does have an interesting tables turned approach to the battle of the sexes.

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