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Women's History March: Female (1933)

We celebrate Women's History Month with four films featuring strong female protagonists.

SAMANTHA GLASSER: Alison Drake (Ruth Chatterton) is the CEO of her father’s automobile manufacturing company, and she rules with an iron fist. New employees are her playthings, and she routinely invites a beautiful young man to her home in the guise of business only to seduce them with music, high quality vodka, and a satin pillow strategically tossed onto the floor. She casts them off as quickly as she hooks them and walks through the paces with the casual boredom of a practiced Don Juan until she meets Jim Thorne (George Brent). They meet cute at a shooting gallery where Alison shows him up with her sharpshooting. They hit it off, but she can’t totally win him over. Later at the factory they run into each other accidentally; it turns out Jim is a hotshot designer the company has just poached from a rival. She invites him to discuss business at her home and attempts to seduce him to no avail, which only makes him more desirable to her.

RODNEY BOWCOCK: What’s interesting to me in these early scenes is that there’s not really anything sordid about this. It’s just given and accepted that she’ll coheres young men into her home, and then toss them aside when they (inevitably) get too attached to her or try to bring romance into the office.

SG: The film was half directed by William Wellman, who had to leave the job to work on College Coach, after having taken over for William Dieterle, who became ill nine days into shooting, and Michael Curtiz took over to finish the film. He reshot the first seduction with Johnny Mack Brown and cut out George Blackwood.

RB: Jack Warner watched a preview and apparently had issue with Blackwood and ordered all scenes with him refilmed. That’s why you’ve got Curtiz stepping in. The interesting thing here is that Curtiz for some unknown reason is the only director credited.

SG: Chatterton and Brent were married during the making of this movie, having gotten hitched the day after her divorce from Ralph Forbes came through; she and Brent divorced in 1934. Chatterton was quite an independent woman herself. She flew planes and in her later years wrote several novels.

RB: Chatterton had been paired with Brent before, so their chemistry is very good here as you’d expect. Unfortunately, this was the second to last film released under her contract with Warners (she was brought over from Paramount to class the place up a bit), and she’d not be doing too many more films before her early retirement in 1938 (Her last two features were made in England).

SG: Orry-Kelly’s costuming is very good. Chatterton is always dressed in tailored suits with huge bows at the neck, a feminine version of a tie. She isn’t wearing pants, but she’s “wearing the pants.”

RB: There is just SO much art deco beauty in this film. It’s everywhere you look. The office building that Alison Drake presides over is an art deco lover’s dream.

SG: Warner Brothers made use of many of the tunes in their library for this movie. “Shanghai Lil” plays on the record player, Rafaela Ottiano sings “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” Ferdinand Gottschalk sings “You’re Getting to be a Habit With Me,” and “Painting the Clouds With Sunshine” plays at the shooting gallery.

RB: Warners was great at using their song library during this time, and their generous use of music from one film to another combined with the use of songs in their multiple series of cartoons and short subjects must’ve made a lot of sheet music sellers very happy indeed.

SG: Phillip Reed is beautiful as Alison’s second conquest here in his second film.

“You’re so ethereal, so spiritual.” “You don’t know much about women, do you?”

Although it must have been satisfying to see a woman taking advantage of her power to score with the attractive men in the office, Alison is a villain. She reminded me of Don Draper in Mad Men getting drunk and sleeping with his secretary and then giving her $100 as a Christmas bonus and reacting coldly when she has an emotional outburst. Alison uses and abuses the men on her staff and callously dismisses them if they won’t play her game.

RB: I think it’s satisfying by today’s standards, but at the time some viewers (mainly men) felt that the plot was fantastic and that a woman would never be able to run a large business, much less an automobile company. And while I do agree with you that Alison is a villain, I never particularly dislike her or feel badly for her.

SG: The message of this movie leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Alison not only must change her personality entirely to snare the man she wants, but she also must give up her identity as a businesswoman and settle for the drudgery of housewifery. This is our happy ending? In pre-code films we routinely get to glimpse the sordid sides of life, from sex and drugs and gangsterism and jazz (we aren’t yet to the rock-and-roll era), and then the protagonist repents and a nice bow is tied on the loose ends. In those situations at least the hero secures safety, if not happiness. Here, Alison gives up all of herself to get all the things she told her friend (Lois Wilson) she didn’t want in the first place. This couple will certainly be divorced and Alison will have an identity crisis.

RB: Like you, I HATED the end of this movie and had a great time with it until the shoehorned ending that doubtlessly made Will Hays click his heels in joy. It comes out of nowhere and doesn’t fit the characters (either Chatterton or Brent) as we’ve come to know them over the course of the hour. It’s obnoxious. That said, at the time, this was a very well-liked film. “It has humor and a real lesson well told,” stated Charles Lee Hyde of the Grand Theatre, Pierre SD. Bert Silver of the Silver Family Theatre in Greenville MI agreed. “Story great and Chatterton can act”.

SG: In addition to the obvious story elements that make this movie only possible during the pre-code era before censorship was more stringently enforced, there are scenes of Chatterton in various states of undress, such as stepping into a robe post shower, and yelling inaudible obscenities through a glass window. In 1936, the studio was denied permission to reissue the film by Joseph Breen who called it, "A cheap low-tone picture with a lot of double meaning, wise-cracks and no little filth which they think is funny." I liked it until the abrupt tonal change. Three stars.

RB: This isn’t the most scandalous of pre-code films that we’ve unspooled over the years (Convention City was in theatres around the same time. We’ve not seen that one…), but I agree that there are things that absolutely never would fly just a year later. It’s a pleasing way to spend an hour, but I’m still bitter and salty over the dumb ending. Still, all in all, three stars.

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