Apologies for any inconvenience, but the screening and discussion of Ladies They Talk About (1933) is postponed.
It is likely this will go ahead at our next planned meeting – the 27th of March – but confirmation will appear here nearer the time.
Apologies for any inconvenience, but the screening and discussion of Ladies They Talk About (1933) is postponed.
It is likely this will go ahead at our next planned meeting – the 27th of March – but confirmation will appear here nearer the time.
All are very welcome to join us when we screen and discuss our next pre-code film. We will be showing Ladies They Talk About (1933, Howard Bretherton and William Keighley, 69 mins) on Tuesday the 27th of February, 5-7pm, in Jarman 6.
Like all of our most recent screenings, this is a Warner Brothers production. It also, like Baby Face, stars Barbara Stanwyck. She plays gangster’s moll, Nan Taylor, who is caught during a bank robbery but who appeals to old male classmate David Slade (Preston Foster) for help. David is now a radio evangelist, intent on just punishment for criminals, but agrees to help Nan. Despite David’s intervention, Nan is sent too San Quentin prison where she meets an array of fellow female convicts. Dramatic urgency is supplied by a thwarted escape, a shooting, and romance.
The film was later remade in 1942, starring Faye Emerson as the more aptly titled Lady Gangster (Robert Florey). Once more, as with Three on a Match and Broadway Musketeers, this affords us the opportunity of comparing pre and post-code treatments of a story.
Do join us if you can.
Our discussion on the film covered various aspects including: its genre; its appeal to female audiences; its ‘Take Three Girls’ approach; its three heroines as role models; male characters; the character of Vivian; the film’s stars; its pace; contemporaneous materials like trade magazines; Warner Brothers studio; the 1938 remake and matters of censorship.
We began with comments on the film’s appeal to female audiences. This was established partly by the film’s genre. Best described broadly as a drama – as the American Film Institute (AFI) categorises it – it moves from melodramatic ups and downs to a more straightforward crime drama. It nonetheless remains focused on its female characters. The film demonstrates a ‘Take Three Girls’ approach, in which we follow the fortunes of three young girls at school into adulthood when they meet again. This allows the film more flexibility than a single heroine, since it can follow three women’s stories.
This approach also allows for comparison of the film’s characters to one another, thus commenting on those considered the best ‘role models’. This is more complex than we might at first assume from the women’s early days at school. In the opening segment, Mary (Virginia Davis) is portrayed as a fun-loving, knicker-showing girl who gets into trouble for smoking. While Vivian (Dawn O’Day, later known as Ann Shirley) is voted the most popular girl in her class, this is superficial. In fact, since she disapproves of Mary’s free-and-easy attitude she sneakily reports her to teachers. Ruth (Betty Carse) wins an award for academic achievement. Mary is true to herself but not one of life’s conformers, Vivian is snooty and privileged, and Ruth hard-working. These characteristics point to their futures. Rich Vivian reveals that she will attend a boarding school, while the less socially advantaged Ruth says she will train for a business career. Neither of them knows what will happen to Mary….
In fact, Mary’s trajectory ranges considerably. She is next seen in reform school (now played by Joan Blondell), but is soon a steadily-working actress. This is established as she chats about her current show to a hairdresser in the most female of social spaces: the beauty parlour. Coincidentally, Vivian (Ann Dvorak) is occupying the next booth, allowing for them to stage a brief reunion and organise to meet, along with Ruth (Bette Davis), for lunch. At the lunch, it is clear that while Mary and Ruth seem happy enough, Vivian, though she is rich, and married with a young son, is unhappy. This spirals out of control as the film progresses, with her leaving her husband and committing adultery, becoming an absent mother, descending into drugs and poverty, and only at the film’s end partially redeeming her earlier behaviour by sacrificing her life to save her kidnapped son. Meanwhile, Mary finds happiness with Vivian’s husband Bob, and Ruth career fulfilment as governess to Bob and Vivian’s son. The character of a person is placed above their social standing. Nice people who have made a few wrong turns can be happy – especially if they enter the acting profession (!) (Mary), cheats and those unhappy with their privileged lot don’t prosper, though they can make amends (Vivian), and those who calmly get on with things can be quietly happy, if overlooked (Ruth).
We also briefly compared the film’s two main adult male characters. This is encouraged since Vivian leaves the steady and kind, though seemingly unexciting, Bob (Warren William) for the new and apparently charming Michael (Lyle Talbot). We also commented on the way the film directly juxtaposes Bob and Michael. After his son is kidnapped there is a close-up of a desperate Bob, wringing his hands. This is immediately followed by a close-up of Michael’s hands. While at first both men seem to be performing a similar action, it is in fact revealed that he is merely vigorously shaking a cocktail. The only other men involved in the film’s narrative are gangsters. Most notably Harve (Humphrey Bogart) threatens Michael when he is in debt, delivering him to his shady boss, Ace (Edward Arnold). The latter is coolly calculating, threatening violence while treating Michael with contempt – he will not even halt his macho act of plucking his nose hair without wincing or tearing up. This subtly implies that Michael will be subject so slow and painful torture.
Despite the fact that the film has three heroines, these do not have equal billing, screen time, dramatic impact or interest for the audience. Mary is top-billed, with her introduction as an adult character privileged over the other two women, and she ends the film happily after a successful romance. We spent more time discussing Vivian, however. It is far too simplistic to suggest that she is a bad mother who rightly sacrifices herself for her son (in the style of the maternal melodrama). Her situation is more complex. We see her struggle with her relationship with her child who while he is affectionate towards her, seems to prefer his nanny and father. Vivian tells Bob she thinks that having sole charge of her on will be good for her – giving her something to focus on. This does not turn out to be the case though, as when she runs off with Michael she is unable to perform even simple tasks like making sure her son is fed and clean. Other than this, she seems happy to be enjoying Michael’s attentions.
We commented on Dvorak’s realistic portrayal of Vivian. Her drug addiction and its consequences of poverty are well shown by Dvorak’s convincing acting, and the diminishing of her personal appearance and costume. Vivian’s sacrifice was in some ways inevitable, though surprising in its violence. Earlier we have heard her being hit off-screen. Her final act is far more visible. She throws herself out of a window to draw attention to the whereabouts of her son: she has scrawled this information on her nightgown in lipstick. The film cuts from inside the hotel room to outside, showing Vivian hurtling towards the awning below and hitting the street with a thump.
We also discussed the film’s stars. Despite the film’s short running time, it is not a budget film, but one packed with characters played by stars. Although there are three heroines, a main focus is the star triangle of Mary and Vivian and Bob as Ruth plays a smaller part. Since this was early in Davis’ career, it is not surprising that she played a smaller role, and that the film did not make best use of her talents. We thought the small role Bogart played was more in tune with some of his previous parts, and that Arnold was effective.
Although there is a romantic triangle, the film’s pace means we do not witness Vivian and Bob’s courtship, and that Mary and Bob’s romance takes place at breakneck speed. They are very briefly shown to be attracted to one another as each separately boards the cruise ship to wish friends and family bon voyage. They only spend time together one Vivian has left Bob, with his beach proposal (swiftly following on from offering Ruth a position as governess) coming as a bit of a shock. The newspapers report on this as they note that Bob has divorced and remarried on the same day. The film sustains a rapid pace throughout. In addition to short scenes which establish the time frame (popular songs, historical newspaper headlines) these involve the characters too. After his son’s disappearance Bob, accompanied by Mary and Ruth, begs a judge to intervene in a scene which lasts just a few seconds. We thought the only time the film dragged was the discussion between male workers outside the beauty parlour. These men comment on how Mary has replaced Vivian as Bob’s wife and notice the reappearance of Vivian across the street. This merely recounts the plot and identifies the relationship between the two women who soon meet again. This may have been thought helpful at the time when cinema-goers were more likely to join a screening part-way through.
We discussed some contemporaneous extra-filmic material. Trade magazine Motion Picture Herald included a piece on Buster Phelps (who played the son) on the 8th of October. This rightly complimented Phelps on his portrayal, but also noted that he was apparently being paid more than Dvorak. A review of the film had appeared in the same publication a week earlier. This understandably expressed distaste at screening the kidnapping of a child while the tragic Lindberg baby story was still in the headlines. It also asked that the gangsters are seen to be punished.
This comments on Warner Brothers’ preferred approach of presenting films which were inspired by real-life stories. We also saw Warner Brothers touches in the use of headlines and popular songs to establish time, and the fact it is bang up to date – the date 1932 appears. We noted references to other Warner Brothers films. A magazine article seen in the film which explains that the ‘Three on a Match’ superstition (that if soldiers in the trenches kept a match going long enough to light three cigarettes they would be seen by the enemy and at least one of them killed) was in fact advertising by a Swedish match manufacturer to expand his market. Warner Brothers released a film called The Match King (William Keighley, Howard Bretherton) this same year – which starred Warren William as the title character. Some us also noted footage which was had been recycled from an earlier production (like Public Enemy 1931, William A. Wellman) and the presence of gowns also seen in other films.
Finally, we spoke about the 1938 remake of the film, Broadway Musketeers (John Farrow). This starred Margaret Lindsay as Isabel (Vivian in the earlier film), Ann Sheridan as Fay (previously Mary), and Marie Wilson as Connie (the Ruth character). In addition to the name changes, and the shifted focus to the ‘Vivian’ character, there are other differences. For instance, they grow up in an orphanage, the son is now a daughter and the ‘match’ superstition is now about smashing glasses. The original and the update appeared six years apart, and significantly range from two years before, to four years after censorship was more strongly implemented via Hollywood’s Production Code. The later version did not include the characters’ childhoods, and therefore avoided altogether showing them as sexualised at an early age. The use of censorship seemed to not serve its intended purpose, however. The remake contains innuendo (and the Mary character is now stripper rather than an actress) and the differences are superficial and not necessarily the aspects audiences focus on. Isabel does not commit adultery since she divorces her husband before she found a new man. Her addiction appears to be legal alcohol rather than drugs which the 1932 film references openly via paraphernalia, intimation of Vivian suffering due to withdrawal, and Harve’s nose-sniffing gesture. Nonetheless she suffers the same fate as in the earlier film, unable to halt the progression of the melodramatic narrative.
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All are very welcome to join us for our next screening. We’ll be showing Three on a Match (1932, Mervyn LeRoy, 63 mins), on Tuesday 30th of January, 5-7pm, in Jarman 6.
Three on a Match continues the melodrama research group’s interest in pre-code Hollywood and, like both of our recent screenings Female and Baby Face, is a Warner Brothers production. It too is especially concerned with women. But it provides us with three heroines instead of one. Friends Mary (Joan Blondell), Vivian (Ann Dvorak) and Ruth (Bette Davis) meet again a decade after leaving school. Their lives widely diverge: crime is followed by redemption through acting for Mary, a stable marriage to a wealthy lawyer is ruined by a messy break up for Vivian, while Ruth embarks on a career as a secretary. All three face challenges, with Vivian’s life taking a particularly melodramatic turn.
Do join us if you can.
Our discussion of Female ranged from its genre, its use of gender inversion, its star, Ruth Chatterton, comparison to other films and stars of the time such as Barbara Stanwyck in Baby Face, its studio – Warner Brothers – the film’s set and its shot transitions.
We began with debate about the film’s genre. The American Film Institute (AFI) categorises Female as ‘Comedy-drama’ (https://catalog.afi.com/Catalog/MovieDetails/3957?cxt=filmography) and we certainly noted its, sometimes uneasy, mix of serious issues such as sexual equality (a major subject according to the AFI) and comedic moments. We particularly commented on the film’s heroine, automobile factory owner and manager Alison Drake (Ruth Chatterton). Alison demonstrates her sexual liberation, and position of authority, by seducing young men in her employ and then arranging for them to be transferred to other parts of the world when they become clingy and troublesome.
Alison is a woman in charge of her own destiny, telling a female friend, Harriet Brown (Lois Wilson), that she uses men the way they have always used women. She is, therefore, very different to the suffering heroine of melodrama. In fact, she seems more like the sexually predatory man a melodrama heroine is often running from.
Alison is frustrated, however, by the fact that despite her viewing herself as a sexual being, the men she attempts to seduce have differing ideas. Men either submit and then fall in love and wish to marry and domesticate her (and are hence transferred to Montreal), or seem resistant to her female charms, considering her to be made of marble, rather than flesh and blood (and are dispatched to Paris). Other marriage proposals she receives are similarly not based on how Alison sees her true self, but are couched in terms of a business merger.
The repetitive nature of Alison’s attempted seductions (and indeed her preparedness, in, we presume, providing male guests with bathing costumes for her swimming pool) become comic as the film proceeds. She invites men to her house for the evening; she is clad in a beautiful evening dress; we hear ‘Shanghai Li’ playing; Alison summons a butler, and vodka, at the right moment by pushing a button; Alison earnestly explains that she is not all about business, inviting her male visitor to sit next to her as she playfully throws a cushion on the floor.
The other comedy aspect the film brought to mind was the screwball subgenre. After becoming frustrated at the lack of men who see her as she truly is, Alison leaves her own party, dressing up in casual clothes to visit a local fair. While there, she takes aim with a rifle at the shooting gallery alongside an attractive man, Jim Thorne (George Brent). They alternate successful shots at targets until Alison’s last one misses, and Jim completes the task for her. This is a ‘meet-cute’ of romantic comedy, something which shows that the couple is meant to be together. Alison is, however, the pursuer rather than the pursued (despite the fact the man has won the so obviously male shooting competition) as she follows Jim as he purchases a drink at a nearby stall. Alison light-heartedly assumes an alternative identity as a former sharpshooter, and Jim plays along by saying that he did not recognise her without her horse. Significantly, Alison’s assumed identity is one of much lower class than her real status. This corresponds to some of the key aspects Tamar Jeffers McDonald cites as key to screwball – reverse class snobbery, a major inversion or subversion of characters’ normality, and role play (Romantic Comedy: Boy Meets Girl Meets Genre, 2007, pp. 23-24). It is worth noting, however that while Jim plays along, he does not assume an alternate identity or pretend to be anything he is not.
Perhaps predictably, Jim refuses to be ‘picked up’ by Alison, apparently she is ‘too fresh’. There must be some obstacles to their (we suppose) eventual union. Furthermore, he spurns her advances when, coincidentally, he begins work at her company as an important engineer the next day. While her seduction routine has worked with others, Jim seems immune. When Alison is surprised that drinking has not loosened Jim up, he explains that he is used to vodka, after working for some time in Russia. This shows how much she has relied on alcohol in past seductions, and that Alison has to work much harder at her ‘vamping’ than usual.
This inversion is not only important in terms of how it might comment on comedic conventions. It is also useful when we compare Alison to other characters in the film, and consider what changes in her representation may say about the film’s standpoint on sexual equality.
The main character we compared Alison to was her old schoolfriend Harriet. She unexpectedly visits Alison in her office, and we witness Alison swapping chat on Harriet’s life (her marriage and children) but being so distracted with work matters she gets several details wrong – Harriet’s husband’s name and the gender and number of her children. This indicates Alison’s lack of interest in ‘usual’ womanly concerns. It is also important that since this chat takes place at work, Alison is nonetheless interrupting her work with personal concerns. This may be less true of the way films choose to represent men in their workplaces.
We wondered whether the film had the purpose of showing Harriet, rather than Alison, in the more flattering light for both male and female viewers. While the film tones down Alison’s sexually free behaviour as she falls for Jim, though refuses to marry him at first, her enjoyment for most of the film and her wearing of stunning clothes, driving a sports car, and owning of a beautiful house. By contrast, Harriet is only seen in Alison’s environment, wearing smart but regular clothes, and her only interaction with her husband and children is a boring phone call about his health. We thought this did not encourage the promotion of Harriet’s more traditional lifestyle over Alison’s more modern one.
There is ambivalence though. In addition to times when Alison seems to be displaying herself for men’s attention, Alison is filmed in a rather sexual way at other points of the narrative. She is a powerless sexual object as she steps in and out of the shower, and receives massages.
The film is also ambivalent in its representation of Alison on her own terms. Her initial boast that she treats men the way they have always treated women, is tempered by her last minute conversion to domesticity. Despite Alison tracking down Jim at a shooting gallery and his support of her business plans, she decides to hand over the business to him while she plans to have 9 children. It is well worth considering whether the lasting memory of a film is a character’s behaviour for most of the story, or he final few minutes. Some commented that in this sense the film was two-faced. The ending is a sop to men (with Jim also specifically speaking against ‘free women’), and traditionalists, but others (including women) may choose not to believe Alison’s last exaggerated desire.
We also briefly mentioned the minor, and older, characters of Pettigrew (Ferdinand Gottschalk) and Miss Frothingham (Ruth Donnelly). They represent more traditional gender politics. While Pettigrew seems to approve of Alison’s treatment of men for most of the narrative, he is also relieved when she decided to settle down. Pettigrew teasingly asks Miss Frothingham if she lives with her ‘folks’ and she giggles in her response that she lives alone. While Miss Frothingham appears aware of Pettigrew’s attentions, and intentions, and both of them flirt, Pettigrew is the more obvious predating figure. He is even unoriginal in asking Miss Frothingham up to his apartment to see his paintings.
We also discussed the significance of Ruth Chatterton playing Alison, and whether this colours our view of her character’s liberation as positive or negative. Chatterton was a powerful woman, as in addition to being an actor and star she was an aviatrix, a fencer and owned her own production company. It would be interesting to see how much of this information was available to, and known by, audiences of the time. As Lies points out in her post on the NoRMMA blog, Chatterton’s 1932-1934 marriage to Female co-star George Brent was referenced in a portrait of Chatterton in February 1934’s Photoplay (www.normmanetwork.com/you-wouldnt-have-these-problems-if-you-were-a-fallen-woman-female-curtiz-1933/) This shows Chatterton’s acceptable off-screen domestic situation, but also the fact that she continued to work despite being married.
The context of the studio which produced Female was also considered. We were reminded throughout the film of its studio since Warner tunes like ‘You’re Getting to be a Habit with Me’ and ‘Shuffle Off to Buffalo’ (both from 42nd Street, 1933) were hummed or whistled by characters. There was also mention of the Warner Brothers star James Cagney (at the studio from 1930-1935). Alison hires a private detective to follow Jim when she is not being as successful with him as she would like. It is said that he has been out the night before, at a movie called Picture Snatcher (1933, released 6 months before Female). Some of us were also aware of Warner Brothers through costumes being recycled from earlier and into later films from the studio. Unlike the bigger MGM, Warner Brothers was less able to spend lavishly on both costumes and film tunes.
We also considered Female in relation to a screening from last term, Baby Face (see blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2017/12/04/summary-of-discussion-on-baby-face/) Both films were written by Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola. But in addition to being based on a novel by a male author (Donald Henderson Clarke 1932), Female was notably different to Baby Face in the lack of a suffering and abused heroine. Interestingly though, according to Motion Picture, the star of Baby Face, Barbara Stanwyck, was considered for the role before it was toned down and given to Chatterton. (See Lies’ post: www.normmanetwork.com/you-wouldnt-have-these-problems-if-you-were-a-fallen-woman-female-curtiz-1933/) It is interesting to consider what a different film Female would have been if Stanwyck had played Alison. Stanwyck often played struggling everyday characters, with her ‘real’ background also apparently a poor one. Chatterton, meanwhile, was the middle-class daughter of an architect and prior to Hollywood had a successful career on the legitimate stage.
We also commented on the film’s impressive set. According to the AFI, some of this was filmed at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Ennis house in Los Angeles https://catalog.afi.com/Catalog/moviedetails/3957 The house was also apparently used for later films including House on Haunted Hill (1959), The Day of the Locust (1975) and Blade Runner (1982).
It was not just the exterior shots of the house or the swimming pool which were striking though. All the characters seemed dwarfed by the size of both the factory and house interiors which further emphasise Alison’s wealth. The way in which the working of the factory (smoking chimneys, cranes etc) are seen through the large window as Alison sits at her desk also comments on her wealth, but also her hard work and the heavy industry involved in the manufacturing the automobiles. It also reveals that Alison sis able to survey all of this from her desk – it is her domain.
Finally, there was some comment on the film’s editing. Some found the variety of shot transitions, especially on the factory floor, distracting and showy. Others, however, hardly noticed them. We might compare the editing to the film’s use of startling 1920s architecture which makes it seem especially modern
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All are very welcome to join us for our first melodrama meeting of 2018. We’ll be screening Female (1933, Michael Curtiz, 60 mins), on Tuesday 16th of January, 5-7pm, in Jarman 6.
The film stars Ruth Chatterton as Alison Drake, the owner-manager of a family business whose casual affairs with men turn serious once she meets Jim Thorne (George Brent). Like Baby Face, a film we screened at towards the end of the Autumn Term, Female is a pre-code film, written by Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola. It too raises many interesting issues regarding film history, audience address, gender and genre. We hope to further explore these by watching and discussing more pre-code films in the Spring Term.
Do join us if you can.
UPDATE: Lies has very kindly posted some wonderful fan magazine material about Female on the NoRMMA blog:
This gives us great insight into the film’s promotion and reception at the time. Thank so much Lies!
Our discussion of Number 13 ranged from the character of the protagonist, Professor Anderson (Greg Wise), his standing in society and how the episode tackled the issue of class, the MR James original short story, both texts’ effectiveness as examples of the ghost story, the male and female gothic, and related texts.
Some of our first comments concerned the initial pomposity of Professor Anderson (Greg Wise). We noted his insistence that his proper title be used, especially when introducing himself at the city hotel in which he stays while researching some old manuscripts. Anderson would have been privileged compared to many in society, most likely attending public school if he later went to an Oxbridge college. It is significant that the only title he has is an academic – and indeed professional – one. He has earned this, rather than inherited it from previous generations.
The fact that when strange occurrences start to happen to him Anderson accuses others of playing tricks also raises the matter of class. He is sure of himself and, rather than doubting his sanity, assumes that others are persecuting him. We thought this spoke to class anxiety – the worry that those of the new middle classes did not know their place. The theorists Anthony Vidler and Terry Castle’s ideas on the uncanniness of the middle classes were discussed by the group.
Indeed, class played a large part in the adaptation, with Anderson compared to some of the other characters. Anderson is clearly higher status than the hotel landlord, Gunton (David Burke), since he is a customer. He is also distrustful of the silent porter, Thomas (Anton Saunders), appearing rude to him on occasion. The character of Jenkins (Tom Burke), a lawyer, was especially drawn in class terms. We hear and then see him slurping his soup and his easy manner with one of the female guests, Alice (Charlotte Comer) causes Anderson jealousy – especially when we have the impression that Anderson is unhappy that such an inferior male has proved popular with a woman he seems to have romantic interest in.
Anderson’s desire is further expressed through a brief dream sequence. Alice is seen lingering near Anderson’s bed chamber, intercut shots of the bed hangings and paintings depicting naked men and women and various flora and fauna. We thought this conveyed Anderson’s repression well. The very brief appearance of Alice in his dream is probably the most interaction he has with her during the episode. In addition, he lacks the imagination to picture her in a nightgown – she wears the dress and earrings she appeared in earlier in the night when her flirting between with Jenkins seemed so distasteful to Anderson. But there is another possible reading. The two men wake up together in a double bed, apparently for safety’s sake, after they and the landlord experience terrifying happenings. We wondered if this was a queering of the text, since Anderson has gained not just homosocial knowledge (the next morning he seems more human, his pomposity punctured he is able to joke with Jenkins), but also perhaps experienced and been the object of homosexual desire. Perhaps Anderson’s earlier jealousy was directed towards Jenkins and not Alice. Both Anderson and Jenkins were inordinately interested in what they thought was going on in the other’s room.
The presence of female characters in the TV version (though it removed mention of Jenkins’ wife and family) was a departure from MR James’ original short story. In addition to this expansion, moving the setting of the story from Denmark to a class-conscious English city seems to draw out this issue far more. The character in the episode seems far more pompous than in MR James’ short story, and has indeed been gifted the title of Professor, so that he can insist on others using it. There were also some particularly visual elements which conveyed Anderson’s class which were less obvious on the page. Anderson was often seen in his professorial pince nez, and we especially noted his impeccable dinner suit.
There was much discussion about the character of the cathedral archivist, Mr Harrington (Paul Freeman). While he is a minor character in the short story, his role is expanded in the TV version. In this, Anderson researches the ‘Bishop’s House’ at which witchcraft was said to have been committed by a man called Nicolas Francken, and which is revealed to be the hotel in which Anderson is staying. We thought that Harrington had far more knowledge of the Bishop’s House and Francken than he revealed to Anderson. We remembered that Anderson had told Harrington that he was staying in a hotel which was so superstitious it did not include a room 13. However, when Anderson met Harrington in town and discovered from Harrington that the Bishop’s House was still standing, Harrington did not tell him that it was the hotel in which Anderson was staying. It is suspicious that Anderson finds a sealed letter in the archive which he steals, but later replaces, only to not find it again. We also thought there was possibly a portal between the hotel and the library. Furthermore, we saw a resemblance between Harrington, the shadowy figure who appears on the wall of Anderson’s room, and the ghostly figure of room 13. The latter was especially effectively conveyed, with flickering of the sound and the image recalling older technology (the pre-digital ‘snowy’ reception of some televisions). This poor signal transmission also prompted us to think of spiritualist séances.
We commented on the effectiveness of the TV episode. We thought it (and especially the shadowy figure and the flickering ghost in room 13) was good and scary. We were especially impressed by David Burke’s moving performance when he learned of the horrible fate suffered by an earlier ‘Cambridge man’ he believed had skipped out on his bill. However, the foreshadowing of this ‘revelation’ and the over-explanation on finding the man’s belongings seemed a little heavy-handed. This is far less the case in the short story. Conversely, we found that the changing of room 13’s physical dimensions was, surprisingly, subtler in the TV version, with the explanation for Anderson’s disappearing case (it had been subsumed into the newly appearing room 13) not obvious.
We pondered more the fact that Anderson never questions his own sanity in the face of such happenings, and especially contrasted this to the ‘usual’ doubting gothic heroines. Number 13 is comparable in some ways to Miss Christina (2013, Alexandru Mafeti). In our discussion of this film (which you can find here: https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2017/10/04/summary-of-discussion-on-miss-christina/) we noted that film’s couple, Egor (Tudor Aaron Istodor) and Sanda (Ioana Anastasia Anton), both occupied the position of heroine at various points in the narrative. Despite Number 13’s introduction of a female character, she remains minor, and the focus is on one character, Anderson. Anderson is very different to Egor in Miss Christina. While the former is a prissy and inexperienced scholar, the latter is a passionate, engaged painter. However, similarities to Miss Christina also occur. Anderson’s experiencing of the supernatural is shared by two other men – the landlord Gunton and the lawyer Jenkins. In Miss Christina, the painter Egor is also validated by two men, in his case a medical doctor and a professor of archaeology.
We commented that the equivalent of such fraternal confirmation is usually unavailable to a gothic heroine, since there are often fewer other women in gothic narratives. Furthermore, women in gothic-set narratives (often taking place in the past) rarely have professions. The exceptions are the domestic roles of governess (The Innocents, 1961, Jack Clayton), housekeeper or companion (The Spiral Staircase, 1946, Robert Siodmak). Instead, heroines often enter the space of the gothic house through marriage, as new brides – in Rebecca (1940, Alfred Hitchcock), Gaslight (1940, Thorold Dickinson, 1944 George Cukor) etc. Anderson, however, enters the gothic space of the hotel temporarily, as a man on academic business, which is less likely to be open to a woman travelling alone. Such a situation also occurs in The Woman in Black (2012, James Watkins), in which a lawyer (male, obviously, but also like Professor Anderson, middle-class), gains access to the gothic house for a short period because he is working on legal issues.
This clearly shows the separation existing between the male and female gothics. While the former centres on a man and uses horror and explanations for what occurs, the latter focuses on a woman and employs terror to invoke and convey a supposedly hysterical response to a woman’s situation. Both Miss Christina and Number 13, focusing more on men, over-explain the cause of the supernatural. We weren’t sure if we approved of a man being the centre of a gothic story, as it is one of the few areas women occupy. While some may view them as passive heroines, it is significant that in our discussion of various films we have focused on the ways in which they take action.
Other texts we mentioned in relation to Number 13 were Ex Machina (2015, Alex Garland) (where the man is also the heroine). Aspects of film style were also referenced as we noted the whispering behind the walls reminded us of The Innocents, and the shadow on the wall of Vampyr (1932, Carl Theodor Dreyer). Although we discussed class at length, we also picked up on the opposition between city and rural evinced in Number 13. Anderson is not only dismissive of the local superstition against the number 13, but seems to feel at risk when walking in the country, seeing local people gathered around burning bins. This particularly reminded us of the sacrifice of the virgin outsider in The Wicker Man (1973, Robin Hardy), and of Shirley Jackson’s unsettling 1948 short story The Lottery.
If you would like to see some more MR James adaptations, and learn more about the man himself, BBC 4 is devoting Christmas Eve night to the author and his works. You can (re)view Number 13 at 10.40pm.
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All are very welcome to join us for our last screening before the end of term. We will be showing a television adaptation of the M.R. James short story Number 13 (2006, 40 mins) on Monday the 11th of December, 5-7pm, in Jarman 6.
Part 2 of the BBC’s 4 part occasional A Ghost Story for Christmas strand (2005-2013), Number 13 stars Greg Wise as Oxbridge academic Professor Anderson. Anderson is visiting a hotel in a cathedral town to authenticate some historical papers, but while researching long ago history becomes fixated on a current mystery – the room next door. Room 13, however, is said not to exist….
Do join us, if you can, for some pre-Christmas viewing.
Our discussion after viewing the uncensored (discovered in 2004) version of Baby Face (1933, Alfred Green) focused on several areas. These included its heroine Lily (Barbara Stanwyck), comparison and contrasts to heroines (and female stars) of other pre-code films such as Red-Headed Woman and Rain, Lily’s relationships with men (especially Courtland Trenholm, played by George Brent), the film’s writers, and differences between the censored and uncensored versions of the films.
One of the first remarks when we finished viewing the film, concerned the efficiency of Lily’s (Barbara Stanwyck’s) rise to the top. We commented on the effective visual way in which her speedy sexual conquest of all men she met was conveyed. This is notable in terms of Lily ascending the floors of the Gotham Trust Tower as she improves her career prospects by sleeping with the bosses of each department. Lily’s accommodation also progresses. She moves from the tacky bar in Pennsylvania in which she grew up to cheap rooms in New York. While Lily is working, she is shown incongruously living in more palatial apartment with a stunning staircase, maid (her friend Chico) and butler, and ends the film as a married woman living in the company penthouse.
Changes to Lily’s person also comment on her rise in social position. Her earlier fussy clothes and hairstyling give way to sleeker and more sophisticated fashions. Like Lily’s acquisition of a maid and butler, this can also be connected to her concern with ‘etiquette’ – the title of a book she is seen to be reading at her work desk. A poster for the film demonstrates Lily’s changing fashions, with the placement of an open book in the bottom of the left-hand corner suggesting such this has caused Lily’s transformations.
The fact that Lily’s progresses upwards, rather than spiralling downwards, comments on the fact she is a ‘bad girl’ trying to improve her situation, rather than a ‘fallen woman’. We particularly connected this to melodrama, as we compared Lily to the ‘classic’ suffering heroine in melodrama (for example, Lillian Gish in Way Down East (1920)) who despairs at her fate after an often blameless fall from grace. Lily has certainly suffered – the film spends a reasonable amount of time documenting her early life as a justification for her later actions – as it is made clear that her father has prostituted her from a young age. Yet her attitude is detached. In scenes near the beginning of the film, she calmly responds to an older man’s sexual advances with what seem to be well-worn behaviours: pouring scalding coffee over his legs, and smashing a bottle over his head.
Lily’s emotional detachment continues, even in the most melodramatic of situations. Her previous paramour Ned Stevens (Donald Cook) shoots dead her latest lover J.R. Carter (Henry Kolker) (coincidentally also until recently Stevens’ prospective father-in-law as well as his boss) before turning the gun on himself in her apartment. Initially Lily seems unsure what to do, but she soon turns pragmatic as she calmly telephones for the police to be called. Most of Lily’s responses which we can interpret as emotional – turning away, raising a handkerchief to her face and inserting a break into her voice – occur when she is caught in a compromising situation with a man by another man. Lily is unconcerned by the fate of the man she accuses of being her seducer, as she is more concerned with hoodwinking the man who has discovered the pair, lining him up as her next lover.
These consistently faked emotional responses are perhaps partly what makes the end of the film less than convincing. By this time, Lily has made it to the top of the ladder. She now occupies the company penthouse with her husband the company’s president, Courtland Trenholm (George Brent). After a while of living the high life and gathering money and jewels, the bank is in crisis, and Lily’s husband is threatened with indictment. After initially deserting her husband, Lily changes her mind not to provide the money necessary for his bail. She returns to their penthouse, only to find him near to death after attempting to take his own life. Lily rushes to him, calls his name, and visible appears upset. Her frantic calling for an ambulance notably contrasts to her earlier emotionless request for the police to attend the murder and suicide at her apartment. Although the group did not find Lily’s change of heart credible, unlike the earlier situations in which Lily affects emotion, and we the audience is privy to Lily’s manipulation, it is signalled to be ‘real’. Not only has Lily already decided to return to her desperate husband, but her concern for him extends to her behaviour in the ambulance, when she does not care that she has dropped her case of jewels on the floor.
We thought that another reason we found Lily’s return to her husband unconvincing, was that we were not given much time to invest in their relationship. Trenholm enters the narrative quite late and his and Lily’s relationship does not gradually develop. This is because her climb up the ladder involves using many men to step up to the next level – and this leaves little time. We compared this to the situation in other contemporaneous ‘bad girl’ films. In Red Headed Woman (1932), Lillian (Jean Harlow) marries a man after wrecking his first marriage. She then cheats on him with a business associate and the business associate’s chauffeur, and finally shoots her estranged husband. She does not appear to be punished by the narrative as her husband refuses to press charges, and the fact that she is seen with an older man later in film suggests that she has found someone else to take care of her. This summary of the plot, though brief, illuminates some key difference between Lillian and Lily. While Lillian seduces and marries a man at the beginning of the film, Lily only marries towards the film’s end. This suggests that Lily develops, while Lillian does not, and that Lily is indeed more contained by the narrative which sees her living within social norms at the film’s close.
Neither Lily nor Lillian are straightforward with the men with whom they have relationships, and comparison to another film – Rain (1932) – provides further insight. In this adaption of Somerset Maugham’s short story, the costuming and acting of Joan Crawford depicts Sadie as a woman who does not hide the fact that she is working as a prostitute, and as such is more honest and less manipulative than Lily and Lillian. We briefly compared the growth of Lily and Sadie. Lily’s transformation is gradual in dress and hairstyling, and with an upwards trajectory, until the final realisation which the audience may or may not choose to believe. After some time, Sadie changes overnight from a brash, heavily jewelled and carefully coiffured woman to one dressing in drab dark clothes, with simply-styled hair, and quieter gestures. The fact this is presented with almost religious overtones and is a set-piece of the film, affords it more weight in terms of character development than Lily’s. Like Lily, Sadie too is contained within an acceptable monogamous relationship at the film’s conclusion. (For more on Rain, please see our previous discussion here: https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2013/10/20/summary-of-discussion-on-rain/)
We wondered whether Crawford would have been as successful as Stanwyck at depicting a heroine who manipulated many men, but also retained audience sympathy. It was thought unlikely that Crawford would have been able to convey the sense of feigned innocence as effectively as Stanwyck. Reference to some fan and trade magazines Lies has kindly posted on our sister blog, NoRMMA, suggest that Stanywck was thought especially suitable for the role. Picture Play’s September 1933 review of the film praises Stanwyck as ‘thoughtfully convincing’, eschewing ‘the histrionic splurge of a star on the rampage’ (p. 70). (You can find Lies’ posts here: http://www.normmanetwork.com/?p=614) It is notable that Crawford was not a critical success in Rain.
We also thought that Stanwyck was a particularly effective choice. During much of the film, Lily insists on carrying on with her career and this fitted well with Stanwyck’s star image as a hard-working and no-nonsense star. After breaking up Ned Stevens’ engagement, Lily refuses his offer to look after her, stating that she wants to continue working. This was hugely relevant to female stars of the day who, unlike their male counterparts, were asked if they would continue working after they married.
We focused a little more on the film’s male characters. After manipulating so many stupid men, we initially thought that Lily had finally met her match (in both senses) with Trenholm. But he too disappoints us. He thwarts her attempt to extort money from the company by taking her at her dishonest word that she is not interested in money for her diaries (the publication of which would be explosive for the bank) but about having another chance. Lily takes up his offer of a job in their Paris office, succeeding in her new post and not turning to men for financial support. When Trenholm visits Paris, Lily contrives to take a ride with him in his car and they strike up conversation. She seemingly candidly admits that she only took the job and led a quiet life to prove him wrong. It takes just a few days, the ‘happiest’ of his life, and her clearly leading mention of marriage (she says she would like the title ‘Mrs’ on her tombstone), for him to propose. Following their marriage, Lily disappoints us too – she gives up the career she earlier insisted on keeping.
The only man who is not shown in a poor light is the cobbler, Adolf Cragg (Alphonse Athier) who recommends Lily follows Nietzsche’s philosophy. When he arrives at the bar, Lily seeks him out, telling him he is different to other men. Lily later visits him for advice after her father dies, and she continues to receive lessons in philosophy from him by post. It is notable that this lone positive view of a man is of the only non-American man playing a significant role. We could also argue that this gives an element of detachment to his advice. He is advocating cynical European philosophy rather than a more obviously optimistic ‘American’ way of life.
It was interesting to consider the source of the film – whether it was an adaptation of an existing text or an original screenplay. We especially connected this to the obvious way in which the film would have challenged censors of the day, even before the Production Code came into force in 1934. In some ways it seemed almost taunting in its almost conveyor belt style production line of men in Lily’s life. The story was provided, under a pseudonym, by Daryl F. Zanuck – head of Production at Warner Bros. Given that Zanuck would have had particular insight into the threat of industry censorship, this seemed a brave move when the industry was attempting to keep censorship a more ‘in-house’ matter. While Zanuck wrote the framework of the story (presumably the main plot line of Lily working her way up the ladder), some of the more nuanced aspects which intervene in the matter of career are perhaps attributable to the screenwriters Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola. The pair also worked together on the films Female and Midnight Mary, both released the same year as Baby Face.
Scola was one of several female screenwriters who worked on such films at the time. Others included Anita Loos (who began work on Midnight Mary before it was passed to Markey and Scola), and Ursula Parrot who wrote the novel The Divorcee (1930) is based on (you can see our discussion of the film here: https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2013/02/28/a-summary-of-discussion-on-the-divorcee/) While we cannot presume that Scola was responsible for the aspects which seemed especially progressive for women (such as Lily’s insistence on her career), it is also the case that while there is a certain applauding of Lily turning the tables on men who have abused her, this is not uncomplicated. We may see this as a form of feminism today, but it is difficult to know what the intent as at the time.
It is possible that the depiction of the friendship between Lily and the African-American Chico (Theresa Harris) is from a more female point of view. The film may not be seen to be very advanced in the roles it casts Chico in (we assume that, like Lily, she is used by men for sex, and later she becomes Lily’s maid). However, the relationship between Lily and Chico is more important. Early on, Lily protects Chico when her father threatens her, saying that if Chico she will too. Lily also looks after Chico as they travel to New York, and later when employing her as a maid she treats her kindly.
As noted earlier, we watched the uncensored version of the film. This was therefore closer to what the screenwriters originally intended. We commented on some of the differences between the censored and uncensored versions. Lily and her husband are punished in the uncensored version to some extent as his life hangs in the balance, and it is assumed they may lose some, or all, of their money fighting his criminal case. While the censored version makes a couple of other changes (a less lingering shot of Lily from the man she pours coffee over, a rewording of the justification by the cobbler of Nietzsche), the ending is the most significant. Neither Stanwyck nor Brent appear in this, instead the voice of morality is given to the banking board as they comment that the couple has returned to Lily’s home town, and are poor and miserable. Stanwyck and Brent’s absence may be due to scheduling conflicts, but it is significant that we do not actually see the couple in this situation. The fact that an all-male board of bankers passes judgement may be seen to relate to censors of the day. While we cannot be sure of the position bankers held in the view of ordinary people of the day, the film was released only a few years after the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and during the Great Depression. Bankers then, as now, may not have been seen as moral arbiters.
We made a further connection to more traditional melodrama. We noted that characters in some stage melodramas, were also able to indulge in certain behaviour for much of the narrative before a swift and perhaps unconvincing turn around at the end. This was sometimes even supplied outside of the narrative, as a woman delivered a brief moral lecture after the play ended, warning the audience against such behaviour.
Such a disjuncture between the behaviour that goes on and that which is approved of is especially interesting at the time when the supposed ‘casting couch’ in Hollywood (female starlets enduing he attentions of more powerful men in order to advance their careers) is said to have operated. It also seems especially apt given the gulf between what is preached about Hollywood today, and the behaviour which actually occurs. This continuation in the inequality of power between the sexes, and the complexity of women’s advancement in terms of careers, makes Baby Face even more relevant than ever. We hope to build on the discussion here with screenings of more pre-code films next term (stay tuned for more information!) and to further our engagement with materials from the time on the NoRMMA blog.
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