Wednesday, July 02, 2003

I'm so sick my hair hurts, but Kate Hepburn's passing has planted the seed of yet another sweeping speculative self-indulgence, which is just the sort of half-arsed thing we do here at blogorrhoea, so here goes.

Now, I like Kate Hepburn films as much as the next chronically miserable old git, but I do have to admit I tire just a skerrick of all this talk about her putting the world's women in pants and generally transforming the lot of women in general. You see, I reckon we'd likely never have heard of her had she been born a quarter of a century later or a coupla socio-economic notches down the order. In my my stubbornly Marxian opinion, her time and place made her a whole lot more than she made her time and place (which is not to say she did not make her time and place a whole lot more than most of the rest of us little bags of soggy carbon, of course).

Here's why.

Conventional wisdom has it that the bosses responded to the Great Depression by sacking the women first, the notion-du-jour being that the employment of women, especially married women, meant taking jobs away from their rightful owners, men. Well, that may have been the ruling idea, but it wasn't really what happened at all. You see, it was manufacturing that was hit hardest, and in this bastion of masculinity the jobs simply disappeared - no predatory women snapping up men's jobs at all - nothing. In fact, throughout the economy it was the better paid jobs that were hit hardest, and 'better-paid jobs' meant men's jobs. Lower-paid work, then mostly confined to the service sector, was the province of women, and this sector actually grew throughout the depression. Millions of families were in fact pulled through the depression by millions of women working for low wages.

And so we come to the young Kate.

By the time she marched briskly on to the set of 'Little Women' in 1933, American women were learning the hard way that men could not be relied upon to bring home the bacon. That was of course not the fault of men (at least, not the men of the working class), but there can be little doubt that 'masculinity' (excuse pomo quote marks, but this is exactly what they're for) was undergoing some dramatic revision. Discourse was showing itself to be a function of material relations, and timeless truths were getting old. Women whose families were dependent on their capacity to wash, mend, file, fuck, cook and clean for money were not dependent on their husbands. They'd not sit happily through movies portraying them solely as chatels, ornaments, prizes and ankle-twisters because that just didn't make sense any more. Brutally hard though their reality must have been, it was a reality in which women's agency, responsibility and significance had been enhanced.

The cinema was one of the cheapest forms of entertainment available in the early thirties, and the recent innovation of sound had seen the medium thrive. As a mass medium dependent directly on bums on seats, the cinema of the period was particularly sensitive to transforming tastes. Hollywood's 'Golden Age' was at hand, and among its harbingers was a bevy of brand new starlets - none of 'em sounded conventional (Mae West's swaggering throatisms, Greta Garbo's exotic accent, Marlene Dietrich's boudoir-ennui, Bette Davis's mannered mouthings, and then there's Kate's own haughty smartypantsiness). None of 'em looked quite like spunks of the silver screen should look, either - they all had memorable looks, sure, but none was doll-like in that painted-on quasi-kibuki style so typical of the silent period, if you know what I mean. I'm sure the Powers-That-Were recognised the socio-sexual-political oomph those babes had at their command, because in 1934 the Hayes Commission did its best to put the uppity floozies back in their place. Sexuality and character-power residing well beyond the reach of the censoring pen, our heroines serenely rode this officious buffetting.

Their films showed them in the sorts of jobs women had in those days - or at least might realistically have coveted; it was the women who got the lines by which the films are remembered; if the woman's character was to be transformed, it would be her doing the transforming, and it was typically the women who drove the plot in general and the chatting up in particular (women's seductive arsenal being confined to 'wiles' up to that time). Bette Davis knocked out 'Of Human Bondage' in '34 (in which she resonates with her times as a toff-seducing waitress floozy), 'Dangerous' (alcoholic anti-heroine) in '35, 'Jezebel' in '38 (wilful man-bothering heroine) and 'Dark Victory' in '39 (terminally ill heroine); Mae West gave us 'I'm no Angel' (smart-talking minx dodges murder wrap and wows high society) in '33, 'Belle of the Nineties' (*Variety* thought this one 'not sufficiently emasculated') in '34 and 'Klondike Annie' in '36 (runaway faux missionary); Marlene Dietrich brooded through 'The Blue Angel' (nightclub warbler and bored wife goes it alone) and 'Morocco' (femme fatale, natch) in '30, and 'Shanghai Express' (gal with a secret in seminal [ovarian?] train flick) in 1932; Greta Garbo was a fine spook in 'Ninotchka' in '39; and Kate Hepburn came to public notice in 'Little Women' in '33 (identified as a feminist film even then, by Thornton Delahunty of the NY Post), and waxed zanily-in-control through the likes of 'Bringin Up Baby' in '38 and 'Holiday' in '38).

... continued below ...

So the Golden Age of Hollywood was born because masculinity took a transforming socio-economic hit in the 1930s. If you reckon this sounds like plain ol' vulgar Marxian cultural materialism, you'd be right. And I reckon this relations-of-production-conditions-culture line does just as good a job of explaining the forties. The Golden Age actually survived into the forties because gender lines were rejuvenated by December 7th 1941. As it's a wholly sensible article of US foreign policy to send it chaps abroad to fight, the economy was left to the devices of American womanhood. Even that most butch of bastions, the resurgent heavy manufacturing sector, was now obliged to open its doors to women. The feminising of cinema could not help but proceed apace. Our Kate famously produced and starred in 'The Philadelphia Story' in '40, Bette Davis did 'Now, Voyager' (spinster transforming herself) in '42 and 'Mr Skeffington' (wife transforming herself) in '44; and the young Lauren Bacall also did 'To Have And Have Not' (as apprentice femme fatale) in '44. These were simply the sorts of gals who made sense in the first half of the forties.

Victory brought the surviving chaps, replete with a new-found self-confidence, home to a re-energised economy (war typically does Uncle Sam the world of good). Lauren Bacall welcomed them home with lines that would have made Mae West blush (Humphrey's Marlowe: 'Speaking of horses ... you've got a touch of class, but I don't know how far you can go'; Lauren's Vivian: 'A lot depends on who's in the saddle. Go ahead, Marlowe. I like the way you work. In case you don't know it, you're doing alright.')

Trific stuff, but already the war of the sexes had been rejoined. MEN were BACK! So a new dimension came to supplement the cinematic female persona. We couldn't just take away all those brains, all that strength of character, and all that sexual assertiveness, so we lent it a malicious hue. Marlowe's first-person narrative is an example of the male point of view recovering its old possie at stage centre, and pretty soon, film-noire's hero (invariably a chap) is unwittingly tossed hither and tither by Female Power Gawn Bad. We're back to the sort of woman a concerned Samuel Johnson saw all about him a coupla centuries earlier, "the woman's body gives her so much power, the law very wisely gives her none' (paraphrased, but close to the mark, I'm sure). I reckon you can still see this carefully constructed superbitch at work thirty or forty years later (Dynasty's Alexis Carrington and that nasty baggage in either or both Melrose Place and 90210 come to mind). So, yeah, women still have all the properties that made the femme films of the thirties and early forties, but with the coming of film noire, we see this power in light of earlier days: as malicious feminine wiles. Shades of Eve and the fatal apple.

Anyway, Ava Gardner's probably the best example of Transition-Leading-Lady-circa-1950 (dangerous femme fatale), then we get the saddest cultural moment in US history (McCarthy and the HUAC), and then we're back to the yummie fluffpuppets (eg Marilyn), bright-eyed innocents (eg. Doris Day) and noble mums (eg. June Lockhart) of the fifties, God's back in his heaven, and US cinema's Golden Age is consigned to the cutting floor.

And Kate? Well, unlike most of the others, she stayed the distance. She'd have to do her independent-woman schtick in ways appropriate to the times, of course (gutsy and virtuous, but thoroughly needful of a man in 'African Queen' and, I think, a studied cold dignity to take the place of the wise-ass super-chick of yore), but she seemed to know better than most where those shifting boundaries were, and she made it her business to be thereabouts for another thirty years. Ya gotta respect that.

So, does anyone who actually knows about this sorta stuff think this holds water?

I was going to take an awful lot longer on that last bit, but the loinfruit have brought a particularly interesting germ home from school, and I'm off for a Lemsip and some studiously ignored groans and shivers.

political economic and cultural observations in the register of dismal dilettantism

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