Pre-Code Crazy: Female (1933)
Ruth Chatterton doesn’t get nearly as much attention as she should.
And that’s a real shame.
Perhaps best known for co-starring opposite Walter Huston in Dodsworth (1936), Chatterton was a pre-Code icon, appearing in no fewer than 20 features from the era, including some of my favorites – Frisco Jenny (1932), Lilly Turner (1933), and Journal of a Crime (1934). While she was a big star in her heyday, she’s probably lesser-known now because she retired from the big screen in the late 1930s, but she certainly didn’t take spend her retirement knitting in a rocking chair on the front porch. She not only continued her career on the stage, but she became a prominent aviator and wrote several best-selling novels in the 1950s. And according to her biographer, Scott O’Brien, the actress in real life was “ambitious, independent and had ideas of her own. She was what they call ‘ahead of her time.’ She didn’t give a fig what people thought. She would tell them what to think.”
Which brings us to my TCM Pre-Code Crazy pick of the month: Female (1933), in which, much like the actress herself, Chatterton’s character (for most the film, at least) is one badass, give ‘em hell, take no prisoners sister.
What’s it about?
Chatterton plays Alison Drake, president of the Drake Motor Car Company. It doesn’t take long for us to see the kind of female she is: a confident and intelligent multi-tasker – one minute she’s sternly chiding her all-male group of underlings, and the next she’s catching up with a visiting school chum between answering telephone calls, signing important papers, and barking orders over the intercom.
We learn, too, that her business is uppermost in her list of priorities – she’s disdainful of love and lovers. But don’t misunderstand; Alison isn’t completely immune to the peculiar charms of the male species. She may not be interested in romance or marriage, but when she’s got an itch that needs to be scratched, she’s not above inviting young, attractive employees to her home for a “business meeting,” which invariably morphs into, shall we say, less business and more pleasure.
Over time, though, Alison grows frustrated with the sycophants and hypocrites with whom she’s surrounded. “Doesn’t anybody like me for myself?” she complains piteously. Determined to enjoy at least one evening free from the yes men in her life, she sheds her finery and heads for a part of the city where she can rub elbows with the locals. Once there, she meets a man (George Brent) at a shooting gallery, and winds up spending the next few hours with him, sharing a couple of burgers and a few dances at the dime-a-dance joint before he heads off – alone (“You’re a nice kid,” he says, “but I don’t take pickups home with me. Understand?”). As it turns out, the man is Jim Thorne, the new engineering genius who’s been hired by the Drake Company – and in the blink of an eye, Alison’s neatly ordered world is turned upside down.
I love the scene where Thorne discovers that Alison is his boss. It’s his first day on the job and he’d just bumped into her – literally – in another part of the plant and, still knowing her as his “pickup” from the previous evening, accuses her of stalking him. A few minutes later, when he arrives at Alison’s office and sees her seated behind the desk, he tells her to vacate the chair “before the boss comes in.” And then he actually SNAPS HIS FINGERS AT HER, like she’s a dog: “Come on, come on, come on, come on,” he says. It’s really quite something. But Alison is as cool as the other side of the pillow – she doesn’t even react, just tells him to sit down. To this, Thorne offers a smirk and this arrogant commentary: “Baby, you certainly are fresh.” But then Alison serves up a one-two punch, first efficiently answering the intercom and then responding to the secretary who enters the room. The look on Thorne’s face is priceless as the realization of Alison’s position begins to sink in. And this time, when she tells him to sit down, he does.
Who sez my favorite quote?
Alison (of course), when she informs her college pal that she hasn’t got time for romance:
“It takes too much time and energy,” she proclaims. “To me, a woman in love is a pathetic spectacle. She’s either so miserable that she wants to die, or she’s so happy, you want to die. . . . A long time ago, I decided to travel the same open road that men travel. So I treat men exactly the way they’ve always treated women. Oh, of course, I know for some women, men are a household necessity. Myself? I’d rather have a canary.”
The famed Ennis House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, was used as the exterior of Alison Drake’s home. You can see parts of it in several scenes.
In one scene, Alison gets a report from a private detective she’s hired to track the goings-on in the life of Jim Thorne outside of the office. The detective includes in his report that Thorne attended a performance of James Cagney in Picture Snatcher – which, like Female, was released by Warner Bros. (Talk about shameless plugs!)
Ruth Chatterton and co-star George Brent co-starred the previous year in Lilly Turner, and were married in August 1932. They divorced in October 1934, but reportedly remained close friends.
The screenplay for Female was written by Kathryn Scola and Gene Markey, who was married at the time to actress Joan Bennett. He later married Hedy Lamarr, and then Myrna Loy. Scola and Markey also wrote the screenplay for Lilly Turner.
Female airs January 9th on TCM. Do yourself a favor and check it out. You won’t be sorry.
Don’t forget to visit Speakeasy to check out this month’s Pre-Code Crazy pick from Kristina, my partner in pre-Code crime!