Sunday, January 12, 2014


Directors: Michael Curtiz, William A. Wellman, William Dieterle  

Starring:  Ruth Chatterton,
George Brent,
Lois Wilson,
Johnny Mack Brown,
Ruth Donnelly 

Released: 1933 

Length: 60 minutes

Before there was the Motion Picture Association of America's (MPAA) film-rating system, there was the Motion Picture Production Code, better known as the Morality Code, or simply “The Code”. Many of the Black and White films that us movie buffs love were produced during “The Code” years. That was approximately 1934 up until it weakened in the 1960’s and was abandoned in favor of the MPAA rating system in 1968.  

Films in the late 1920s and early 30s reflected the liberal attitudes of the day and could include sexual innuendos, references to homosexuality, miscegenation, illegal drug use, infidelity, and profane language, as well as women in their undergarments. Such behavior was common in the liberal climate of cities at that time, although it often shocked audiences in rural areas. 

By 1934, theatre revenues were slumping (likely, in part, due to the Depression) and those in the film industry were unhappy with the prospect of losing even more of their audience, particularly in heavily Catholic cities (New York, Boston, Chicago, etc). 

Thus, was born “The Code” with the establishment of a special bureau (eventually christened The Breen Office, after Joseph Ignatius Breen, a former public relations executive), whose purpose was to review scripts and finished prints in order to ensure that they adhered to the new Code. 

Many fans of Classical Hollywood cinema today prefer pre-Code films for their audacious attitude toward conventional morality, and their presentation of more "mature" or risqué themes generally not seen again in film until the collapse of the code system. 

Popular character roles during what is now known as “Pre-Code” Hollywood, include tough-talking, assertive women, and prostitutes. 

Recently on Turner Classic Movies, they honored “Pre-Code” Hollywood, showing some of Warner Brother’s “Forbidden Treasures” movies. One movie that caught my attention was “Female”. 

The movie trailer was most enticing. It beings with these words boldly printed across the screen; 

Most women hide their desires.
Here’s the story of one who openly flaunts them.
Ruth Chatteron stars in “Female” 

As a girl who made a career out of bossing men.
“Female” shows how modern women hunt men.
And what they do after they capture them.  

“Female” is a short film, a mere 60 minutes, but Ruth Chatteron is tremendous portraying a powerful women who likes to use men for her sexual pleasure, then discard them.  

The first 40 minutes are the best when it celebrates female empowerment. However, the prevailing social order of the 1930’s is restored by the film's end; as this dominant woman is finally tamed by a man, or at least her love for a man. Nevertheless, the plot and the fast-paced dialogue make “Female” a ground-breaking film when it comes to the portrayal of a dominant and powerful woman. As you watch this film, you must remember that this film was released in 1933. Such a female character today would not raise an eyebrow because we have become accustomed to seeing powerful female executives and assertive women, both in real life and in movies. But “Female” is about a powerful woman who likes to sleep around and she uses her position of power to facilitate her sexual conquests.

Ruth Chatterton stars as Alison Drake, known to her employees as “Miss D.” Having inherited an automobile factory from her father, she runs it brilliantly. In charge of her secretarial pool, “Pett” Pettigrew (Ferdinand Gottschalk), describes her as “a superwoman. She’s never found a man worthy of her and she never will!” 
She admits, “I treat men the way they’ve always treated women.” 
When it comes to men, she may not always buy, but she certainly does a lot of shopping. This was the element of the script that raised a red flag over at the Studio Relations Committee (SRC), the practically toothless enforcers of the Production Code at that time. Mark A. Vieira, in his excellent book “Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood”, reprints a letter sent from the head of the SRC to Warner Brothers objecting to the plot of Female:  
“...It is made very plain that she has been in the habit of sustaining her freedom from marriage, and at the same time satisfying a too definitely indicated sex hunger, by frequently inviting any young man who may appeal to her to her home and there bringing about a seduction. After having satisfied her desires with these various males, she pays no further attention to them other than to reward them with bonuses. And in the event that they become importunate, she has them transferred...”
Wingate insisted Warner Brothers eliminate this material from the film. Warner Brothers agreed and then, as most studios did at this time, completely ignored his request. The film was released with all its salaciousness intact. After Joseph Breen instituted a Production Code crackdown in mid-1934, "Female" was placed on his list of films never to be re-released under any circumstances. The film sat untouched in the vaults until the Breen Office ended in the 1950’s.  
In “Female”, Alison is cynical about love and casually seduces the attractive men in her company, but her meaningless affairs only add to her boredom and confirm her belief that men, like women, can be bought with money and power. In her private life, she is passionate and bold in her pursuit of male companionship, which she frequently finds among the ranks of her own employees and executives; the problem is that these men can't abide the fact that back at work, she's all business.  
One night, in search of excitement, Alison goes to a shooting gallery and meets Jim Thorne, who declines her sexual advances. The next day, when Jim shows up at her office, Alison learns that he is the renowned engineer she is expecting. She coolly discusses business with him and then invites him to her home. Expecting another conquest, Alison is surprised when Jim rebuffs her again.  
I love it when he tells her, “I suppose you think you’re too superior for love and marriage.”
Determined to break him, Alison successfully gets Jim alone on a country picnic, and this time, he succumbs to her charms. When he asks her to marry him, though, it is she who turns him down. Furious, he quits his job with her and leaves town.
Alison, realizing that she is truly in love, follows him, but misses a very critical business meeting. When she finally catches up with Jim, she tearfully admits that she was willing to risk bankruptcy to find him. This time, he willingly accepts her.
In addition to seeing a 70 year-old film deal with a sexually-strong female character, “Female” has a number of interesting background details. The exterior of Miss D’s home and love nest is Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House, located in the Hollywood Hills. Chatterton and the man who plays the one guy who says no without a ring, George Brent, were married at the time this film was made. There was a veritable merry-go-round of directors who worked on this film. William Dieterle began the film with cameraman Sid Hickox. When Dieterle fell ill, the film was taken over and completed by William Wellman using cameraman Ernest Haller. At that point Warner Brothers decided the lead “boy toy,” George Blackwood, was not up to the job. They replaced him with Johnny Mack Brown and brought in Michael Curtiz who ended up re-shooting half the movie and gaining the final directorial credit. 
What I love most about it is the sassy Ruth Chatteron walking in Female Authority and Female Power, portraying female sexual liberation thirty years before the Women’s Liberation movement. I also like the fact the title says it all. “Female”, meaning that it is the female nature to be strong, assertive, powerful and liberated, even as she seeks a male partner.
The ending is 1930 morality still steeped in patriarchy, after all, the Tigress can be wild and free as long as she is tamed in the end by a so-called ‘Real Man’. But I doubt if the audience bought it in 1930 and I know audiences today will identify with the Alison of the first 40 minutes of the film.  
So check your programming guide and if you ever see “Female” being shown again on Turner Classic Movies, you might want to record it and watch it. You may not find it physically erotic when compared to today’s Hollywood portrayals of dominant and powerful woman, but I think you will appreciate the intellectual eroticism of “Female”.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars


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