Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Movies: Mills of the Gods (1934), Ex-Lady, Female

Last night's line-up at Film Forum's "Breadlines and Champagne" Depression/Recession festival featured pre-code films at their best—not because they are racy (though Ex-Lady is, a bit) or because they're racist, but because they all featured high-powered career women who run their sex lives as efficiently as their businesses. Of course, the final minutes of each film flips back on its promises and silences the woman with a wedding—pre-code audiences, it seems, for all their delight in debauchery, couldn't stand the precedent of a single girl having a happy ending all to herself.

Mills of the Gods is the only exception to that rule, perhaps because its didactic intentions are more pointedly about class than gender warfare. A nerves-of-steel matriarch who has run a mill since her husband's death finally decides to retire, but none of her family members—a lay-about son, a fur-collecting daughter, a saucy granddaughter, and a weakling grandson—want to take over; they are having too good a time spending her fortune in Europe. When the Depression threatens business to the point that the mill may close, and the workers rise up in revolt, she sends for them all, and they return to the states. But they refuse to give up their personal trust fund to keep the business going, and plan their return overseas. Before they leave, though, the leader of the labor rabble seduces the saucy granddaughter; she drives him up to a woodland hideout and then spends the night (though he cooks the dinner and she invites him to her bed). After that, she's a convert, and convinces her brother to vote along with her and grandma to release the trust fund and reopen the mill. Her one-time lover refuses to remain with her (her only punishment for transgressing society's sexual morays) because of their economic differences, but she and grandma ride off happily ever after, career women to the death.

Ex-Lady, conversely, sees a career girl married off. Bette Davis, luscious in long white silks in a grand apartment of her own, makes her living as an illustrator and gets her kicks having a secret affair. When her lover insists that they get married, she refuses. When her parents drop in one morning, uninvited, and catch her with her lover, and insist that she get married, she refuses. But when her lover threatens to leave her because of it, she yields. They marry, but she's soon frustrated; every fear she had about the arrangement has come true. Both partners are unhappy, bored, jealous; her husband flirts openly with another woman; to get back at him, she successfully pursues a business account that he himself lost. They decide to separate, and try to live as lovers again, but the "open" arrangement only feeds the fire of jealousy. Ultimately, they decide to move in together again and live as husband and wife, certain that a little tedium is better than burning suspicion. I think I prefer the "unhappy" ending of this movie's contemporary version (The Break-Up), in which the parties move on instead of settling. I'm not ready, personally, to accept that being bored together is better than being lonely apart; the first option has less potential for redemption than the second.

If Ex-Lady reminded me of myself in a relationship, Female reminded me of myself out of one. The super-powered heroine runs an entire automobile company (having taken over after her father's death—family business seems the only way for girls to get their start in the '30s), barking orders to her boardroom, her secretaries, and her phone by day. Each night, though, she's invited another intriguing young man from the company to her home for dinner. There, she's dropped the suit for something slinky, and the postprandial discussion turns constantly to romance, rather than business. She pages her staff to bring vodka, incapacitating her victim, and when the man shows up at work the next morning, with flowers and promises of devotion, she has him transferred to a far-away department where she'll never have to see him again. She goes on in this desperate way, having less and less luck, when she meets her match—a new engineer who won't have any of it. They'd already met one night when she went out into the streets "in disguise" as a nobody—she picked him up at a shooting gallery, they went dancing, ate a hamburger, and then he got away. When he finds out that he's working for her, he won't give her the time of day in a romantic way, instead preferring his fawning, doe-eyed secretary. Our heroine takes her male secretary's advice, and plays at being girlish and silly; this works to a degree, but when she laughs at his proposal of marriage, he storms off again. It's not until she's caught in the middle of work and love and chooses the later—blowing off a meeting with bankers to follow the engineer once he's run off—that he takes her back. To cement their love, she insists that he take over the company's operations so that she can have nine children, and driving off to the bank together, the man back behind the wheel, those cheerful letters spell out The End.

The End! The end of her freedom and desperation: why do these things always come hand-in-hand? It's reassuring for a girl to see that her 2009 problems infuriated girls 75 years ago, but disappointing to find out that 75 years haven't brought about a better solution.

1 comment:

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