The musicals, crime melodramas, and, especially, romantic comedies created by Hollywood in the 1930’s and 1940’s, the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood, have remained unmatched for their glamour and style. American films of this period had great limitations placed upon them by a highly regulated studio system and by the censorship of the Production Code. Despite these limitations—some would claim even because of them—Hollywood’s most talented screenwriters, directors, actors, and technicians produced several hundred wonderfully sophisticated films.
In Fast-Talking Dames, Maria DiBattista examines a handful of the best romantic comedies from the mid-1930’s through the early 1940’s, discussing the way these films depicted women, used the American vernacular, and exploited the star power of the best actresses of the time. She disdains “the feminist critique of film as a tool of ideological oppression and the camera as an instrument of the male gaze,’ catering to voyeurs and fetishists.” Less concerned with how the medium used women than with how actresses conveyed images of strong, active women, DiBattista sees her primary subject as “the fast, syncopated rhythm that makes the American language distinct” and considers the actresses who delivered these lines as “verbal muses.” Such a study is worthwhile, she argues, because the fast-talking dame is “one of the most impressive and most influential creations of the talkies.” Holding their own with men on the screen, even controlling them, reinventing them, these were perhaps the strongest women characters ever created by American popular culture.
While the term “dame” was a pejorative during this period, DiBattista sees the women she celebrates as balking at traditional gender roles, insistent upon shaping their destinies, and declaring their independence. These dames can achieve their goals by the force of their personalities as expressed by their language. They define themselves by speaking their minds. DiBattista sees the characters they portray and the actresses’ manner of speaking as inseparable. She calls attention to “the way Constance Bennett could articulate vowels, making them sound as svelte as her art deco body.” Actresses such as Jean Arthur and Claudette Colbert were stars in part because of the distinctiveness of their voices.
The fast-talking dames speak as they do because the times demanded it. They represent the instability of American society during a period of great social, political, and economic change. Whether from the working class or the idle rich, they share urban values, knowledge about how the world works, and a love of wit: “Speed is the catalyst that quickens these values and brings them to fruition.” Fast talking is appropriate for women hurtling through life.
The quickness of their intellect stimulates the men around them. The crude salesman played by Roscoe Karns in It Happened One Night (1934) describes Colbert as a “high-class mama that can snap ’em back at ya.” Colbert can easily fend off his advances because she is much smarter. In such comedies, “you triumph—morally as well as sexually—if you think fast and talk even faster. Men must be found—or formed—to answer to such demands.” Rosalind Russell dominates the newspaperman’s world of His Girl Friday (1940) because she does not just keep up with the pace of the fastest-talking (240 words a minute) American comedy but sets it.
According to DiBattista, these films are romantic and sophisticated because they demonstrate how language can create desire. The fast-talking women use their sharp tongues to escape danger, to establish their equality, but also to entice. As shown by Myrna Loy and William Powell in the Thin Man series (1934-1947), couples retain their romantic edge through their respect for the quickness of each other’s minds. Such films illustrate the self-reliance and inventiveness of Americans. Written largely by playwrights, novelists, and journalists from New York and Chicago, these romantic comedies influenced the language and attitudes of the rest of the country, leaving “their flippant, cynical, but undeniably witty imprint on the national character.”
DiBattista supports her points through analyzing performances by eleven actresses and a handful of films. The hard-edged cynicism depicted by Jean Arthur in such films as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) is given a spin not only by her husky yet squeaky voice but by an occasionally stammering insecurity. Her voice is expressive even when language fails her character. DiBattista can be faulted for discussing this remarkable actress’ work in these two Frank Capra films that have not held up as well as they might at the expense of the much superior Easy Living (1937) and The More the Merrier (1943). The...
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