Sunday, March 13, 2011

Get Thee to Matrimony - the Single, Working Women's Films of the 1940s

I've been watching some films lately that centre around women and their opportunities in the 1940s. There was quite an influx in this decade (and in the 30s and 50s) of films about working women whose aim is, not for a promotion or a pay rise, but to marry and surrender to family life. Because let's face it, in those days equal pay was not happening, but marriage was always in the market. On the one hand, it endorses women in the workforce, but it does that so long as they are single. Once marriage comes along it's bye bye labour and hello bubs. Of course there are probably variations, but it's just interesting to see how these heroines are often both liberated and confined in what society allows of them.

Kitty Foyle (1940) ~ Here you have a toned down, stripped to brown hair color and ultimately Oscar-winning Ginger Rogers in what was arguably her first serious role. It was all about RKO giving her an actress-y vehicle, equipped with notable director Sam Wood (Goodbye Mr. Chips), nice set, costume and hair, and good supporting cast. The film itself is about a gal from a working-class Irish background who falls in love with a rich-bred man (Dennis Morgan) in whose world she ultimately can't fit.

The film begins with a pre-1940s context of what women had to deal with - it shows a woman whose goal in life is to marry well and then shows her in a lavish setting in which her husband works while she's at home. Yet she becomes discontent, sets off for work and joins the women's suffragette.

The plight of Ginger Rogers' Kitty Foyle, and of several working gals of the 30s and 40s, is the somewhat reverse. She starts off as the worker, as the independent gal earning her own income (she herself says "...nobody owes a thing to Kitty Foyle, except Kitty Foyle") for whom marriage is the end of her efforts. Indeed, after reaching the position of manager (or thereabouts) of a perfumerie in Philadelphia, she resigns and marries a doctor. The important thing for her is that she married a man who fits her terms, a man who worked his way up the ranks just as she did (unlike Morgan's character who was born into privilege) and, perhaps, a man through whom she can live out her ideals. It's not quite the feminism of the 70s, indeed it's a bit contradictory and roundabout, but it's a step in that general direction.

Tom, Dick and Harry (1941) ~ Where Kitty Foyle was a drama, here is a comedy about a twenty-something middle-American girl on the quest for Mr. Right. What sets this one apart is that it's quite a fun ride. Ginger plays Janie, a gal who's ready to settle down, but has trouble deciding between three would-be suitors including wealthy Dick (Alan Marshal), ambitious Tom (George Murphy) and humble Harry (Burgess Meredith. Through the film she accepts the engagement of all three and embarks in wild fantasies of what it would be like to be either Mrs. Tom, Dick or Harry. These fantasies are incredibly exaggerated and pretty funny as a result.

The film swims along at a good regular pace, with peppy dialogue that seems to come out naturally, and has good support from Phil Silvers as an icecream vendor and Lenore Lonergan as Janie's rather prying sister 'Butch.' The ending is quite interesting in how it allows Janie to choose romantic love over a marriage that will get her ahead in life. Perhaps one can argue that because her ultimate partner is not the richest fellow in the world, she too will need to work allowing for greater equality between the sexes. Though how long that would last once the babies come along is harder to decipher.

Every Girl Should Be Married (1948) ~ Yet another comedy that shares some notes with the earlier films. Aside from the film's title being a more aggressive indication of what the first two films were ultimately about, you have the twenty-something gal (Betsy Drake) looking for, who was that, why it's Mr. Right. There's a slight deviation however. The first two films are essentially set during the war (there's even a scene in Tom, Dick and Harry where Janie and Tom walk out of the cinema just as a Hitler news reel comes on).

On the other hand, Every Girl Should Be Married is a postwar product. In a way there's a more desperate tone to it perhaps echoing the importance of the nuclear family. Notably, Grant's character Madison is a 'baby doctor (his deprecating words),' who is a staunch bachelor without any intentions of having his own family. The film's goal then is to convert Grant into a reformed family man and for Drake's persistent (and kind of stalkerish) Anabel to conduct the operation.

Otherwise it's an entertaining enough film. To keep it off the beaten track of being tedious too quickly, it's coloured with other characters - you have Franchot Tone as a wealthy guy who Anabel utilises to make Madison jealous, Diana Lynn all grown up (that wise beyond her years youngster from The Major and the Minor and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek) and a cameo from Eddie Albert at the end. Just like Kitty Foyle, Annabel gets the doctor in the end.

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