Review by Matt Bailey
Posted on 10 July 2004
Source Turner Classic Movies broadcast
Ruth Chatterton is Alison Drake, the tough-as-nails president of an automobile manufacturing company whose management technique seems to consist entirely of barking such directives down the phone line as “tell him to get me a better offer,” or “that’s my answer and that’s final,” in between eyeing her all-male staff and inviting one or another of them to join her at home that evening to “talk over some ideas.” She is as efficient and brash in her love affairs as she is in her business affairs. When one of her underlings becomes a little tiresomely jealous, she has him shipped off to work in Montreal. When one young aesthete fails to succumb to her charms and compares her to a marble statue, she sends him off to study art in Paris.
Miss Drake takes a new recruit home every night, and what a home it is. She has a pipe organ mounted in the middle of one massive wall played by someone who apparently must levitate to reach his seat and to whom absolutely no one listens play. Her butler brings her and her latest boy toy a decanter of vodka at the ring of a bell because that is what Catherine the Great served to her soldiers to “fortify their courage.” She is kneaded by her own in-house masseuse while she relaxes by reading Vanity Fair. Her life is based entirely on sex and cars and getting everything she wants.
One night, Drake throws a lavish party at her mansion (which is actually the Ennis House, the same oddball Frank Lloyd Wright house that is featured in the original House on Haunted Hill, in The Howling II, and is also where Angel used to stay on Buffy when he went evil). Fed up with the flattery and false pretenses of her guests, she tears off in her Rolls Royce to some place where she can be “nobody.” That place turns out to be a boardwalk shooting gallery where she meets and flirts with George Brent. They get along just fine. They dance, they eat hamburgers, but he doesn’t take her home. Drake, now obsessed with this man who gave her a good time without even knowing her name, gets a real surprise when she shows up for work tomorrow and discovers that she has hired him as the new “gear-shift genius.” Unfortunately, Brent’s character wants nothing more to do with her now that he knows she is the boss lady. Determined to get her man one way or another, Drake transforms herself into a helpless girl who needs protecting, abandons her duties as president of her company, and begins dreaming about “having nine babies.” From a feminist perspective, the film is loathsome, but there’s no denying that it’s a hoot.
Made in 1933 just before the Hays Office started cracking down on the content of films, Female is essentially a male fantasy of subjugation and domination. What makes this bitter pill easy to swallow (and what makes this film the definition of guilty pleasure) is the character of Alison Drake, her numerous outfit changes, and her utter outrageousness. Her ridiculous conversion from executive to housewife in the span of an hour is practically head-spinning in its lack of motivation. She begins the film as a cartoon of a woman trying to act like a man and ends as a cartoon of a woman trying to act like a girl. How happy do we really think she’ll be having abandoned her high-powered position to change diapers? After all, this is a woman who pays someone to towel her off after a shower.
This sixty-minute film had no less than three directors: William Dieterle, who was cranking out film after film for Warner Bros. and Fox in the 1930s, began the film but fell ill; William Wellman, director of so many great pre-Code films like Night Nurse and The Public Enemy took over and finished the film; but Michael Curtiz, who only shot a few scenes when an actor was replaced, gets sole credit on the film. Nonetheless, much of the film is recognizable as Wellman’s — the matter-of-fact sexuality, the camera that stalks the actors like prey, the efficient turns of plot. It’s too bad that no one seems to recognize Wellman as an auteur of early sound cinema. He’s really one of those directors who gets little acclaim, even though many of his films are considered unquestionable classics. Of course, his output was so vast and varied (more than 80 films in just over 30 years), so much of his work was done for hire, and so many of his films probably lost or unseen for decades that it is not too surprising that he’s all but forgotten.
Anyhow, Female is more than just a museum piece from that short era after the introduction of sound and before the enforcement of the Hays Code; it’s a strangely involving, patently absurd, wildly entertaining movie. And it’s only an hour long. How cool is that?