Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Female (1933)

I have a thing for old movies. What I love is that despite the era, the roles for women were actually pretty great. Far better in a lot of ways, then the roles today. The roles are three-dimensional, complex, and producers weren't afraid of "women's pictures" like they are today. Women carried films, they were the lead in a large number of them and very successfully. Contrast that to today, where a review of films made in 2009 showed that women only made up 32.8% of speaking roles. And in TV this year, women only constituted 40% of the main characters. That's progress. What I'm not as enamored with in older films, is that a film might have a great complex role of a independent or unusual woman, and often in the end, largely because of the Hayes code, she has to be punished for it in some way. Female, made in 1933, is one of those examples.

The film is about Alison Drake, a CEO of an auto company. She is successful, aggressive, and competent. She's the only woman on the board of directors. Additionally, she enjoys her men without attachments. Alison sees a guy she likes, she brings him home, enjoys his company, and sends him off. If at work he attempts to try for more than that (and all of them become totally enamored with her after their one night of passion, she's magical like that), she has him transferred to another office. It's kind of a refreshing change that there's a lack of slut-shaming over her behavior. I may not agree with the way she treats them, but it's rare even today to find a film like that.
Oh but then she meets the one dude who's immune to her. And of course she has to have him. And gets the advice that men like women to be soft and submissive and weak (she made the terrible mistake of competing against him in a shooting gallery when they first met, and was winning, till she threw it at the very end. Just like Annie Oakley and Frank Butler. Only wait, it didn't happen that way.). So of course, she changes to get him...and it works. He immediately, after one night again, (seriously, the woman's got some skills), runs off and gets marriage license, without talking to her about the subject and they've only known each other a few weeks, and commands her, literally, to marry him. She rejects him, and gets a lecture about how "new" women like her are pathetic and obscene and no man could ever want that, yadda yadda. And then sisters and brothers, she goes into her board of directors meeting where the company is in danger of going under because the bank wants to force her out and get in a new director before they'll grant anymore loans; and she has a complete and utter meltdown. Sobbing about how no woman should ever be in her position and she's tried to be just like the men but it's so hard you guys and she doesn't care what happens she can't do it anymore. And runs out of the room wailing. That's about when I was tempted to break the DVD in two, but since it was a library copy and I had a morbid curiosity to see the end, I refrained. Somehow or other, she collects her last remaining shred of dignity, goes back and tells them she'll stay, and will go to New York and meet with the bankers.
But yet, she decides instead to follow dirtbag, who's left town in a huff. She finally meets up with him at another shooting gallery, declares her love, says that she didn't go to meet the bankers because of him, etc. And he agrees to take her back. Because, you know, purposefully acting in a manner which will cause a company to go bankrupt and thousands of people across the country to go unemployed at the height of the Great Depression is such an admirable and romantic act. But don't fret, because the company is saved when he gives his permission for her to go to the bankers and they head for New York together. And as they drive into the sunset, she declares she never wants to set foot in a factory again, she turns control of the company over to him (because why? what qualifications does the dude have, other than being a jerk and a car engineer? has he ever in all this endless time they've had together expressed one iota of interest in running a company?), and she's going to stay home and have 9 babies. And then, oh then, he says what makes you think I'll only let you have 9? Amid gales of laughter, the film ends.
And that's when I punched the TV.

Perhaps coincidentally, or not, dirtbag is played by George Brent, an actor I dislike, mostly because it seems like he plays the macho sexist type a lot. The main role that really caused me to dislike him was in The Rains Came, a disaster film set in India. (Despite the brownface of whiter than white Tyrone Power playing an Indian doctor, and Myrna Loy, another whiter than white, playing an Anglo-Indian woman who passes as white, the film actually is not bad in addressing issues of race and racial tension.) Brent is maybe in his 40s or so in that one, and his character is in love with a girl less than half his age, I think she's only 16 or 18? And he likes to rough her up and shove her around a lot. And gee, she just can't get enough of it.

Back to Female, two stars out of five, only for the portrayal of Alison and the non-slut-shaming in the first half of the film before dirtbag shows up. Negative a million stars for the ending.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Young Philosopher by Charlotte Smith

18th Century literature, why do I love you despite all the faintings, the tremblings, the flutterings, the fits, the constant incessant weeping, the brain fevers, the dying of shock, the going mad from just about anything, the silly unbelievable coincidences, the moralizing, the clingy spineless meek women? It's everything I should hate, but yet it's like my own brand of heroin.  And then there's the kidnapping of pretty women. I mean, the United Kingdom was clearly suffering from a serious epidemic of kidnapping during this period; and apparently every other man would lay in wait to carry off an innocent woman and lock her up in a castle somewhere till he could ravish her to his heart's content and then throw her away when he was done. If it had still been going on during the Victorian period, they wouldn't have stood for it, what with their endless charitable societies with interminable names. They'd have developed The Society to Prevent the Ravishment of Innocent Young Ladies and for Allowing Them to Wander Free and Unmolested, obviously known as TSTPTROIYLAFATTWFAU for short. And clearly said villains would tremble at the name and desist.

So the story of this particular novel is, like most of it's contemporaries, fairly convoluted. The "young philosopher" is a man named George Delmont, who scorns fashion and society and money and enjoys reading and independent thought, so has a reputation as a philosopher. But the story isn't so much his, as it is the story of the woman he falls in love with, Medora Glenmorris, and her mother.  The two women are staying in the cottage of a gentleman friend of Delmont's, a certain Mr Armitage (no relation to the dude from the North and South miniseries). Mr Glenmorris, the husband/father is off fighting in the American Revolutionary War (on the side of the Americans). But because Mr Armitage is a bachelor, and because the women arrived after Mr Glenmorris had left the country; it's rumored that Mrs Glenmorris is actually Mr Armitage's mistress, and Medora is his illegitimate daughter. Rumored by who? Delmont's aunt...who inexplicably has developed a frothing seething hatred for Mr Armitage because he's JACOBIN! ATHEIST! DEIST! PHILOSOPHER! and who knows what other horrors (there's a delightful scene where Armitage points out to her that he can't be a deist and an atheist at the same time, but to no avail). No really, any time the aunt talks or thinks about Mr Armitage, she begins literally frothing at the mouth she's so enraged, her eyes become flames of red, she'll scream and rant and rave herself into a frenzy. Why? No good reason really, except I guess to give the plot one (of many) villains. So then by extension the aunt hates the other two women and is determined to ruin them and so passes around all sorts of scandals about them.

But then the plot is also about Mr & Mrs Glenmorris' previous escapades, see Mrs Glenmorris eloped with the Mr, and absconded to his castle in Scotland. Then they're attacked in said castle by American pirates (was there really a scourge of American pirates pillaging their way along the UK coast at this time? If so, why didn't we learn about this in school? I'm saddened by this neglected area of my education.), and Mr Glenmorris is kidnapped and wounded, although not necessarily in that order. Mrs Glenmorris is then kidnapped by Mr Glenmorris' aunt because she claims Mr Glenmorris is certainly dead and the aunt wants their castle and money. Mrs Glenmorris is pregnant and this aunt wants the baby and mother to die so she can inherit without hindrance. The baby dies, Mrs Glenmorris escapes, falls in with a kindly gentleman who brings her to his home, his sister hates Mrs Glenmorris (of course), there's something about the gentleman getting shot (to be honest I wasn't really paying attention and couldn't be bothered to re-read what happened), Mrs Glenmorris is kidnapped again by the evil aunt aided by the gentleman's evil sister, escapes again and winds up hiding for weeks in some abandoned cottage. Mr Glenmorris miraculously wanders by her cottage one day, having escaped from the pirates, suffered various misfortunes and fevers, and they're happily reunited.

So then back to the daughter, born later in their wanderings. There's all sorts of other plottings, Mrs Glenmorris is the heiress to her family's fortune, but her mother hates Mrs Glenmorris (of course) and wants it to go to her other daughter's heirs. After Mr Glenmorris goes off to war, there's some legal wrangling about wills and money and other stuff. And then several various people decide to kidnap Medora (of course). Their lawyer tries to kidnap her because he loves her and wants to seduce her; she escapes, meets up with who she thinks is Delmont--but it's actually his brother who looks like him, he tries to seduce her, she escapes; winds up working in disguise as a maid in an earl's house, he tries to seduce Medora; she escapes again, and miraculously finds her father who's come back home. The one good thing I can say about Medora is that, unlike her mother, she's got a little more spunk and strength in her. Whereas Mrs Glenmorris did escape a few times, she was generally immediately captured, taken ill, so nervous she becomes paralyzed (literally), weeps and wails the whole way, and/or faints at the most inopportune times. Meanwhile when Medora first goes missing, Delmont's frantically looking, mother goes literally insane, there's a whole plot against Mrs Glenmorris by Delmont's frothing aunt, Mrs Glenmorris' mother, and various and sundry other folks and she's put in an insane asylum and not allowed to send letters to anyone for help in her more lucid moments. Father and daughter eventually find out where mother is, only Mrs Glenmorris has escaped again, and is now down at the seaside ready to commit suicide. Their appearance makes her miraculously sane and it all ends happily ever after, sort of, with the Glenmorrises and the newly married Delmont and Medora deciding to head to America. Whew!

The plot is definitely far too convoluted, with inexplicable and unexplained motives, too many unbelievable coincidences, and of course, the weeping, fainting, trembling, brain fevers and madness. What it does have going for it, is some interesting observations on how reputation and prestige should be based on one's self, and not on ancestry and upbringing; how the American society wasn't perfect, but it was the imperfections and unfairness of UK society that often drove British patriots to have to seek their fortunes elsewhere, and at least the American society allowed them to try or succeed; and despite many of the usual stereotypes present in novel, the belief that women should be self-reliant and educated. 

Charlotte Smith is somewhat forgotten today, but she was rather successful as a poet and novelist in the latter part of the 1700s. There is some autobiographical elements in her works, she had married young and had 12 children with an abusive compulsive spender. She began writing to alleviate her family's poverty, and eventually separated completely from her husband, although he apparently always made it clear that she would never fully be rid of him. Smith was rather progressive in her views, especially on women (although generally not as overtly feminist in her work as some of her other contemporaries, like Mary Wollstonecraft). Sadly, she died destitute, her brief popularity largely gone, and having spent the last years of her life almost paralyzed by rheumatoid arthritis.

The book, two stars out of five.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Abandoning books

Just wondering what people do when they aren't enjoying a book. Myself, I'll give it about 50 pages (I'll go up to 100 if it's non-fiction or rambly Victorian tomes which generally take a little longer to get into). But if it's not holding my interest by then, I'm done with it. Although I've even abandoned books more than halfway or two-thirds of the way through because I just couldn't keep reading any more. My philosophy is that reading is one of my favorite things to do, and I don't want to make a chore of it. I used to force myself to finish every book I started. But then I decided it wasn't worth it and it was making me dislike reading.
 Besides, I have this book here, in which all but the last two pages are filled with books to read (somewhere around 130 pages). Then there's an excel spreadsheet I was using before this book came along, and there's still 100 books left on that sheet, whittled down from I think 400 at the peak.  Basically, if I am going to try to read every book in the world, well, it's not going to happen getting bogged down with reading bad books. Or maybe not bad, but just not for me either at that particular moment. Or ever. Maybe I will miss out on a really great book, but I'm ok with that. 

And what of rereading? I know of some people who never reread, because of various reasons, but a common thread seems to be they're afraid they won't like it as much the second time around. Which you know, sometimes it happens. And then sometimes I've read a book and didn't like it, completely forgot about it, and reread it years later and changed my mind. I don't reread often, because of said massive lists to read; but I had finally gotten to a point last year that I had finally read all the books I owned (there were several years I binged a little too much on library book sales and the thrift stores that sold books for 50 cents). So then I was able to start rereading again the books I loved, some of which I hadn't been able to reread since high school. It's comforting in a way, like visiting old friends. And sometimes you find that those old friends are kind of embarrassing and obnoxious and say offensive things and you can't imagine why you were so fond of them in the first place. And then with other rereads, it just confirms that you had great taste then and still do.

Oh Moliere

I want to like you. I do. Your plays are enjoyable, not hilarious, but often funny. But can we talk about something? I realize the 1600s were a different time and blah blah blah; but if you do one more scene where a man beats his wife, servants or children and it's played for laughs, I'm done. Surely there's other ways of doing comedy and the slapstick without it?