Girls About Town (1931)

18 03 2014

Unlike your typical classic Hollywood fan, I’m a little less accepting of some of sexual politics we’re expected from the era. This seems like a generalization, but there is a impulse in some cinephiles to accept certain elements of a film as a sign of the times. To use an example from this film, a 1931 effort from George Cukor, the presence of black maids. The “backwardness” of certain classic films does risk, at least to me, their potential to be enjoyed or even to be watched by me. However, my larger point is that this backwardness sometimes comes in something superficial yet still serious. Cukor’s handling of sexual politics is actually ahead of his time, especially when one considers the heteronormative moralizing that still saturates the multiplex to this day.

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Wanda Howard (Kay Francis) and Marie Bailey (Lilyan Tashman) are both regarded as professional gold-diggers, though both would reject such categorization. Still, their nights in Manhattan are financed by a revolving door of boring yet wealthy men from the Midwest. After the night of big spending, the two are able to dismiss their respective suitors before anything more serious starts. Wanda is growing weary of the lifestyle, perhaps craving something more authentic, but Marie thrives off of it and suggests the two go on a cruise where they’re sure to stumble upon more men. Wanda begrudgingly agrees, but on the cruise, she meets Jim Baker (Joel McCrea), a man whose face is as attractive as his wallet.

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I guess I think it’s important to clarify that I think the constructed “gold-digger” identity is not only an unfair, but a blatantly misogynist one. There are women who might get romantically involved with a man with only financially stability in mind, but I don’t find anything disgusting or gross about this. I, like Cukor, instead see this as a resourceful, perhaps even reasonable route for a group who is told upward mobility is possible but is never given a chance to figure this out. One scene artfully illustrates the situation for a young woman in 1931, and it resonates now. Supposed millionaire Benjamin Thomas announced he’ll pay upwards of a thousand dollars to any young women who can dive into the ocean and retrieve a golf ball. Of course, the balls immediately sink to the ocean and no is able to retrieve them. Marie actually succeeds but then discovers that Thomas isn’t all that rich. He can’t pay her.

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The Thomas character in particular, played by Eugene Pallette who frequently played rude ogres, does much to shift the focus of the gold-digger dynamic from blaming the women who are trying to survive to the men who are not only easily manipulative but totally aware of what they’re about to get involved in. The term itself “gold-digger” never focuses on the men who are equally complicit, instead casts them as the victims to the cold women. The patriarchy shames the women that have managed to find a cheat in a system, one which allows them to use their own sexuality for capital gain. Pallette’s performance as Thomas is one of a stumbling and stubborn man, the goofy type to be the “victim” in this situation. He becomes the subject to criticize, not just because he’s unfaithful but he’s even more of a liar than either so-called “gold-digger.”

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Cukor’s meditation on sexual politics doesn’t end on a well articulated hypocrisy involved in crying about women interested in money. In their first scene together, Jim and Wanda agree to “pretend” that they really like each other. After the agreement, the camera cuts to some hijinx involving Thomas and Marie, but then it comes back. Jim and Wanda seem to be deeply in love in that sort of stupid, yet kind of perfect way people fall in love in Hollywood movies. They express an ache in their hearts for each other, but Jim breaks character. He laughs as Wanda proclaims that she’ll cook breakfast for him every morning. The charade was just that, but of course the two told us that ahead of time. Wanda is still hurt, but their beautiful Hollywood meeting was all fake. Maybe it’s cynical and bitter to suggest that all of love and romance is performative, but Cukor includes this tidbit to suggest that some performance and some dishonesty is involved in love. It’s not just Wanda and Marie pretending to love rich men, but instead a man like Jim hiding behind insecurities, ultimately a fear of being hurt because he’s opened himself up. It’s why people are told to play it cool and often, the failure to do so results in the potential romance dissolving.

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Now, this all seems like a lot to take from a 70 minute, pre-code film that can be described tonally as light-hearted. Cukor doesn’t present his musings on relationships as the heavy, “important” ideas that they could be, which is what makes them all the more staggering. All of what I describe above is enclosed in a short film that moves quickly and shows few signs of being schmaltzy or sentimental. Maybe as it loses something as it stops to flesh out Wanda’s ex-husband as suffering from poverty, but it’s a quick and smooth visualization of the life pushed upon her if she couldn’t find a stable and wealthy man. Even when the film tries to morally cry out against “loose” or “manipulative” women it manages to craft an imbalance world that leads to these unfair categorizations and shows the men as not exactly faultless and innocent.

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