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The Clinging Vine

The Clinging Vine(1926)

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Gender-benders and cross-dressers have always occupied a certain amount of motion picture screenspace. Drag has been played for laughs (as when Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis don dresses in Some Like It Hot [1959]), presented as a serious social issue (Ed Wood Jr.'s angora sweater-obsession in Glen or Glenda? [1953]), and meant to be sexually provocative (a tuxedoed Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg's Blonde Venus (1932).

Somewhere in the center of these falls Paul Sloane's 1926 comedy The Clinging Vine, released on DVD by Image Entertainment.

The film stars Leatrice Joy as the career-driven Antoinette B. Allen, who manages the operations of the T.M. Bancroft Company, a large paint-manufacturing firm. But all work and no play has made her -- well -- a dull boy. One intertitle informs the viewer that A.B. has, "hired, wired and fired men -- but had never kissed one." She wears a stern expression, dresses in men's clothing and reveals not an ounce of femininity as she juggles her managerial duties.

The film soon reveals, however, that A.B. is not as asexual as she appears. She watches sadly as her more feminine co-workers give up their careers for the sake of marriage. When Mr. Bancroft's mother (Toby Claude) offers to give A.B. a crash course in womanliness, the androgynous A.B. willfully complies. This sets into motion a string of vignettes in which she evolves from office "butch" to social butterfly, eventually capturing the romantic eye of the boss's ne'er-do-well son, Jimmie Bancroft (Tom Moore).

The uber-efficient A.B. is a joy to behold. Like the hard-nosed working women of Frank Capra's Meet John Doe (1941), Howard Hawks's His Girl Friday (1940) and Michael Curtiz's Mildred Pierce (1945), she is a blazing symbol of pre-Steinem feminism. She oversees the office not for fame and fortune (her blustering male bosses hoard all that) but because of an internal drive to be her best. Existing within a classic Hollywood movie, however, her careerism cannot last. As with every screwball comedy or women's melodrama, the working girl must eventually succumb to the magnetic pull of romance and domesticity.

Perhaps the filmmakers of 1926 thought viewers would cheer for A.B.'s Cinderella makeover -- and most likely they did. Eighty years later, however, The Clinging Vine feels joyless, and the viewer is left with a sinking feeling as A.B. conforms to someone else's idea of proper female behavior. This feeling is compounded by excessive pun-laded intertitles (written by John Krafft) that aim mean-spirited barbs at the "masculine" A.B. She is called everything from "a sexless loveless machine" and a "dried prune" to a "flat-chested, flat-heeled, flat-headed Amazon." Obviously intended for comic effect, these cruel jabs make the contemporary viewer resistant to the film's romantic comedy ambitions.

There's really nothing wrong with the masculine A.B. In fact, she is the most interesting character in the film. With her close-cropped hair, heavy brows and striking bone structure, Leatrice Joy looks severely stunning and genuinely sexy, especially in the long-waisted double-breasted business suit she wears during her "sexless" phase. Ironically, the scenes in which Joy appears most like a transvestite are those in which she assumes the role and attire of a "proper lady." No costume designer is credited, but s/he apparently wanted A.B. to emerge not as an effeminized swan but as an adult Bo Peep, swathed in white chiffon. One almost feels sorry for Joy as she sports a bell-shaped skirt with flowerpots embroidered above the hem (and puffed sleeves the size of volleyballs). Or when she struggles to appear enchanting in a transparent bonnet with a ten-inch visor that keeps every would-be suitor well outside her personal space.

There is something grim about the sight of A.B., her hair tightly pin-curled, tears streaming down her face, as she painfully plucks her eyebrows. The film's intertitle jovially proclaims, "Woman... wouldst thou have Beauty?...Cry and get it!" But the effect is disheartening, and sours a lot of the comedy that follows. We see A.B. fighting against her own nature to fit someone else's idea of femininity: "twittering" her eyelashes, downplaying her intelligence, and latching herself tightly onto the arm of the nearest man (hence the title The Clinging Vine). We pray for some evidence that, in the final reel, A.B. might toss off the shackles of girliness and retain some semblance of her former self.

Instead, she becomes Jimmie's helpmate, and spends her energy orchestrating his success... which is dependent upon the high-dollar sale of his Rube Goldberg-style mechanical egg-beater.

Although the film never alludes to A.B. having an alternative sexual preference, we can't help but infer it, due to her masculine appearance and demeanor. When she gazes forlornly at her female co-workers, it evokes a sense of alienation and sadness that no romantic comedy can overcome, no matter how effervescent. Perhaps it is unfair to judge a 1926 film by the socio-political standards of 2006, but some films simply age better than others. It is difficult for enlightened viewers to divest themselves of the social progress that has occurred in the 80-year span since The Clinging Vine's original release. And even if viewers could put aside the advances in sexual politics, what would be gained by doing so?

According to the actress's daughter, Leatrice Gilbert Fountain (whose father is actor John Gilbert), Joy was a role model to the likes of Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn (who was inspired to pursue acting after seeing Joy in Cecil B. DeMille's Manslaughter [1922]). Fortunately, these women could detect the strength and confidence within a character such as A.B., without buying into the conventional gender roles that would undermine her in the final reels.

The Clinging Vine is presented with an optional audio commentary by Western Michigan University asst. professor Heather Addison. Astute, informative but lifeless, the commentary analyzes the film's sexual politics from a distinctly contemporary, academic perspective. It will no doubt be essential listening to anyone with a scholarly interest in the film, its star and its socio-historical context but will be of lesser interest to the casual viewer.

More gratifying is the lively score by Frederick Hodges. He takes the tunes used in the 1922 stage version of The Clinging Vine, injects them with a refreshing syncopated rhythm, and dual-handedly revitalizes the frequently tired sound of the conventional solo piano score.

As a second feature, the DVD includes The Age of Ballyhoo. A heavily nostalgic moving snapshot of the 1920s, it is a collage of delicious stock footage from the period, briskly assembled and backed with vintage jazz recordings. Reminiscent of the quirky charm and photographic excellence of Life magazine, The Age of Ballyhoo dashes through the era of Prohibition, dance marathons, Hollywood idols, the model T, Charles Lindbergh, and religious fundamentalism. Directed in 1973 by silent film historian/conservationist David Shepard, the film is accompanied by narration spoken wistfully by screen goddess Gloria Swanson (Sunset Blvd [1950]).

For more information about The Clinging Vine, visit Image Entertainment. To order The Clinging Vine, go to TCM Shopping.

by Asa Kendall, Jr.