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Remind Me

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Warners' new TCM Archives: Forbidden Hollywood Volume 2 collection presents five notorious movies from the four-year period when Hollywood studios ignored the rigid Production Code. One of the most interesting is Michael Curtiz' 1933 Female, a drama clearly designed to shock and titillate. Ruth Chatterton plays Alison Drake, the woman president of an automobile manufacturing company who doesn't believe in marriage: "Most women think men are a household necessity. Me, I'd rather have a canary."

A business dynamo during the day, Alison spends her evenings seducing selected male employees in her palatial home. She goes through clerks and publicity executives like Kleenex, signaling her amorous intentions with a wink and a toss of a pillow onto a plush rug. Her cast-off lovers are paid off with bonuses or transferred to remote offices, like Fred MacMurray's ex-secretaries in The Apartment. One young Adonis is more interested in literature than romance (are we supposed to think him gay?) so Alison packs him off to school in Europe, all expenses paid. Made angry by weaklings and fortune hunters, Alison goes to a carnival shooting gallery to try her hand at a daring direct pick-up.

It's likely that 1933 audiences considered the movie's entire premise a wicked joke. Alison Drake's behavior is a conscious reversal of the droit de seigneur commonly enjoyed by powerful men, daring us to reconsider male and female roles in society. Today's empowered female executives will applaud Alison's independence, at least while it lasts. To preserve the status quo, Alison's undoing arrives in the form of handsome, virile Jim Thorne (George Brent), a quiet but resolute man's man who dismantles his female employer's self-image. Thorne rejects Alison's pillow toss games and holds out until she comes running after him. Curiously, the 'helpless, feminine' Alison that Jim eventually falls for is a façade she's cooked up for the afternoon. But that's okay by Thorne, because he's decided that women like Alison manifest several different personalities. By the fade out, Alison has surrendered her heart, her business and her independence. Jim will run things from here on in.

The final compromise isn't very progressive. Jim chirps, "You're just a woman after all. The job is too much for you!" and Alison happily agrees. We're much more impressed by provocative earlier lines, like "It takes more than flat heels and glasses to make a sensible woman!". * (See Footnote #1 below).

With only 60 minutes of running time, Female really races. Warners packs it with bits of pop tunes from its Busby Berkeley movies and director Michael Curtiz keeps every scene on task. William Dieterle and William Wellman are said to have helped out as well. The script finds cute bits of business for Ruth Donnelly, a middle-aged actress who became a fixture in Pre-Code movies, always arching her eyebrows in reaction to suggestive jokes. Warners can't quite match MGM for Art Deco opulence but they do their best. Alison's home has an organ loft, a giant spiral staircase and a pool that might be left over from the previous year's Footlight Parade. Its exterior is the famous Ennis-Wright house, later featured famously in William Castle's House on Haunted Hill.

Warners' Female is transferred in glossy B&W, with a clear soundtrack. English and French subtitles are provided along with an original trailer. The TCM Archives: Forbidden Hollywood Volume 2 collection also contains two more Warners films, Three On a Match and Night Nurse, along with MGM's The Divorcee and A Free Soul. Listed as an extra on disc three is Thou Shalt Not: Sex, Sin and Censorship in Pre-Code Hollywood, an entertaining docu chronicling the story of the Production Code. The show concentrates on the salacious extremes of movie content and shows many clips from the collection's movies. We suspect that a major reason the Code wasn't enforced between 1930 and 1934 was economic. The Depression put the studios in big financial trouble, and the moguls were desperate to do whatever was necessary to entice viewers into theaters.

* Footnote #1. For readers stuck in the un-adventurous sexual present, a 'round heeled woman' is one easily tipped over on her back, in other words, (pardon) an easy lay.

For more information about Female, visit Warner Video. To order Female (Available only as part of the Forbidden Hollywood Vol. 2 DVD set), go to TCM Shopping.

by Glenn Erickson