Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Books I'm Reading: Fast-talking Dames

The fast-talking dame of 1930s and 1940s Hollywood was a uniquely American phenomenon argues author Maria Di Battista in her 2001 book Fast-Talking Dames (Yale University Press) and she notes that the fast-talking dame had passed from the screen by the early 1950s as the movie-land ideal of American womanhood shifted toward the dumb blonde--a shift away from sexually alluring but articulate woman that knew how to stand up for themselves toward a more passive, controlled type often admired for her sex appeal alone. Di Battista argues persuasively that it was an unfortunate shift. Her book is an affectionate tribute to the snappy, sassy stars of the earlier era.

The book gets off to a slow start. Its dense text requires more concentration to digest than I was expecting. It's a serious book of scholarly importance, not the quick read I had imagined before picking it up (based on no evidence). It was worth the work.

Di Battista's book seems valuable not only for its insights into Hollywood's attitudes toward gender roles in the golden age of the screwball comedy, but also for its looks at the careers of actresses such as Claudette Colbert, Jean Harlow, Ginger Rogers, Jean Arthur, Carole Lombard, and Myrna Loy (under the heading of "Hot Heiresses and Working Girls"); at the actresses she calls "The Grande Dames" (Katharine Hepburn, Irene Dunn, Greta Garbo, Barbara Stanwyck); and through detailed looks at a few of the most important films of the era--His Girl Friday, Bringing Up Baby, The Lady Eve, Ninotchka, and The Awful Truth. Along the way, there is much useful discussion of dozens of other films worth watching. Fast-talking Dames would be worth reading just for its indirect recommendations of good films from the period it covers. My one complaint is that there is no list of films mentioned in the text, which makes it tedious to find them once passed over. Halfway through, I started writing down titles that seemed worth seeking out. I've been visiting my local video store to rent quite a few I'd never seen. I've particularly enjoyed seeing Theodora Goes Wild, The Bombshell, If You Could Only Cook, and Wife Versus Secretary, among others. Recommended.

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