One of my cinematic weaknesses is the woman’s film. Not the modern “chick flick”, but the classic era of vehicles for female stars whose strength was their masochism. Reviewers also called them tearjerkers, weepies, three-hanky pictures, sudsers, and even melodramas—although pretty much every non-comedy was a melodrama, even when it was about two-fisted guys joining the Foreign Legion or bombing Tokyo.
The primary difference between women’s films and those aimed at men is the difference between the internal and external world. The plots of men’s movies depend on a man’s actions (killing a person, creating a monster, hunting a whale), so that the film moves from action to action. He does this, then he does that. Women’s movies hinge on what a woman’s choices are and her deliberations before making a decision. Those choices laid out before her are always romantic and personal, not public. They boil down to whom she should marry, whether she should give up a career for marriage, and what she does with a baby. She makes her choice, then responds to the consequences and the new choices it presents.
When you think about it, these choices are more common to the experience of most viewers. Therefore, these glossy and far-fetched weepers partake of more reality than the outsized fairy tales aimed at men. Even when the plot of a woman’s movie is as ridiculous and illogical as Random Harvest or the remake of Waterloo Bridge, it’s getting at something about the lives of women that rings truer than many masculine movies that distract us with heroic actions. Men’s movies show us a fantasy of the man we’d like to be (Tarzan or James Bond or Sam Spade), while women’s movies are transmogrified dreams of women’s real lives. In the right hands, a Madame X, Imitation of Life, or Stella Dallas has real punch.
Typically, the title of That Certain Woman (1937) denotes the irony between a public reputation and the private truth that will be unveiled. There are certain movies about wronged women, women whose choices have bitten them, women forced by circumstance into intolerable situations, but women who nevertheless remain honest and innocent no matter how much experience they’ve had dished out to them. Their choices usually involve keeping secrets and bearing burdens in silence. This example is one of the thousand movies about single mothers, and if there’s one thing these films teach us about single mothers, it’s that they’re self-sacrificing saints liable to painfully give up the kid to a “decent home”.
Mary Donnell (Bette Davis) has it better than most. She’s not struggling upward from bad circumstances when we meet her. She’s already achieved equilibrium after putting a backstory to rest. As we learn, she married a gangster at 15, and he died four years ago in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929. She’s got a good job as a legal secretary to Ian Hunter, whose office is lavishly designed with rotating bar, and she lives with a roommate who’s a steadier companion through the years than the various men she’s associated with. For a few years, he keeps Mary (her whole entourage actually) in an ambiguous situation where she’s basically “the other woman” to this unhappily married lawyer, but the script is vague enough about what’s actually going on that it could mean anything you’re prepared to believe.
In this fast-moving scenario, Mary marries dashing, gawky, weakling Henry Fonda, who’s dominated by his father (Donald Crisp). Things go south immediately, and there are long years of off-stage divorces (unless it’s an annulment, which puts an interesting spin on the kid’s status) and marital tragedies before everything settles in a Monte Carlo coda. Along the way, we see all those fancy designs and costumes that constitute Depression-era consumer porn.
A nosy reporter declares “That’s balloon juice!” and he says a mouthful. This is a movie in which everyone goes out of their way to bring their problems upon themselves, and decisions are made out of essentially spurious moral resolutions (like avoiding divorce). These contortions partially satisfied the Production Code but were actually part of the whole genre, even in novels that didn’t mind being banned in Boston. It belongs to the escapist landscape of distorted problems among the glamorous and well-appointed.
Davis looks more credible than many would in this glossy vehicle, just before she’d reteam with Fonda in Jezebel, which triggered her parade of truly great Warner projects. Her most important collaborator here is Edmund Goulding, who wrote as well as directed. He’d direct her in Dark Victory, The Great Lie and the terrific The Old Maid. He has a reputation as a woman’s director, and he also has a distinctive style. He’s not a fanatic about it, but he likes to stage scenes with a probing camera. He has the rare confidence to block actors with their backs to us, and this film has several examples. Exactly where other directors shoved a camera in the actor’s face, Goulding went for the body language of the back. He did this more than any other director before Robert Bresson. His style reached its acme in the 1940s, especially in Claudia and The Razor’s Edge, which is a festival of sinuous tracking shots and brilliantly staged backs.
Some viewers will be momentarily pulled out of the picture by the scene where Fonda says he’s “free, white and 21” and then jokes “I’se comin’, Massa” to indicate his subservience to Davis. Some viewers just want to follow a story without seeing a film as an anthropological artifact, but it’s important to have such evidence of things people really used to say and the assumptions they made. There are no mistakes in casting, however, and it’s notable that one scene has a gratuitous Chinese-American young man as a desk clerk, and he’s in no way stereotypical or speaking with an accent. This is so unusual for 1937, one wonders why he’s there—he seems to be there just to exist.
In a 1934 vehicle for James Cagney, a blonde Davis takes basically a supporting role and gives as good as she gets. Not a woman’s film, Jimmy the Gent begins with a literal bang as a fast, hilarious programmer based on an unusual racket. For due consideration (“no more than 50 percent”), Jimmy tracks down lost heirs, legitimate and otherwise. Disgusted with his tactics (“You’re a bigger chiseler than Michelangelo!”), Davis joins a ritzier rival (Alan Dinehart) whom she thinks is loaded with ethics and dripping with class.
Bertram Millhauser’s Runyonesque dialogue swoops and punches under the direction of Michael Curtiz. Cagney is in full, brash motormouth mode, as seen also in Footlight Parade, Boy Meets Girl and the immortal One, Two, Three (collect them all!). His assistant Allen Jenkins, receiver of his physical abuse, carries on with peroxide tomato Alice White, to whom he says in the trailer (but not the film) “You deviate me.” Cagney plans to use her and another implied prostitute in a scam to exploit the law and clear a murderer. It might be self-defense, but as the accused says, draw your own conclusions. These are saucy pre-Code elements, like the guy whose shakes are explained by a need for his “medicine”. In short, the picture is a racy delight.