Women’s Films: Tearjerkers, Weepies, Three-Hanky Pictures and Sudsers

These glossy and far-fetched “women’s films” weepers by directors Michael Curtiz, Edmund Goulding and Boris Ingster, partake of more reality than the outsized fairy tales aimed at men.

Jimmy the Gent
Michael Curtiz
That Certain Woman
Edmund Goulding
The Judge Steps Out
Boris Ingster

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 films depend on a man’s actions (killing a person, creating a monster, hunting a whale), so the film moves from action to action. He does this; then he does that. Women’s films hinge on a woman’s choices 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 should do 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 their 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 a 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. Still, 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 film 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.

Goulding 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 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, notably, 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 that one wonders why he’s there – he seems to be there 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) who 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 in Footlight Parade, Boy Meets Girl, and the immortal One, Two, Three (collect them all!). His assistant Allen Jenkins, the 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.

Flouting the Production Code

These films advertise their remastering and are sharp as two tacks. These are online titles, unavailable in stores, as part of the Warner Archives print-on-demand service (warnerarchive.com). Released the same day is The Judge Steps Out (1949), an un-remastered film from RKO that looks and sounds less clean. It’s more like something taped off a television, and that could be due to the shape of the print and its origin from a lost studio.

Tom Bailey (Alexander Knox), a probate judge in Boston, is having a midlife crisis, though no one calls it that. His wife (Frieda Inescort) wants what all snobby matrons want in movies: social position, respectability, upward mobility, all those things we’re supposed to snort at when pushy women value them. His daughter (Martha Hyer) has just married a rich boy whose father wants the judge to become his corporate lackey, er, lawyer. A merry country doctor (always allowed to be subversive) diagnoses him with “inflammation of the family” and advises him to chuck everything. Taking advantage of a mix-up to hit the road, Bailey winds up working in a California diner, where he falls in love with proprietress Peggy (Ann Sothern, warm and likable as always). He says he’s found paradise, and we believe him, but we also know he can’t stay. This is his “Indian summer” (the picture’s UK title).

The only solution would involve divorce, which the Production Code didn’t condone. Dodsworth labored for two hours, establishing that the hero’s wife was an impossible woman standing in the way of two suffering saints before it could finally permit the obvious. In some ways, The Judge Steps Out recalls that film without being so extreme. The judge is shown to be escaping not only his wife but also Boston Brahmanism, its petty respectability, and its financial worries, and most of all, he’s escaping himself and implicitly the system that created him.

He claims to be happy as a judge, but he’s not. In a child custody case, he makes a decision that seems legally sound but is based on class and money and indirectly on his own concerns (which he doesn’t face when he overhears strangers alluding to it). His experience with Peggy’s custody case opens his eyes. He must return refreshed and serve his civil functions with a renewed perspective of how the little people live. At best, he is now empowered to make reforming decisions.

The movie might make fun of patrician Boston, but the right of those patricians to rule wisely mustn’t be undercut, or the audience couldn’t leave reassured that white-haired old judges were on their thrones and all was right with the world. Therefore, the right to personal happiness (defined as “running away”) must be put aside for finding happiness in one’s proper sphere and social function (defined as “responsibility”), as jawed over by otherwise old coots like H.B. Warner and Ian Wolfe. Balloon juice? You bet, and it greased the whole system as well many a script.

Looking past the foregone conclusions, this is an unusually intelligent, gentle, personal story. The strangest thing about it is that it’s really a woman’s film refashioned around a man. Bailey’s voyage is several times compared to that of Ulysses, with a quotation from Tennyson’s “The Lotos Eaters” thrown in. Peggy is his Circe. His Penelope isn’t a shrew, although she learns a valuable, patronizing lesson about meddling in her husband’s wishes and seeking status; she’s having her own education without leaving home. In a distant subplot, the young groom cuts off his magnate-father to pursue painting, another blow for personal fulfillment.

Most interesting is how the movie slyly flouts the Code. You can’t prove it, and the movie would deny any allegations, but visual and verbal cues tell us that Bailey and Peggy are having a sexual relationship. Their first date fades to black on a kiss and then fades in as she wakes up stretching in a double bed. She feels the other pillow is empty as someone comes in, and she expresses disappointment that it’s not him. She tells him frankly that she knows he’s married and she doesn’t mind “getting involved”, and she’s not going to insist on marrying a man just because “we held hands in the moonlight.”

This is mature stuff, and it’s because she’s been around. We gather she’s a divorced woman. She married at 18 and stuck it out for six months before leaving her drunken husband. Apparently, she was pregnant, but the baby didn’t live, and now she wants to adopt a girl the same age her child would have been. (She could be summarizing any of a dozen other movies.) This all happened so long ago and was paid for with so much suffering that it’s overlooked, but it still can’t be rewarded with another woman’s husband. She stumbles symbolically at the bowling alley while telling the story and says something about putting her foot in the right direction but slipping. She lives with an earth-motherly Mexican-American woman, Chita (Florence Bates), and slings hash for the salt of the earth in the truck-stop wide-open spaces of Highway 101.

Character player Knox, an Oscar nominee for the presidential biopic Wilson, was in a brief heyday. Also a writer, he co-scripted with director Boris Ingster, which explains why his role is handled as sensibly as possible, despite all the contrivance of renunciation that everybody shoulders so nobly. Stylistically, it couldn’t be farther from Ingster’s flashy dream film Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), which some critics have called Hollywood’s first noir film. He directed one other picture, a routine noir called Southside 1-1000, before becoming a TV producer (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.).

The New York Times review recognized the film’s qualities but said it “leaves one with the feeling that just a bit more effort on the part of the authors would have resulted in a picture well done… The principal objection we have to this film is that it takes too convenient a rose-colored view of life.” That’s a fair observation, but modern viewers are likely to cut it more slack. Maybe it couldn’t have been done much better within its territorial restrictions. The ending, with its train motif borrowed from Brief Encounter, carries a sense of making the best of things while recognizing the emptiness of unfulfilled chances. It’s not quite satisfying because, at some level, the filmmakers realize it can’t be. They, too, have to settle for doing their best by public duty without breaking too many rules. Therefore, it’s the kind of movie more likely to stick with a viewer than one that slaps us on the back with jolly certainties. If not quite a lost classic, it’s an intelligent curiosity.