Classical Hollywood Cinema
Where Paris was THE city of the 19th Century, the 1920s New York city skyline boasted an arena for the circulation of bodies and goods, and the exercise of a consumer driven era, and it was women that were taking on these new roles of the consumer. Gone were the days of the 19th century cult of domesticity and in its place emerged the ‘new woman’ of the 1920s. Opportunities in all walks of life emerged for women, the possibility of work outside the home emerged and female secretaries sprung up throughout the new cities, thus enabling them to go shopping and become socially visible.
This new ‘Female Marketplace’ fueled women’s desires for power, freedom and pleasure. Companies took advantage of this desire by advertising the purchase and consumption of mass-produced commodities such as cosmetics, fashion and home furnishings, saying that they were life’s ultimate gratification’s and worthy female activities. As Stewart Ewen suggests; Women were being educated to look at themselves as things to be created competitively against other women, painted and sculpted with the aids of the modern market. (EWEN, 1976: 172. ) 2
This cultural revision of femininity was conducted primarily through the mass media. This mass media came in the force of the Hollywood Film Industry, which responded to the ‘needs’ of women both as consumers and as the ‘modern’ woman. It is in this essay which I intend to examine the characteristics of the 1930s Classical Hollywood film which defined and displayed the issues of modernity and the need for a consumer culture and the role that women played in it. The film which I am going to look at is The Women (1939 US; George Cukor) which is set in 1930s Manhattan milieu of idle socialites and gossip.
Despite the total absence of men, they are still the central topic of conversation in the social circle of Mary Haines and her catty clique of high-society wives. Mary’s tidy world is turned upside down when she learns of her husband’s infidelity with Crystal Allen, a vicious vixen and ruthless gold digger. The concept of modernity is rampant in ‘The Women’, from the opening image we are introduced instantly to the bold words of the ‘Park Avenue Sydney Salon’, this immediately sets the tone of a bourgeois class and that ‘style and appearance’ are important factors in the film.
A smartly dressed woman enters the salon and briskly sails round the room, enabling the audience to be introduced to the salon, which is full of women being pampered and having made-overs. As the camera roams from one room to another, women are seen bathing in mud bathes, exercising and gossiping. The air of the independent women is in the air, the modern woman is able to move out of the home and enjoy the luxuries available in the public sphere and she is able to come and go as she pleases. Another scene, which emphasises this freedom, is when Sylvia Fowler is exercising in the gym.
She has moved into a previously male dominated space and makes it her own. This can be seen to mirror a scene out of the Hollywood film Dancing Lady (1933 US; Robert. Z. Leonard) which places 3 the character Janie Barlow in the gym with Clark Gable, where she does many of the exercises that he does and thus becomes his equal in a male sphere. Other factors that can be attributed with the ‘modern’ woman are freedom and equality and are reflected in ‘The Women’. An example being when Mary is on the phone to Stephen.
As the camera zooms in for a close up of her face, the audience is shown her light up a cigarette which emphasises the fact that smoking at the time was seen as a form of emancipation and a symbol of freedom for women. The scenes from these film’s, reflect the influence that modernity had on Hollywood which as a result reflected it in its films giving women in the audience something to aim for and showing that the world had moved on from the days of purely female domestic labour. Another characteristic that was central to 1930s Classical Hollywood films were the issues of consumerism.
This came in the visible form of the ‘flapper’ which redefined the image of the modern woman into an active form. She challenged earlier codes of feminine behaviour through her consumption of such commodities as cosmetics, perfumes and fashion. She enjoyed new personal freedoms in work, drinking and dancing. The films depicted the ‘flappers’ new manners and morals as integrally tied into a larger quest for self-fulfillment, a desire satisfied through the new ‘fun’ morality and a consumer lifestyle.
The presentation of women as glamorous objects, gained through beauty products could be emulated and consumed. It was through the stars and their characters that this occurred. The creation of a mise-en-scene that ‘fetishised’ consumer objects and a consumerist lifestyle also played a big role in the Hollywood film. 4 In’ The Women’ this mise-en-scene came in a number of forms; the new ‘Jungle Red’ nail varnish which both Sylvia and Mary sport, place an emphasis on the modern colour and is the pinnacle of fashionable nail varnish.
The many perfumes and beauty cosmetics that you can see in the background on Mary’s dressing table are evidently there for a female audience to gaze at and associate that to look as beautiful as Mary Haines, all you have to do is use these products. The full colour fashion show, which takes place in the middle of the black and white film, is a good example of this idea of encouraging consumerism and using film as a ‘vehicle’ as a means of consumerism. The scene opens with a female compare telling the female characters that they will experience the ‘changing form of the female’ and will get a ‘glimpse of the future’.
As she says this, she is facing the screen and it is clear that she is talking not just to the fictional characters but the female audience sat in the cinema. As the black and white turns to glorious Technicolor, the models, dressed in new fashionable clothes, walk towards the camera putting on a display for everybody. The show that they put on echoes the ‘modern’ woman of America. The stylized reconstructions of the ‘everyday situations’ in the fashion show are meant to mirror the women of the 1930s, and their associations with high fashions and the daily world of the upper-class women.
Another interesting point is where the models are sat watching a fashion show themselves. Its like ‘fashion watching fashion watching fashion’, this is in a way quite self-reflexive, like the filmmaker is examining the scale of consumerism. It’s also like everyone wants to be a consumer and be fashionable. The use of ‘social whirl’ montage and the fashion show within the film is used as a device for showcasing shoes, hats and dresses. The fashion designer for this MGM production was Adrian and it is clear they used his reputation as a designer to promote fashionable clothing and encourage women to want wear the same. The use of colour is also important here. What could be more effective way to underline the importance of this moment in the film than by making it the only colour sequence in the film? Also what could be more accurate and appropriate centerpiece for the movie than a fashion show of women showing other women how to appear and what to wear? Keeping with the theme of consumerism, it is important to acknowledge the role of the star system in Classical Hollywood, both in films and its cultural and social importance.
The female stars of the 1930s were extremely popular, the large majority of the audience was female and they wanted female stars with storylines and genres, which they could relate to. Therefore the stars earned more than their male counterparts and were perfect ‘vehicles’ for consumer products such as beauty cosmetics and fashions. These stars were people who the working class women could want to be like and articulate. As Frank McConnell explained ‘the Star System existed to display its leading players in as much of their famous postures as possible. An example of one of these stars is Joan Crawford who in 1930 was one of the top box-office Hollywood stars. She was well known for her beauty advice, which was regularly seen in fan magazines and revealed fashion and beauty tips. She was glamorous in appearance both on and off screen and was a fashion icon for many. She embodied the American dream and that in turn endeared her to working class women whom felt inspired by her and felt that they could also look like her.
As she once said ‘I was obliged to look glamorous’. Along with her looks, Crawford also had characteristics within her film roles, which were central to her star image. Her determination and wit carried through many of her films. She also changed the image of women on screen and off. No longer were they the innocent Mary Pickford, 6 instead she created a woman who also did not find happiness solely through a man. Crawford’s women were self-sufficient achievers who believed in personal sovereignty.
An example of one of these roles was in ‘The Women’ where she plays the ‘Man Trap’ Crystal Allen who is characterised from the beginning in the credits as a predatory tiger. The character that she plays is, like in other films she did a working class shop girl who works in ‘Blacks, 5th Avenue’ on the perfume counter. She uses her wit charm, looks and intelligence to snare Mr. Stephen Haines. She uses him to climb the social ladder and uses her sexuality as a tool in a pre feminist era for economic and social gain. In this way the ‘modern’ woman is coming through again, it is Crystal that takes the active role in seducing Mr.
Haines and it is she that is the manipulator instead of the manipulated, therefore entering a patriarchal domain. It is also important to point out that Classical Hollywood constituted a ‘group style’ of norms of stylistic practices, one of these being that a classical narrative film displays a strong degree of closure at the end, leaving few loose ends unresolved. These films seek to complete their causal chains with a final effect. Usually the fate of each character is told and the outcome of each conflict is so resolved.
An example of this in ‘The Women’ is near the end of the film when all the women meet up in the powder room and have a final claws-out show down. The fur is flying and the truth finally comes out. The film closes with Crystal relegated back to her shop girl status, Sylvia’s crush exposed and good, noble Mary finally getting her man back. The final ultrasentimental glamorous shot is of Mary 7 supported by an Angelic choir, gliding towards the camera with an ecstatic look on her face as she abandons herself to a man that is really not there.
This closure and resolution is typical of the Classical Hollywood film and leaves an audience satisfied that ‘good’ has overcome wrong. By examining the social and historical context of Classical Hollywood cinema it is clear to see that these early issues of ‘modernity’ and ‘consumerism’ started a capitalist trend which has carried on from the 1930s through to Hollywood today. The film industry reflected the needs of a consumer driven society and tried to make the ‘American Dream’ come true. The Women’ is a good example of a Hollywood film, which through its title emphasises the fantasy of a women-only world of glamour, idle consumeristic pleasures and raw sexual competition. The question must be asked however, just how ‘modern’ these women really were and whether the images and ideals that Hollywood put across were those of female independence or a space which women, like Mary Haines despite these pleasures still conformed to the contemporary experiences that a woman’s goal ultimately was marriage and her place was in the home.