Thursday, December 11, 2008

Working Girls (1931, Dorothy Arzner)

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I've been reading Directed by Dorothy Arzner and have been familiar with nearly all of the Dorothy Arzner films Judith Mayne talks about due to the wonderfulness that is TCM.

However, there was one film that I hadn't seen: Working Girls. In the book, Mayne stated that this was never released to the general public and then described the movie in furious detail. After all, she was able to see it through UCLA's archives.

So I got the idea to see what the process was for checking out UCLA's archives and emailed them Wednesday. I happened to email them right before the end of the semester. Someone wrote back requesting that I send them my academic information and reasons for wanting to view the film. Yikes! I wrote back that I was interested in Arzner's films for their "historical value", in addition to researching films directed by women in general. I hoped that was sufficient and that I didn't have to be working on a thesis!

When I got there Thursday afternoon, they had everything ready for me in their viewing room in the Powell Library and all I had to do was give them my ID.

Then on glorious VHS, I saw the very amusing film! There may be spoilers from this point.

Working Girls is a very dated film, sure, and probably amusing for that very fact. It's the story of two sisters: Mae & June who come to New York for their big break. Mae gets knocked up basically, and June marries the man that Mae jilts.

It was a very interesting experience. Deemed too racy at the time, it is extremely tame by today's standards. In Mayne's book it seemed that the happenings in the movie were overt. However, even by pre-code standards, nothing was spoken of directly. And when it was, Mae and June were mostly naive about what was going on.

June applies for a job working as a secretary for a professor, but she isn't educated enough. Mae, who has two more years of high school on June gets the job, but she is no Albert Einstein either. Mae pleads with the prof. for the job, and he gets the idea that she is offering sexual favors or at least is coming on to him.

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Above is June (Judith Wood) who meets Mr. Michael Kelly, a saxophone player who makes $90 a week (June & Mae think they'd hit it big making $25 a week). Even though her younger sister Mae (Dorothy Hall) finds a "Harvard Man" named Boyd Wheeler (played by Charles "Buddy" Rogers), June likes Kelly for the tangible things he can give her. Kelly gives her some candy, then is chided into giving her orchids, perfume, and an umbrella, all on the first date.

The professor proposes to "little April" when Mae corrects him on her name. "Oh, I bet your pardon, Miss Springtime," he says. Yeah, for a professor, he is a little ditzy. Mae reveals to the prof. that she has a love interest and is promptly fired.

June is worried about Mae's relationship with Boyd Wheeler and tells Mae "keep your shirt on" throughout the film. June however refuses to break a date with Michael Kelly when Mae has to meet Boyd for dinner at his place. When Mae gets there, she finds that the "friend" Boyd Wheeler was going to have along with her has canceled. Mae has the idea that most girls did at the time: that if she is alone with Boyd in his apartment, she will be corrupted. She says , "Something tells me if I take this coat off, I'm not of strong character."

A little dramatic perhaps, but she does indeed succumb to Wheeler's wiles and becomes pregnant.

Wheeler of course has a fiancée. To make a long story short, Wheeler dumps the fiancée, but only after Mae has agreed to marry the professor because of her situation.

When June finds this out, she pleads with Michael Kelly to come along with her and Mae to Wheeler's: "Have you got a gun? We're going to a wedding!"

Things end happily, Hollywood style, with June and Michael Kelly having to tell the professor at a Chinese restaurant that Mae is going to have to break her engagement to him.

The professor asks if June herself is engaged to Kelly, the man she came with. "Engaged. To that one? I should say not."

Kelly removes himself from the table while waiting for their food to arrive. June asks the prof. if he knew that Mae was pregnant with Wheeler's child when he agreed to marry her, in so many words. He says yes. June is overcome by this chivalrous man who would have fought to protect her sister's honor. She asks him if he'll marry her. The prof. is overtaken by her boldness, yet agrees. As Michael Kelly returns, June tells the prof. she likes "lots of petting", even though she previously told Kelly to keep his hands off despite the numerous gifts she demanded of him.

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Though these characters are indeed likeable, the most unfortunate thing is that Judith Wood and Dorothy Hall never really made names for themselves as actresses. Maybe it's because Dorothy Hall has charmingly painful lines like "Aww, you don't need to speak so sarcasmly." In addition, they didn't have the gumption or beauty of Arzner's other leading ladies: Katharine Hepburn, Clara Bow, or Rosalind Russell to name a few. There is no way to tell if Wood and Hall would have become stars had the film actually been released, but as it was, fame was not in the cards for these two ladies.

As for Arzner's direction, it is impeccable. She does what she can with Wood and Hall's talents, and the film glides by delightfully. In the scene where Mae meets Boyd Wheeler in a shoe store, he spies on her through the shoe fitting stool's mirror. Arzner's subsequent shots are amazing too, but that one is my favorite.

One has to notice the very crafty lesbian undertones in this film. The all-girl boarding house Mae and June live in is very strict. To visit "family" overnight, they must sign out to avoid being corrupted by young men. Of course, one of the girls who is signing out states, "You oughta meet a man like my aunt."

There is also a butch girl named Lou Hollings (played by Frances Moffett) that lives amongst them as well as a dim-witted one that starts following Mae and June at first, as if she has a crush on them.

The girls are also ordered to keep the windows closed so they won't hear the uncouth music coming from the nightclub right across from their building. Of course, one night they open the windows and the girls begin to dance with each other. How's that scene for a lesbian director in the early nineteen thirties? Of course since the film was sadly never released to the public, Arzner didn't quite get away with it.

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(Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell in Night Nurse)

What is left behind, however, is a pretty decent film despite its lack of any huge stars unless you count Frances Dee who has a very minor role. Based on the play "Blind Mice" by Vera Caspary and Winifred Lenihan), Zoe Atkins' script was good, but unfortunately not appropriate for the times. What is amazing is what films of that same pre-code era got away with: Illicit (racy dialog) and Night Nurse (girls in their underclothes) both with Barbara Stanwyck. Working Girls also features a scene with one of the girls in just a bra and lacy panties, which was probably the only thing that should have been cut in order for the film to be shown in theaters across the USA (and maybe the scene with the two girls dancing). All in all it was a great experience. This movie deserves to be seen by more people. Hopefully, UCLA and TCM or some DVD company will work something out in the future. There is definitely an interest in pre-code films, in addition to Dorothy Arzner's works and feminist cinema.

Special thanks to: UCLA Library

Addendum: Please also note some of the quotes from this movie that I added to IMDB.

5 comments:

Ian said...

Screenings like that usually only go to film scholars. They didn't ask you more rigorous questions? Neat that you got to see this. It sounds interesting.

Allison said...

True. I did state on the application that I was "studying" Arzner's films, and I noted that I took an extension course with them before, hoping that would help. Miraculously, everything panned out. And I did write about it, so it definitely wasn't a waste of anyone's time!

Lauren said...

Brilliant! Thank you for posting that!

(It seems that every time I feel cool with life as it is something comes by to tempt me to NY, Boston, LA, Chicago -- dayammm, I want to use UCLA as my private screening room!! :))

Allison said...

Well your Cinematheque schedule sounds awesome. I'm drooling at the thought of seeing Claude Miller's The Inquisitor!

L.A. is pretty lousy actually, but the cinematic selection keeps me here. Seriously, I had to pay $5 to park at UCLA (and that was only for 1 1/2 hrs). BUT - I mean if there's anything else juicy I might be tempted to go back there sometime.

Julia said...

Hi Allison,

I ran across your blog entry on Arzner while looking for images from "Working Girls." My name is Julia, a grad student at UCLA, and thought I should let you know that there is a 99% chance we'll be showing it in the next couple months in the James Bridges Theater at UCLA. This screening is part of a student-run film program called The Crank:

http://www.studentgroups.ucla.edu/thecrank/v2/pages/about_the_crank.html

I nominated to have this film in particular shown since it's nearly impossible to see outside of UCLA or a video copy. Anyway, from one fan to another, I wanted to let you know the opportunity to see it on film will likely happen soon...and for free to the public! We should have a new Winter calendar schedule up soon on the website.

The Crank is a tiny group and we're actually not supposed to do too much advertising outside the campus for legal reasons, but you should definitely check the website. We show rare films and nitrate, some good some not so good. This coming quarter will have some treats, like "Working Girls," and we're hoping to also show a less than pristine copy of Capote's "Johnny Got His Gun"...which in all fairness, there doesn't seem to be a pristine copy in existence.

Take care!
Julia
msjuliawright@gmail.com