Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
In the 1933 “Female,” Ruth Chatteron plays a successful industrialist who goes through men with the efficiency of a Catherine the Great. When she fancies a secretary (they’re all male), she invites them to her manse for dinner, plies them with vodka, and beds them without fuss or ceremony. Then she ignores them the next day — she can’t abide their fawning servility. Economically empowered but amorously aggrieved, she visits an amusement park hoping to meet a regular guy, the kind not afraid to stand up to her. (“I need someone to accept me as a plain woman,” she says.) She finds what she’s looking for in George Brent, who nonchalantly bests her in a flirtatious rifle contest — a meet-shoot moment that might have inspired the similar scene in “Gun Crazy.” Brent, it turns out, is an engineer contracted to Chatterton. She’s disappointed — another employee! — but she invites him for dinner anyway. He rebuffs her. Rebuffs even the vodka.
There’s rarely any flab on these early ’30s films: even the star vehicles tend to be admirably no-nonsense. “Female” runs a trim 60 minutes, and all the main players register without making a big deal of it. Chatterton’s get-ups aside, the sets are the only extravagant detail. The factory is pierced by enormous windows that look out on rear-projected industrial scenes. And Chatterton’s home is in the gargantuan style of ’30s musicals: it’s a gleaming deco cavern with exteriors pinched from Wright’s fussy Mayan temples. There’s a touch of Jacques Tati techno-ludicrousness to it as well, particularly in the way the place is wired so that Chatterton can tell her houseboys which room will require extra booze and pillows.
Chatterton, who sometimes looks a bit like Nancy Allen, locates the sweet spot between imperiousness and petulance; she perfects the art of looking bothered while standing with her hands on her hips and screwing up her brow. While it’s fun at first to watch her and Brent go at it, eating little hamburgers and making jokes about horse meat, the movie doesn’t capitalize on its set-up. Brent doesn’t have enough good lines, and all the sex goes out of the picture once he’s lodged in the heroine’s affections. I fear we’re supposed to celebrate the couple’s newfound staidness, their drudging respectability — but it’s hard to feel good about a picture that begins as a flight of fancy and ends in the kitchen sink. The resolution, in which Chatterton turns her back on her career as well as her appetites, is like a bucket of cold water; it’s a betrayal of both the characters and the romantic comedy ethos. William Wellman, William Dieterle, and Michael Curtiz all worked on the picture, though it’s credited to Curtiz alone. You can pick out Wellman’s work.
“Female” can be streamed via Warner Archive Instant.
- Romantic comedies featuring women as high-powered CEO types were a bit of a thing in the early ’30s. In addition to Lubitsch’s great “Trouble In Paradise,” there’s Dieterle’s 1932 “Man Wanted,” which I wrote about here.