Women's Picture Vs. Chick Flick

Robert Allen, Ruth Chatterton in The Lady of Secrets
Ruth Chatterton knew better than most how to succeed in a man's world. Robert Allen is the guy in the picture. The film is The Lady of Secrets (1936).

In his Vanity Fair piece “The Right Fluff: A Guy's Guide To Chick Flicks,” James Wolcott quotes Joseph McBride, whose highly detailed biography of Frank Capra I'm currently reading.

“Film biographer Joseph McBride explains:

'Until recently, most American film critics had a cultural bias against “women's pictures,” seeing them as less serious by definition than films revolving around male preoccupations. The labeling of [George] Cukor as a “woman's director” – promoted by the MGM publicity department, particularly after he directed an all-female cast in The Women (1939) – also served as thinly veiled code for “gay.” Today, however, thanks to the feminist movement's influence on film historians, women's pictures (sometimes colloquially referred to as “chick flicks”) are seen as deeply expressive of social undercurrents and psychological complexities.'

“I differ with McBride on scrunching 'women's pictures' and 'chick flicks' together as synonymous, although there is some overlap. The traditional women's picture was pre-feminist in its attitudes, despite the feisty independence of its leading ladies and their upright carriage and unbowed heads; it was rooted in a world in which poverty, shame, and social ostracism made each step out of bounds, each break with false propriety, more precarious. There was no safety net should one morally fall. The chick flick is a post-feminist construction cushioned by affluence and aired out with sexual liberty. In the contemporary chick flick (not to be confused with the courtship costume drama – all those bodice-y Jane Austen revivals), poverty has been banished to the far, unseen boroughs, puritan ethics are espoused only by hypocrites, and society consists solely of one's immediate family, circle of friends, and whoever happens to be hanging around the living room.”

***

Though Wolcott's lengthy piece is worth a look, I side with McBride here. (Except when it comes to his statement that the moniker “women's director” was a “thinly veiled code for gay.”)

There were loads of “women's pictures” from the 1910s to the 1960s that were thoroughly sympathetic to their suffering or determined or liberated or contented women.

Ruth Chatterton, Ann Harding, Barbara Stanwyck, and Norma Shearer (right), to name only four, may have sinned and suffered in many of their films, but our sympathies were always with them. And not because in the last reel they were usually paired up with some conventional all-American moron (often George Brent) much weaker than they were. In fact, even Stanwyck's latter-day villains were cool enough to merit getting away with murder – if only the Production Code would have allowed.

As for comedies, Katharine Hepburn, Irene Dunne, Jean Arthur, Claudette Colbert, and Rosalind Russell were almost invariably Spencer Tracy's or Cary Grant's or James Stewart's or Fred MacMurray's equals, if not their superiors. After The End, no matter how pro-status quo that may have been, you just knew those women would end up ruling their households.

And watch the now unfairly forgotten Alice Joyce switch places with husband Clive Brook in The Home Maker (1925) or leave obnoxious husband and daughter (Norman Trevor and Clara Bow) behind to live her own life in Dancing Mothers (1926). You can't get much more “post-feminist” than that.

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2 Comments to Women's Picture Vs. Chick Flick

  1. Andre

    James,

    Thanks for the correction. I *should* have remembered, since I've seen “Dancing Mothers” twice…

  2. James Bazen

    Interesting piece although one correction: Norman Trevor played Alice Joyce's husband in Dancing Mothers, not Conway Tearle. Tearle played the other man she fell in love with in the film.