Alison Drake (Ruth Chatterton) is a woman with no interest at all in conforming to stereotypical expectations of women. Rather than being a secretary or a shopgirl, she is perfectly happy running her father’s car company. She runs a tight ship, but it doesn’t leave her much time for romance. So rather than having long-term relationships, she prefers to seduce some of her male coworkers every now and then without getting too attached.
When she gets a visit from Harriet (Lois Wilson), an old school friend who is now married with children, Harriet finds Alison is a different woman than she remembered. The Alison she went to school with was hopeful and romantic, nothing like the hardened, cynical woman she now is. Harriet doesn’t try to change Alison and after she leaves, Alison continues on with her life as usual. But eventually, Alison finds herself getting frustrated with her life. When she throws a big business party at her house one night, she realizes that not a single person there likes her for who she is, they’re all only interested in the fact that she’s the president of her company.
Alison sneaks away from her party and finds herself at a shooting gallery, where she meets Jim Thorne (George Brent). She comes on to him in her usual fashion, but he turns her down. The next day at the office, Alison is waiting to meet an acclaimed engineer who has just been hired. She’s surprised to find that the new engineer is none other than Jim, but not more surprised than Jim is when he finds out Alison is his new boss. Alison may have had a lot of men in her life, but Jim is the only one to make her feel differently about everything. She tries every trick in the book to seduce Jim, but he’s not falling for it. At last she succeeds when she invites him to an employee’s picnic and he was the only employee invited. That evening, Jim impulsively proposes to Alison, but Alison is so thrown off guard that she turns him down. Jim quits his job and goes to New York, leaving Alison to realize that she loves Jim so much that she’s willing to put her business on the line.
Female is definitely one of my favorite pre-codes and it’s another essential pre-code movie. Even though I’ve always found the ending slightly disappointing, Ruth Chatterton truly shines in it, the art deco sets are stunning, and the script is very sharp. I love how in the beginning of the movie we see the exterior of the car factory, then some of the secretaries talking to each other about how the president is busy giving someone what for. And then it cuts to the inside of the conference room where we see the back of a man talking, and the audience expects him to be the boss, but then the camera moves around him and we see Ruth Chatterton and that she’s the boss. It’s such a great reveal. And be sure to look for all the references to other Warner Brothers movies from that era like Picture Snatcher, Footlight Parade, and 42nd Street.