Ruth Chatterton

Pre-Code Essentials: Female (1933)

Female 1933 Ruth Chatterton

Plot

Alison Drake (Ruth Chatterton) spends her days running a car manufacturer and her nights seducing any man who catches her eye. Although she was a more romantic type in the past, now she’s far too busy dealing with her business to care much for romance. She’s set forth on a path to treat men the same way they treat women.

As impressive as Alison’s life is, she’s starting to get bored and feels like all the men she meets are only interested in her because of her position in life. To shake up her routine, she heads out to an amusement park, where she meets Jim Thorne (George Brent), an engineer for Alison’s company. Alison tries all of her seduction techniques on Jim, but he’s the only man she’s met in a long time to turn her down. But Alison isn’t one to back down from a challenge and continues to pursue Jim, and eventually succeeds. But can she have a happy relationship and run her business at the same time?


My Thoughts

Female isn’t anything Earth-shattering, but Alison Drake is a woman so far ahead of her time that she still feels very modern and edgy over 80 years later. The story holds up pretty well; you could do a re-make of it today and it would still feel relevant. Ruth Chatterton is great in it and is an actress I generally think deserves a little more credit. I’m not a huge fan of the ending, but on the whole, I’m quite fond of the movie, particularly those fabulous art deco sets.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moment

Alison’s shameless seducing of her male co-workers.


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

During the pre-code era, female characters had the freedom to be more independent and career minded than they could when production codes were being enforced. Alison Drake is not only a business woman, she spends most of the movie expressing disdain for the ideas of marriage and romance and openly says she’s living her life treating men the way men have treated her. It would be several decades before film/TV characters could live their lives the way Alison Drake did.

Female (1933)

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.

Frisco Jenny (1932)

Frisco Jenny 1932 Ruth Chatterton

In 1906, Jenny Sandoval (Ruth Chatterton) was working in a saloon in San Francisco with her father Jim, the owner, and her boyfriend Dan McAllister (James Murray), the piano player.  Jenny and Dan are ready to get married, but Jim isn’t happy about it at all.  As Jenny argues with her father over their decision, the big earthquake of 1906 strikes and both Jim and Dan are killed.  Having no one else to turn to, Jenny makes friends with a Chinese woman named Amah.  We soon find out the reason why Jenny and Dan were in a rush to get married: she was going to have a baby.  Amah helps Jenny take care of her baby, also named Dan, but when Jenny has no money to buy food for Dan, she has to take drastic action.  With help from crooked lawyer Steve Dutton (Louis Calhern), she starts her own brothel.  One night, Jenny and her girls are at a party and Steve and a man named Ed Harris are doing some gambling in another room.  Steve catches Ed cheating and Jenny walks in just in time to see Steve shoot Ed.  Jenny tries to cover for Ed, but she still gets arrested.  When Steve gets her out of jail, she finds out that Dan will be taken away from her because of the whole mess.  Rather than have Dan taken away, Steve arranges for Dan to be given up to a nice, respectable family.

Jenny never stops caring for Dan and watches him grow up from afar.  She keeps a scrapbook of newspaper clippings about him and eventually he grows up to run for District Attorney (adult Dan played by Donald Cook).  However, since Jenny is still running her brothel and has also taken up bootlegging, Dan’s opponent would act more in her best interest.  But Jenny still wants to see Dan win and even orchestrates a scandal for his opponent so he’ll drop out of the race.  Once Dan is officially District Attorney, his first order of business is to put Steve and Jenny out of business.  Steve, desperate to stay out of jail, goes to tell Dan the truth about who his mother is.  But not wanting to ruin Dan’s career, Jenny shoots Steve before he can tell Dan the truth.  Jenny is put on trial and her own son sends her to death row.

Ruth Chatterton is another one of those great actresses from the pre-code era who is sadly underrated today.  Even though Frisco Jenny is quite similar to Ruth’s earlier movie Madame X, which earned her an Oscar nomination, that doesn’t mean it’s not an interesting movie.  Ruth Chatterton once again brought her “A” game and made Jenny very likable and sympathetic, especially in her final scene where she agonizes over whether or not to finally tell Dan that she is his mother.  Ruth got some good help from Louis Calhern, who did a good job of playing smarmy, and director William Wellman.  The movie was entertaining, but as I said, the story’s been done before.  But ultimately, it’s got some good performances and it’s only about 70 minutes long, so I’m willing to forgive the unoriginal story.  I’ll gladly re-watch it just because I liked Ruth Chatterton in it so much.