Thursday, October 10, 2013

Bette Davis Week: 'Front Page Woman' (1935)

The sexism of old Hollywood romantic comedies is out in full force in Front Page Woman, which casts Bette Davis and George Brent (of course) as a pair of rival newspaper reporters who are also romantically linked. The idea is that Brent's Curt Devlin wants Davis' Ellen Garfield to quit being a reporter and become his stay-at-home wife (because of course women aren't suited to being reporters), and he makes a bet with her that if he can successfully scoop her on a big murder story, she'll agree to step aside and assume her proper place. It's a really distasteful setup that's only worsened as time has passed, and it doesn't help that Brent is at his absolute smarmiest playing Curt, who delights in sabotaging the career of the woman he supposedly loves (right through to getting her fired).

The rampant misogyny makes it hard to enjoy the story, which does have its amusing moments, and is snappily directed by the reliable Michael Curtiz.The fast-talking reporter is a perfect part for Davis, and when she's verbally sparring with Brent or hot on the trail of a scoop, she's quite entertaining to watch. Unfortunately the movie spends equal time with Brent's character, whose glee in destroying his girlfriend's career (and potentially tainting a murder investigation in the process) is the opposite of endearing. Right from the start, as Ellen is joining the reporter boys' club in covering an execution in the first scene, the movie uses serious life-and-death news events as fodder for jokey sexism, which is in poor taste twice over.

At least the ending offers up some acknowledgement that Ellen might have some value beyond becoming a subservient housewife, and doesn't completely undermine her worth as an independent human being. While the entire movie has been about Curt trying to defeat her so that she'll agree to marry him, at the end she scores the final scoop, and he's forced to admit that she's actually a good reporter. And that's when she finally agrees to marry him -- when he's recognized her as an equal, not a conquest. It's not clear whether her agreement involves quitting her job as well, but at least that's left as an open question. It's one positive note to end a movie whose humor and romance have mostly turned sour.

1 comment:

rav said...

Glad you wrote this article, but I gotta say, respectfully, I think you have completely missed the point.

This is not a misogynist film. It is a film about a woman, who is forced to prove herself in a misogynist world.

Most importantly, she succeeds, even forcing the antagonist to see her not as a weak woman but as an equal.

Yes there are many sexist characters in this film. That is intentional. These people are Bette's obstacle. She's every bit as smart (or smarter) than them and yet has to prove herself.

It's not fair, it's not right, and the odds are stacked against her. The fact that she refuses to give up makes her a hero. A hero over the sexist world she is battling.

This is a feminist movie. And an important one.

It is a film that shows that women are equal to men, and shows sexist behavior as a disgusting thing. We are not routing for the misogynistic assholes, we are routing for Bette.

I can understand your distaste with the sexist asshole characters in the film. But keep in mind that this is what the filmmaker wanted you to feel.

I believe that labeling this film (and many films of this era) as sexist is short sighted.

None the less, I'm glad you are writing about these older films.