Sex. In America an obsession. In other parts of the world a fact.
– Marlene Dietrich
Which reminds me I haven’t collected any Dietrich pics for my hoyden images collection. A sad oversight indeed.
Googling for images is a fine habit, as you make the most serendipitous discoveries along the way. Like this thoughtful piece by John Blaser:No Place for a Woman: The Family in Film Noir. That’s where I found the Dietrich image below, from the 1933 movie Morocco.
The article argues that the various iconic independent women of film from the era of Classic Hollywood Cinema (CHC) and later are often celebrated for their character in the beginning of films rather than the ending: the narrative rarely allows a non-traditional woman to remain independent, either being destroyed with her fatal charms unrepented, punished harshly by her ambitions being thwarted in a humiliating manner, or tamed by the love of a stronger man.
Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich created many of the earliest examples of deadly independent women. Both actresses specialized in playing women who used their sexual attractiveness to ensnare unsuspecting men or otherwise controlled their own sexuality outside of marriage and the nuclear family. But in all of her movies, Garbo’s character renounced her independence through her love for the hero or made a noble gesture to preserve the family that she had “threatened”, often just before her death. Similarly, Dietrich’s fallen women are converted to “normal” womanhood or reveal themselves to be soft-hearted, traditional women beneath their heavy makeup.
The women remain iconic in these films because the audience then and now understood that the Hollywood ending isn’t the real ending: just because convention dictates taming, humiliation or death for non-traditional women doesn’t mean that those endings represent the fundamental truth of the character’s independent journey (especially when, in order to justify the taming, humiliation or death the independent women suddenly go crazy or evil in ways that are clumsy distortions of their initial character – yes, Fatal Attraction, I am looking at you, don’t pretend you don’t know why).
The metanarrative supercedes the purported narrative conclusion when the presented narrative takes the coward’s way out of turning a transgressive characters/events into a formulaic morality tale, particularly in films made under the restrictive “decency” provisions of the Hays Code. That’s half the fun of watching those movies and seeing how the directors and actors tweaked their films in their own coded fashion to send metanarrative messages deliberately counter to the ones insisted on by the Hays Office.
I note however that the films displaying hoydens and femme fatales were rarely ironic in the way their heroines came to the end of independence, with the arguable exception of the Hepburn/Tracy comedies about feminist women. Usually the end of independence was all too clearly not viewed ironically at all. Independent women were obviously too fearsome to be viewed with irony.