[Originally published in Movietone News 33, July 1974]
POPCORN VENUS: Women, Movies & the American Dream. By Marjorie Rosen. Coward, McCann & Geoghegan. 416 Pages. $9.95.
Marjorie Rosen begins her fat (416 pages) study of women, movies and the American Dream by simultaneously putting down the cinema’s penchant for illusion and setting up the silver screen as a mirror in which “society’s porous [sic] face” may be exposed—thereby illustrating the main premise of Popcorn Venus, that movies can do anything and everything, but are admirable for practically nothing. Predictably, Rosen exhibits her critical credentials by nostalgia-tripping, sharing in a manner mostly maudlin her cherished cinematic memories and illusions, all couched in the confessional style of an ex–closet (or ex-prom) queen. But Rosen’s seen the light, so to speak, and has written a book which, more than anything else, seems to represent an attempt to exorcize all those seductive dreams spun out of movie-theater darkness by means of a holy war on behalf of cinematically wronged womankind.
Rosen’s weaponry includes a familiar array of selfrighteous clichés and stylistic ploys, the usual arsena1 of the writer who’s got a Cause but hasn’t a clue as to what constitutes good writing or critical fair play, and lacks sufficient knowledge of the enemy to even pitch a significant battle. Fundamentally, her pathetic (and self-aggrandizing) fallacy centers on the notion that Hollywood, movie moguls, men have engaged in an ongoing, conscious conspiracy against women since movies were first invented. Time after time, Rosen conjures up images of smoke-filled backrooms in which sinister plots were hatched by “Hollywood” to further subjugate or degrade women. That Hollywood (a place, not a person), at any given time, consisted of diverse elements, conforming and dissenting modes of direction, acting, even production, never seems to occur to her, in much the same way a freshman English student never seems to wonder about the real identity of that convenient scapegoat “Society.” Thus:
“For the men making movies in the twenties, ridicule (ergo, humor) shielded them and their masculine audiences from inevitable feminine demands for equality, social and otherwise. It squelched a treacherous usurping of their positions in the boudoirs and boardrooms, in the factories and on the campuses. Since the female uprising had to be put down, what a pleasant discovery that humor was at least as effective a method as pious moralizing.” (page 127)
What a self-congratulatory fantasy! Not even men shape every aspect of their lives in response to the threat or surrender of women. Nor can any rational person believe that every single director in the Twenties was so sexually or professionally insecure that he spent all of his waking hours dreaming up anti-feminist jokes for his movies; one might even suspect that these men were occasionally challenged or engaged by something other than combat in the erogenous zones. One wonders, too, at what Congress of Pigs (or Worms, if you like), and on what historic date, the Unanimous Squelch was agreed upon.
“In return for reaffirming its masculine ego, Hollywood … kept her [Janet Gaynor] around for awhile.” (129)
The pathetic fallacy in action: Hollywood plays Victorian roué to Gaynor’s Playboy bunny. And what naïveté! Audiences, shekels at the box office, governed the wax and wane of Hollywood hospitality; profits, not protestations of inferiority, were the way to a moneyman’s ego.
“Rendering woman a caricature of her own femaleness, Hollywood, however, was not content to dictate exteriors alone. Simultaneously, if surreptitiously, movies began probing the psychic root of woman’s vulnerability. For if the flesh was willing, and so susceptible to suggestion, would not the spirit be also? And the mind? And soul?” (217)
This peroration smacks of Yellow Peril hysteria, not to mention the inbred self-absorption of the solipsist. According to Rosen’s scenario, John Barrymore in his Svengali phase would have been great in the role of “Hollywood”—or, better yet, Erich von Stroheim. But then, even The Man You Love To Hate might have been daunted by that dizzying proliferation of female parts—flesh, spirit, mind, soul….
“Now that men’s pocket’s [sic] weren’t hurting so much, they could vanquish even the toughest cookie [Jean Harlow] on-screen.” (150)
Aside from the grammatical absurdities of this statement, does Rosen really expect us to believe that later directors of Harlow actually, consciously decided to make movies in which they could “put [her] in her place for flaunting her sexuality”? If she does, it’s no wonder that Rosen’s so paranoid about the power of movies: she herself has clearly lost the ability to distinguish between on- and offscreen reality.
“Hollywood in the Forties inflicted additional burdens [fan magazines] on its stars by sharing them, perhaps indecently, with the world.” (232)
Didn’t the lady piranhas who provided the gossip or the fans who ate it up have anything to do with the infliction of these burdens? Just another Hollywood plot, eh? Born of Unaffirmed Ego or Hurting Pocket, I wonder.
“Hollywood, hawker of plastic vapidity, spawned a sameness, a blandness in its leading ladies. The cool blonde beauty of Kelly, Tippi Hedren, Martha Hyer.” (296)
This kind of personification excuses her from having to deal with specifics—which would force her to take cognizance of individual realities rather than comfortably paranoid generalizations For instance, Hollywood may have spawned Grace Kelly and ‘Tippi’ Hedren, but Rosen conveniently forgets that it also housed Hitchcock, who used such scarily glacial blondes pretty subversively in films like Rear Window and Marnie. Not to mention Eva Marie Saint and Kim Novak (an honorary blonde) in North by Northwest and Vertigo, respectively. But then Marnie and North by Northwest show up not at all in Rosen’s book, while Rear Window and Vertigo appear only in one of those unenlightening lists writers like Rosen are so fond of compiling. What would Rosen have made of the frigid Hedren in Marnie stealing love and money from men to buy her mother’s affections, sexually spontaneous only with her stallion? Actually, it’s fairly obvious what she would have made of such a film, considering the remark inspired by films like Rebecca and Suspicion:
“Perhaps the most insidious films were those exploring the interiors of female minds, minds where susceptibility to suggestion rather than legitimate dysfunction took women to the brink of insanity…. It may be no coincidence that the plethora of these films coincided with female acquisition of economic and social power in life. In fact, such movies may even have been in part a consequence, signifying that women were finally a threat to the status quo. Hollywood simplistically interpreted this shift in the only terms it could understand: power, the quest for love or money.” (222, 224)
Vertigo, although it is a classic tale of woman as tabula rasa, passive victim of masculine obsessiveness, doesn’t really have a place in a study like this—no more than does any halfway comprehensive assessment of Hitchcock’s wry, sometimes perverse, treatments of feminine and masculine sexual pretensions and obsessions. Rosen’s thesis (and, I suspect, her ignorance) crowds out such topics in favor of surefire ammunition and specious argumentation. Like damning Hollywood for making vapid blondes stars and simultaneously dismissing Hitchcock as a “perpetrator of anti-female thrillers.” It’s OK for Rosen to put down these types, but let Hitchcock take a crack at them and he’s anti-female. No exit. Rosen utilizes this can’t-win technique of overkill throughout Popcorn Venus: Erich von Stroheim, for instance, receives plaudits for his radical (adult) treatment of women for a few lines, just to set him up nicely, and is then thrust back into the enemy camp when Rosen “senses a perverse disdain” for the gullibility of women in his work. No mention, of course, of von Stroheim’s perverse disdain for just about everything and everyone on God’s green earth. Without a smidgen of humor or sense of irony she wonders how von Stroheim could call all women whores—including his mother—and then dedicate Greed “To my mother.” The complexities of human nature (or the polymorphous perversity of a von Stroheim) seem to totally elude Rosen: she appears capable of discerning at most only two sides to any given personality—what she proudly terms “dualities.” Her discovery of “dualities” provides her with further opportunities to wield the can’t-win cudgel. Consider her treatment of Lubitsch:
“Through his first eleven Hollywood pictures, Lubitsch contributed importantly to maturing America into a new sexual understanding. He also enlarged our vision of woman’s role in this provocative new arena.
“But not by much….” (125)
Lubitsch is ultimately counted out because Rosen ferrets out (in The Marriage Circle and The Love Parade) sexually aggressive women whose unattractiveness, their tendency to emasculate, make them “ultimately useless as [symbols] of feminine liberation.” Having failed to produce useful symbols, Lubitsch must not only be critically taken to task, but also snidely needled on a more personal level:
“…there is little that is funny about Lubitsch’s silly females. Nor did Lubitsch think it funny when (in an ironic switch of The Marriage Circle) in the thirties his first wife, Irni Kraus, fell in love with his dear friend and screenwriter Hans Kraly.” (127)
And that’s a typical example of the Rosen strategy: set ’em up, knock ’em down, contrive through selective misrepresentation (Jeanette MacDonald in The Love Parade may be silly, but she’s hardly a castrator) to construct a formula with which to categorize a director’s entire oeuvre, omitting, of course, to mention a film (in Lubitsch’s case, most especially Design for Living) or films that might overturn said formula, and administer the coup de grâce by means of a little biographical nastiness.
Rosen shows a real flair for the latter line of attack: sometimes damning personal detail is allowed to stand alone; more often, it gives rise to simple- and singleminded psychoanalytical interpretations of a director’s work or an actor’s style. Valentino’s male chauvinist piggery onscreen and off- is countered by a cutely parenthetical reference to his first wife’s accusation that the great romantic hero had never consummated their marriage and his second wife’s crack that his performance made her wish he hadn’t. Similarly, Rosen implies that Harlow was punished for “flaunting her sexuality” not only in her films but also at home when she quotes Irving Shulman’s statement that Harlow’s husband, genitally underdeveloped, impotent, and sexually sadistic, beat his wife frequently enough to permanently damage her kidneys—which contributed to her early death at the age of twenty-six. Rosen has it that Mary Pickford couldn’t escape the child-woman roles she constantly played because Hollywood, the Twenties, her audience, wouldn’t allow it. But when it comes to Griffith and Chaplin, no such excuse explains their predilection for creating fragile, victimized heroines. No, both men, maintains Rosen, were perverts of a sort, hung up on little, barelegged girls, unable to evince anything but disdain or contempt for mature, fully sexed women. To clinch her argument, Rosen notes Griffith, at sixty-one, made a second marriage to a twenty-six-year-old woman he had known since she was thirteen. His accumulation of “a stable of girl-children” like Blanche Sweet, Mary Pickford, the Gish sisters, Mae Marsh (whose tender ages Rosen dutifully lists) helps his case not at all. Chaplin puts himself completely beyond the pale with his two marriages to pregnant sixteen-year-olds. Rosen doesn’t even bother to acknowledge the existence of Monsieur Verdoux, a Chaplin film that lends fuel to many a feminist’s fire—though, in reality, Chaplin’s version of the Bluebeard story is much more misanthropic than misogynistic. But for theorists like Rosen, women are the center of the universe, the raison-d’être for all action and plot. Moreover, she’s always got an apologia up her sleeve for the ladies, while men—whether directors, actors, or just plain filmgoers—must go begging for even the tiniest crumb of fair play or objectivity in her discussions. All women turn out to be victims, eminently susceptible to male mesmerism or manipulation—even Dietrich might have been better off without von Sternberg—and all men are careless, destructive little boys or card-carrying members of the Great Male Conspiracy to block women’s liberation at every turn.
Rosen’s rhetorical devices to discredit or diminish masculine contributions become ludicrous in such heavyhanded sallies as these:
“Moving pictures back then [in the early days of filmmaking] were but the indulgent and harmless explorations of adult male children playing out fantasies of adventure and intrigue.” (23)
“Georges Méliès boyishly contemplated space travel with A Trip to the Moon….” (23)
“As early as 1901 novice moviemakers, with typically boyish antics, turned out occasional one-minute jokes poking fun at Mrs. Carry Nation….” (32) (italics mine in each case)
If Rosen condescends toward males with this sort of infantilizing, she doesn’t do much better by women. Too consistently, she behaves as though pre-liberation women were practically feebleminded from oppression, boredom, and lack of education. In noting the power of early motion pictures, she quotes an example of some little boys moved to burglary by a film they had seen. “Were not women circa 1906 as impressionable and malleable as these children?” she queries with maternal concern. Weren’t they “in urgent need of escape” and didn’t they bring to “early picture shows their empty lives waiting to be filled by any distraction”? Before one can quibble at these all-inclusive statements, Rosen has already moved on to the specific example she imagines will decisively prove her point: “A shocking dispatch” from Variety tells of a depressed young woman who went to a movie in which a suicide occurred—at the sight of which she whipped out a gun, took center stage, and did away with herself. At one shot (no pun intended), all women circa 1906 are characterized by the behavior of a single mentally unstable girl and the movies stand accused of something like homicide (naturally it never occurs to Rosen to consider the implications of that gun being so handy). This sort of thing is bad enough, but two pages later, Rosen is implicitly putting down the sort of attitude toward women that she has just displayed: “It is interesting that in the name of moral outrage women and children were always lumped together; rarely was the ‘community’ wary of the influence of movies on men.” Probably because men didn’t lead “empty lives waiting to be filled by any distraction”—they were too busy making or patronizing movies that brainwashed or maybe even killed off a few of those “impressionable and malleable” females.
So many glaringly obvious contradictions, misrepresentations, and just plain omissions keep cropping up in Popcorn Venus that the reader, even if predisposed to do so, can’t buy any of Rosen’s arguments. After all, if she distorts here, why should one trust her reportage there? In the midst of a complaint about Hollywood’s failure to make movies about great women missionaries, Rosen slips in “Is white missionary Barbara Stanwyck falling in love with an Oriental the best Hollywood could do?” Sounds like pretty thin stuff, doesn’t it? Yet anyone who has actually seen Frank Capra’s The Bitter Tea of General Yen knows that Rosen’s offhand crack doesn’t begin to describe that film’s strange and very modern examination of religious hypocrisy and sexual repression, let alone its nearly Jamesian evocation of the confrontation of two worlds—one naïve, destructively innocent, the other, ancient, complex, and endlessly sophisticated.
Elsewhere, Rosen characterizes von Sternberg’s “formula” for Dietrich as a mixture of castration and ultimate groveling and abasement—which satisfied male and female fantasies alike. I don’t know what von Sternberg–Dietrich collaborations Rosen’s been watching, but as I stated in the first part of this series of reviews, Dietrich is up to a great deal more than emasculation of her men, and who the hell has ever seen Marlene grovel? (Rosen’s prime example, of course, is the conclusion of Morocco when Dietrich slogs off through the sand to follow her Foreign Legionnaire lover, Gary Cooper. But Dietrich is as much her own prideful person in the company of camp-followers as anywhere else—and her trek into the desert is no capitulation, but a glorious affirmation of her real priorities and desires.)
Films like Bringing Up Baby, Holiday, Penny Serenade and The Awful Truth—which practically demand some comment in terms of Rosen’s avowed interests—are relegated to more of those sterile lists, and Johnny Guitar just never comes up in her discussion of Joan Crawford (“harnessed by the bitch girdle Hollywood … strapped on”), though it too is a film that one would hardly expect to be omitted from a study like this, what with its women (Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge) coming on more like men than the male contingent and its pungent putdowns of traditional sexual mores and customs. Howard Hawks’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is just another “formula” movie in which Marilyn Monroe played her usual “delicious dumb blonde” role. It goes without saying that Rosen remains curiously silent on the matter of the not so deliciously dumb men in the film (including a clutch of musclebound eunuchs, a doddering lecher, a slimily selfrighteous little private eye, as well as Monroe’s effeminate, father-dominated rabbit of a suitor). More to the point, she also wrongs Marilyn who is dumb like a fox in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes—albeit in pursuit of non-liberated goals.
Taking Hollywood to task for its unliberated and benighted treatment of abortion in the cinema, Rosen cites Kirk Douglas’s violent reaction to his wife’s confession in Detective Story. Not an entirely persuasive example when one remembers that the disgust Douglas (who plays a fanatically dedicated cop in the film) displays has more than a little to do with the fact that the baby was not his, and that its father was a gangster he particularly loathes. Many of these films present Rosen with endlessly rich material for discussion even evidence for her case against movies, mankind or whoever but the sad truth is that she fails to use it, or doesn’t see it, in her mad dash to run her once and future idea into the ground.
Though Rosen’s responses to film are primarily of the knee-jerk variety, she frequently gets off some flamboyant stylistic gymnastics. Like exotic tics, effusive and confused metaphors periodically punctuate her almost metronomically functional prose. Theda Bara’s vamping “cut through the rubble of Victorian sentiment like a stiletto,” but “deafening Depression poverty” couldn’t stop Mae West from “tickling the fancy of Depression audiences with a ribbon of sexual innuendos as irresistible as they were pointed.” Fred Astaire “whose feet floated with the elegance of sapphires” has a much better time of it than another victimized woman, Greta Garbo, who suffers when “the gash on the already-open wound of her self deepens.” And, Rosen reports with an absolutely straight face, Katharine Hepburn’s “comedies sanded her brittleness.”
Well, having stilettoed my way through the rubble of Popcorn Venus and tickled your fancy with my ribbon of critical innuendo, I think it’s time to move on to another study of women in the movies, Joan Mellen’s Women and Their Sexuality in the New Film, or How Marxism Made Me Forget to Love the Movies.
Copyright © 1974 by Kathleen Murphy