Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Shaking Women at the British Film Institute

I was taken to see two old films at the British Film Institute - aka the National Film Theatre - on the Southbank over the last week or two. One was British from 1948, 'Good Time Girl' starring Jean Kent, Dennis Price, Flora Robson and Herbert Lom and one was American from 1933, a version of Noel Coward's 'Design For Living' starring Frederic March, Gary Cooper and Miriam Hopkins. They were so different in so many ways and very similar in one - men shaking women.

'Good Time Girl' is the tale of a teenage girl who runs away from home in London after the war and falls in with a bad lot in the Soho club in which she finds work. She loses the job, winds up in court with Flora Robson as the judge and then is sent to a girls borstal school where she is the rebel and then becomes the bully. In no time she escapes and heads to the bright lights of Brighton where she becomes a drunken tart, runs down a copper in her car and gets entangled with two post-war GIs and ends up being sent down for 16 years. And her tale told by Flora Robson saves a very young Diana Dors from going off the tracks (if you can believe that).

The second film was 'Design For Living', based on Noel Coward's play about a new way of living between men and women in which the men capitulate to the needs of the woman. Mr Coward sardonically commented that they'd kept a few words from his play in the film and, having seen the play four years ago at The Old Vic, I'd agree with Mr Coward. Gilda falls for both artist and playwrite who love as a threesome without sex ("a gentleman's agreement") in Paris until the playwrite has a hit in London and goes off to enjoy it. Gilda and the artist live together until the playwright visits and then she runs off to marry her boss in New York and becomes a society hostess. Her artistic lovers then turn up and lure her back to an artistic life in Paris in some of the funniest scenes of the film.

The films are quite different in many ways. 'Good Time Girl' is anything but a good time, it's dark and threatening but isn't really a morality tale despite how Flora Robson treats it. There are none of the seedy aspects of Soho, the sex and drugs, and it's dressed up in swanky nightclubs and people in dinner suits and frocks but that world also includes slasher gangs and no-one is safe from a razor attack. Jean Kent was very good playing the girl in question as we see her escaping abuse at home to turning into a throughly bad lot through the circumstances she finds herself in. The film is unrelentingly bleak and dangerous, very different from the bright and - in places - sparkling 'Design For Living'.

The centre of 'Design' is Miriam Hopkins, a vivacious and fast talking blond who holds the film together. She can't decide whether she loves Frederic or Gary and decides she loves them both and why shouldn't she? The surprise in this film is Gary Cooper playing an artist in a garret in Paris without a cowboy or horse in sight. He's definitely playing against type quite early in his career and this film hints at what he might have done if Cary Grant hadn't appeared on the Hollywood scene. The film is part of the BFI's pre-censorship season and the references to 'no sex' and the menage a trios wouldn't have been allowed only a few years later. I enjoyed it and I particularly liked Miriam as the sassy leader and lover of the artists.

The thing that noticeably jumped off the screen at me was the tall men shaking the shorter women, grabbing them by the shoulders and giving them a good shake. As if shaking them will dislodge their poor little brains and make them understand and agree with the views of the tall men. The poor little ladies obviously need help to dislodge some unhelpful thoughts. I don't understand that and suspect that, in real life, Jean Kent (from what I heard at the screening) would've punched anyone who tried to physically assault her so why was it acceptable in film? I don't know anything about Miriam Hopkins but maybe she just liked Gary Cooper?

Of course, the world has moved on - well, at least some parts of the world - and this behaviour would no longer be acceptable or seen as the norm. Many parts of the world still have to take some rather large strides to catch up.

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