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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

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DiBattista book explores quick-witted movie heroines of the '30s and '40s

When she was growing up, Maria DiBattista often stayed up past her bedtime so she could watch Katharine Hepburn or Rosalind Russell sling clever comic lines over their shoulders at Spencer Tracy and Cary Grant. She was enchanted and emboldened by these Hollywood dames; they were confident, smart and witty.

DiBattista's childhood interest in movies led to a scholarly pursuit of film studies. A professor of English and comparative literature at Princeton, she eventually decided that she should write a book about these sharp-tongued comic heroines.

"When I started teaching film, I thought that I should begin investigating my own emotional investment in these women," said DiBattista, who also chairs the Committee for Film Studies . "As a young girl, I saw these articulate, independent, fun-loving and sexy women who were unselfconsciously living their lives and becoming the kind of person I wanted to be. I wanted to know why I miss them so much when I go to the movies now and what they taught me when I was growing up."

The result is "Fast-Talking Dames," an exploration of the cheeky, quick-witted movie heroines of the 30s and 40s and the way in which they realigned the relationship between the sexes. The book was published in May by Yale University Press. In sections titled "Hot Heiresses and Working Girls," "Garbos Laugh" and "My Favorite Brunettes," DiBattista revels in the image of womanhood brought to the screen by Jean Harlow, Claudette Colbert and Myrna Loy, among others.

"This is a new kind of woman, who really has to be reckoned with, who gets her man and gets her say," said DiBattista. Take actress Carole Lombards portrayal of an heiress who aggressively pursues the man she loves in "My Man Godfrey." "She insists that hes the man for her, and shes not going to give up," she said. "Yes, it is considered unladylike, but that is whats fun about it. You dont want to be a lady, you want to be a dame. The dame goes after the man she wants, and the men are glad that she did." And these characters are usually shown as capable professionals, such as Rosalind Russells portrayal of newspaper reporter Hildy Johnson in "His Girl Friday," who beats her male colleagues on the biggest story in town.

DiBattista laments the fact that, in her view, there are almost no fast-talking dames in todays films. Current movies are full of "bumbling, inarticulate, cutesy comic heroines who, even if they are given the role of a professional, are never believable for an instant," such as Cameron Diaz portraying an orthopedic surgeon in "Theres Something About Mary." Truly competent career women tend to be depicted as humorless and inflexible or wracked with insecurity, like Helen Hunts character in "What Women Want," who, despite being a successful career woman, is constantly worrying about what others think of her.

"To me, its just more interesting to see women who are funny, who have a sense of humor and can do the job without a quivering lip," said DiBattista. "Thats such a positive role model, and its entertaining too."

Teaching Princeton students about film revealed that not every teenager stayed up late watching old movies on television like DiBattista, who has taught at the University since 1974. A showing of the 1932 movie "Blonde Venus" in one of her classes prompted a student to ask, "Which one is Cary Grant?" But what DiBattista has found especially surprising is how infrequently her students go to the movies. "Movie-going for them isnt what it was for me when I was in college," she said. "There isnt a sense that youre missing something if you dont go to the movies."

DiBattistas obsession with old movies has always amused her own children, who used to ask her, "Do you like any movie that isnt black and white?" As she was writing "Fast-Talking Dames," DiBattista watched hundreds of movies at least once and viewed many of them dozens of times. Setting her VCR to tape movies that were being shown at 3 in the morning became a ritual.

All that movie-watching paid off, according to Robert Gottliebs review of "Fast-Talking Dames," which appeared in The New York Times Book Review. "Brief quotation can do only partial justice to the loving acuity with which DiBattista considers this band of admirable women, who give as good as they get, if not a great deal more," he wrote.

Even with the book finished, DiBattista finds herself dropping onto the couch if Myrna Loy or Jean Arthur appear on the television screen.

"I never get tired of them," she said. "Ill think, Oh, you know, I really should go do this or that, but if I see Rosalind Russell or Carole Lombard, I just have to sit down and watch. And they never disappoint me, no matter how many times I see them. I just love looking at them and hearing them talk."

Who is and isnt a fast-talking dame in todays crop of actresses, according to Maria DiBattista:

Alicia Silverstone in "Clueless": She is certainly a descendant of the fast-talking dames  part of her attractiveness is the way she uses modern slang. She isnt afraid of it and she makes it her own, giving the movie a linguistic vitality.

And she has the fast-talking dame sense of knowing what she wants and going after it. Shes forthright and even cunning, and, like a lot of fast-talking dames, shell learn the limits of her resolve without renouncing it.

Allison Janney in "The West Wing": I think shes a direct descendant of Jean Arthur or Barbara Stanwyck. As the press secretary for the president, her work is with words, and shes very witty. She works easily in a male environment, she does well under pressure, and you have the feeling that shes a complete woman.

The four lead actresses in "Sex and the City": This is touted as one of our wittiest shows, but the wit doesnt have the social and emotional reach of the comedies of the 30s and 40s. As for the dialogue between the sexes, you feel theres a kind of leering quality to it which the fast-talking dames didnt have. Miranda (played by Cynthia Nixon), who is supposedly the least attractive of all of them, is the most fun to listen to  she always has the zingers  and I remember one episode in which a man sees her as instantly attractive, and of course the minute she starts talking hes immediately turned off. The sense is that sex appeal really has to be divorced from eloquence, that wit is reserved for banter with other women.

Julia Roberts in "Erin Brockovich": Shes too derisive, too bitter and too much of a loner. The fast-talking dame is independent, but she knows how to work with people.

Contact: Marilyn Marks (609) 258-3601

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