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," "Garbo's 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 Lombard's portrayal of an heiress who aggressively pursues the man she loves in "My Man Godfrey." "She insists that he's the man for her, and she's not going to give up," she said. "Yes, it is considered unladylike, but that is what's fun about it. You don't 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 Russell's 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 today's 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 "There's Something About Mary." Truly competent career women tend to be depicted as humorless and inflexible or wracked with insecurity, like Helen Hunt's character in "What Women Want," who, despite being a successful career woman, is constantly worrying about what others think of her.

"To me, it's 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. "That's such a positive role model, and it's 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 isn't what it was for me when I was in college," she said. "There isn't a sense that you're missing something if you don't go to the movies."

DiBattista's obsession with old movies has always amused her own children, who used to ask her, "Do you like any movie that isn't 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 Gottlieb's 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. "I'll 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 isn't a fast-talking dame in today's 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 isn't 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. She's forthright and even cunning, and, like a lot of fast-talking dames, she'll learn the limits of her resolve without renouncing it.

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

The four lead actresses in "Sex and the City": This is touted as one of our wittiest shows, but the wit doesn't have the social and emotional reach of the comedies of the '30s and '40s. As for the dialogue between the sexes, you feel there's a kind of leering quality to it which the fast-talking dames didn't 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 he's 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": She's 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