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February 13, 2002:
Talking about dames
Maria DiBattista on her new book, Fast-talking Dames

Interview by Jane Chapman Martin '89

"You sort of changed my whole philosophy about women," said Jimmy Stewart '32 to Claudette Colbert in the 1939 movie It's A Wonderful World. "I don't know, I always figured they all ended at the neck. You sort of begin there."

That's where Maria DiBattista's latest book begins, too. In Fast-Talking Dames, the English and comparative literature professor dissects the patter of the heroines of 1930s screwball comedies, played by such stars as Colbert, Rosalind Russell, Jean Arthur, Barbara Stanwyck, and Katharine Hepburn, to uncover what they were really saying — about women, about men, about American society, and about language itself. Recently, DiBattista, who chairs the Film Studies program in the Humanities and is also an expert in modern European literature, talked to PAW about her research.

PAW: When did you become interested in studying film from an academic perspective?

MD: I realized, as people started talking more about films in an academic way, that from years of experience watching I had a whole memory bank to call upon — and very vivid images. For me it was not only an intellectual challenge but represented a whole body of experience that was fun to explore. I started teaching within the context of women's studies, teaching a women-in-film class, and then moved from there to a course on comedy, and then realized how closely connected those two interests were.

The idea for the book came out of a talk I gave at an alumni college in the late 1980s in Los Angeles at Universal Studios. I spoke on Preston Sturgis's The Lady Eve, and seeing people react to the film as if they themselves had rediscovered a lost heritage gave me encouragement.

PAW: What's different about researching film?

MD: There's a little more guilty pleasure, because you spend a lot of hours just watching films. I made several trips to the Museum of Modern Art, the UCLA archives, and the motion picture academy. I canvassed the TV listings. I became very adept at middle-of-the-night taping.

Then your academic training helps you out. You start reading biographies, making sure you really understand how movies are made. Next you have to figure out how you're going to use all that information and how you want to tell your story. That really took me the longest. I wanted to call attention to these films by focusing on these female characters and how articulate and witty and independent they were, and to do that I had to take a more interpretive approach rather than a historical documentary approach.

PAW: How does the collaborative nature of film enter into the way you analyze it?

MD: It's a tricky question. I'm not sure I really figured it out. I tried to incorporate into my discussion those facts about how the movie was made that seemed to bear on the experience of watching the movie or the experience of an actor or actress in a particular role. But the focus was on screen character. It is a collective product, but that ultimately does not distract from the fact that you had a certain kind of image, a certain kind of verbal eloquence and wit. This book was trying to highlight that image, and explain that wit. I pay a great deal of attention to where slang and the American language came of age, and when you're talking about language, you're talking about collective property. I did discuss, for example, Billy Wilder, who was an immigrant. A lot of his screenplays show an interest in American language because immigrants are interested in the words that the natives use.

PAW: How has the reception of this book compared with other books you've written, such as Virginia Woolf's Major Novels, or First Love, The Affections of Modern Fiction?

MD: Reviewers are still a little nervous about devoting, let's say, a chapter to analyzing a movie. No matter how much they're committed to the idea that movies are an important cultural forum and tell us a lot about culture — A chapter on a movie! In the first part of the book where I give background and talk about individual actresses, many reviewers respond to that without hesitation. But the last part of the book, called the Grande Dames, which is devoted to readings of particular films and how these women command the space of the film and how they portray their characters, then you can see that the fact that I'm a professor comes to mind.

It's the same reaction I get sometimes when I teach on film. Students feel that it's entertainment, and that if you analyze anything that is meant to be entertaining too much or too seriously, you're ruining it. By the end of the semester, I think they're disabused of that idea. In fact, they find that there's more enjoyment by being in on the jokes and understanding how things are put together.

PAW: How many times did you watch some of these movies?

MD: I can remember my kids saying, Do you ever watch anything that isn't black and white? That got to be a family joke. Some of them, like The Lady Eve, Bringing Up Baby, The Awful Truth, His Girl Friday — I can't even tell you. And the strange thing is, no matter how many times I see them, I always see something else. You discover some kind of gesture by the actress, some kind of verbal cue or verbal joke that you had missed before.

PAW: Why was America so ready to embrace this type of woman, the fast-talking dame?

MD: There was the sheer excitement of the technical breakthrough that could reproduce the human voice. I think part of that excitement simply transfers over to the pace of a lot of the dialogue.

But I also think there is a sociological and economic and even psychological explanation. These movies came into their own at the time of the Depression. They were hard times. People had to look lively, speak up — things would happen very quickly, opportunity if it appeared might disappear twice as fast. So you've got these images of fast talkers, particularly fast-talking women, because women were going out into the workplace in greater numbers than they had before. Suddenly the traditional family roles and gender roles had to be revisited and revised because the economics meant you couldn't keep the little woman at home.

These women were also just coming out of the flapper age, a period of sexual and social liberation and experimentation. Now I think it took a more serious — and to me more interesting — turn. It wasn't just about expressing yourself in terms of pleasure, going out dancing, but about the kind of person you wanted to become. These movies show women who were in the process of becoming everything they had ever dreamed of becoming. And there's a poignancy because this process of self-creation takes place in the hardest of social and economic times.

So the fast-talking dames really are heroines, and it's not just about sex and their emotional lives, it's about their larger relation to society and who they are and the values they represent and how they see the world. They seem to me to be women of much greater experience and wisdom, even though a lot of them are only in their early 20s.

PAW: The women in these films are assertive, but never threatening. Why is that?

MD: After the 1950s, I think, you get this sense that any woman who talks up or talks back is immediately regarded as neurotic, or a potential menace, or a possible castrator. Then you go back to watch the movies of the '30s and '40s, and you watch not only the women but the reaction shots of the men — they see a fast-talking dame and their head turns, and they're immediately attracted. They may be intrigued, or they're puzzled, or they want immediately to get into some sort of verbal combat, but they're not intimidated. There's something about how arresting this woman is — she's great-looking, often, but that's not the only attraction. She represents a new voice, a new way of being, and they respond to that discovery: Wow, I'm here at the birth of this new kind of independent, articulate, American woman. Hats off to those men — they're never scared off and they're never dismissive. It's never a case of his masculinity being threatened, In some sense, oddly enough, masculinity was more secure.

PAW: These women are often reporters or in similar professional lines of work. Why?

MD: What's really funny and interesting and emancipating is that you put women in these work environments that are intrinsically collaborative, and it's amazing: They're always shown as working well, and often regarded as the best on the staff. And again, there doesn't seem to be any resentment about that. The men enjoy her company and working with her. This is not only in the reporter comedies, it's in something like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, where Jean Arthur plays a congressional aide.

When you see women on the screen today, whatever job they're doing, they're never really believable. When you watch these comedies, in contrast, you really would send that girl reporter out on the job. And you often see the fast-talking dames at work, you see how they get their story and write it up and you see them scheming to get their lead. Even if they're shopgirls, you see them making a sale. It isn't just a kind of tag — she's an advertising executive, she's a doctor, she's a lawyer, for example.

PAW: Where did the fast-talking dame go?

MD: The fast-talking dame matured as a comic during the war. You start to get much more politically charged comedy. Even in His Girl Friday, Hildy is reporting on an execution, and there's a whole background of social and political upheaval in that film.

The fast-talking dame also migrates into film noir, because the times are darker. This is a way of focusing much more on the suspicious, shady character of the fast-talking dame. The association of fast talk and loose morals becomes a plot element in film noir.

After the war is over, there's a very demoralizing retreat back into the homestead, and the reassertion of the typical gender roles. I guess the culture was tired? Tired of fighting, and feeling a terrible loss of vision and loss of nerve, and feeling that they could only rebuild by returning to the traditional family. As a result you did get different kinds of fast-talking dame — they're not even fast-talking dames. They're dumb blondes. They tend to be ditzier.

PAW: Is there anywhere that the vestige survives?

MD: There are obviously attempts to recreate it. The only character I can think of off-hand who really represents a direct descendant of the fast-talking dames is the character of White House press secretary C.J. Cregg on The West Wing. She would not be out of place in a Jean Arthur comedy, walking the halls.

Today you can have witty one-liners, but they're meant to be drop-dead one liners. They're meant to cut the flow of conversation off — not just short, but off, to obliterate the person on the other end of the conversation. When you watch the comedies of the '40s, you see that the whole idea is to get everybody up to speed, to enliven conversation, to get somewhere through your words — not to pretend that words don't matter.

Today's working-girl comedies trivialize what it is to be a professional, to be competent in your job, as if women don't take any pride or if they do, there's something sexually or emotionally dysfunctional about them. The amazing thing is that these are comedies directed and written by women, like What Women Want. There's this self-satisfaction in that supposedly Mel Gibson becomes in the course of the film an evolved male, but he can only do that because all of the women are revealed to be secretly emotionally needy and vulnerable and have self-esteem issues.

What I like about the fast-talking dame comedies is that self-esteem is not an issue. They are self-reliant because the times demanded that they be self-reliant and because they have the strength of character not to feel obligated to answer to anybody but themselves. As a result, they are more socially connected rather than less socially connected. That's a kind of paradox maybe we haven't understood.

I'd like to encourage people to go back and see the kind of movies where the real interest was a woman in the world, responding to the challenges of making a living and of forging a relationship that would make her happy. The result is that both the men and women come out as much more liberated and, finally, happy.