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Fast-Talking Dames

Fast-Talking Dames

Maria DiBattista
Copyright Date: 2001
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 384
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  • Book Info
    Fast-Talking Dames
    Book Description:

    "There is nothing like a dame," proclaims the song fromSouth Pacific.Certainly there is nothing like the fast-talking dame of screen comedies in the 1930s and '40s. In this engaging book, film scholar and movie buff Maria DiBattista celebrates the fast-talking dame as an American original. Coming of age during the Depression, the dame--a woman of lively wit and brash speech-epitomized a new style of self-reliant, articulate womanhood. Dames were quick on the uptake and hardly ever downbeat. They seemed to know what to say and when to say it. In their fast and breezy talk seemed to lie the secret of happiness, but also the key to reality. DiBattista offers vivid portraits of the grandest dames of the era, including Katharine Hepburn, Irene Dunne, Rosalind Russell, Barbara Stanwyck, and others, and discusses the great films that showcased their compelling way with words-and with men.With their snappy repartee and vivid colloquialisms, these fast-talkers were verbal muses at a time when Americans were reinventing both language and the political institutions of democratic culture. As they taught their laconic male counterparts (most notably those appealing but tongue-tied American icons, Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, and James Stewart) the power and pleasures of speech, they also reimagined the relationship between the sexes.In such films asBringing Up Baby, The Awful Truth,andThe Lady Eve,the fast-talking dame captivated moviegoers of her time. For audiences today, DiBattista observes, the sassy heroine still has much to say.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-13388-2
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-1)
  5. Part One. A Comic History of Dames

    • 1 Fast-Talking Dames
      (pp. 4-35)

      To start with: a curious kind of sexual compliment and come-on that punctuatesIt’s a Wonderful World(1939 version), one of those unpretentious gems that gave the thirties, decade of disasters, their distinctive comic glitter. ‘‘I don’t know, lots of times,’’ confesses Guy Johnson (James Stewart), a gumshoe on the lam, to Edwina Corday (Claudette Colbert), a poet who first avoided Johnson, then invented all manner of reasons to stick with him, ‘‘I’ve thought to myself, ‘Well now, this, this just can’t be—that all dames are dumb and all men ain’t,’ but that’s the way it seemed to me,...

    • 2 Female Pygmalions
      (pp. 36-81)

      No one talks like a dame, certainly not like the fast-talking dame of vintage American comedy. Prospering at a time when sexual tastes ran uninhibitedly toward ‘‘high-class mama[s] that can snap ’em back at ya,’’ she is the direct heir of that free-spoken woman whom Tocqueville admired nearly a century before: self-reliant, gazing upon the bustling theater of the world without illusion, responding to it without fear. Her talk was sexy and smart and high-spirited, yet the pungency and energy of her speech made her an exemplary rather than anomalous figure for democratic culture. She was at home in reality...

  6. Part Two. Hot Heiresses and Working Girls

    • 3 Blonde Bombshells: Jean Harlow, Carole Lombard, and Ginger Rogers
      (pp. 84-131)

      InNothing Sacred(1937), Hazel Flagg (Carole Lombard), a supposedly doomed creature from the verbal backwaters of Vermont, visits New York as the guest of a tabloid newspaper determined to wring the last lachrymose drop out of her sob-sister story. She is treated to a night at the Casino Moderne, whose marquee advertises—and welcomes!—‘‘Tootsies of all Nations.’’ There she witnesses a revue celebrating the ‘‘Heroines of History’’: Catherine the Great, applauded for saving Russia (‘‘And she could do it, too,’’ the emcee assures us); Lady Godiva (‘‘She saved her virtue; that’s the way those things go, folks’’); Lypsinka,...

    • 4 My Favorite Brunettes: Myrna Loy, Jean Arthur, and Claudette Colbert
      (pp. 132-171)

      According to Anita Loos’s famous formulation of the relation of hair color to sexual destiny, gentleman may prefer blondes, but they marry brunettes. This is not literally true, of course. We are dealing here with a particular kind of comic symbolism that developed in the movies but is by no means confined there. In the color scheme that helps define movie characters, the brunette is the dame who not only enters into marriage, but seems to redefine it.

      Marriage for Harlow, as we have seen, is desirablebecauseit is an institution associated with respectability and economic security. She wouldn’t...

  7. Part Three. The Grande Dames

    • 5 Missing Links: Bringing Up Baby
      (pp. 174-201)

      It is by now a truth almost universally acknowledged that it is language that separates man from beast, a phylogenetic leap up the scale of being that every newborn recapitulates with more or less success. No one lives by the light of this truth with more good nature and high spirits than that evolutionary marvel, the fast-talking dame. Sad to say, no fossil or human record survives to mark her first appearance in the evolutionary chain. Facts thus being hard to come by, we might justifiably seek clues to her original nature in a tall but not necessarily untruthful tale,...

    • 6 The Lady-Dame: Irene Dunne and The Awful Truth
      (pp. 202-235)

      Irene Dunne is the fast-talking dame most in peril of lapsing into a soft-spoken lady. Elizabeth Kendall, perhaps sensing this hazard, anoints her ‘‘the Lady among the Runaway Brides.’’¹ But Dunne was not a runaway, nor even a bride. She was not even a bona fide lady. She belonged to a different spiritual and social order. A bride is a threshold creature, poised on the brink of a partnership that will either absorb or transfigure her individuality. Dunne was always, morally as well as temperamentally, a wife, a woman deeply settled into couplehood, once without benefit of clergy (Back Street,...

    • 7 Garbo’s Laugh
      (pp. 236-267)

      Garbo laughs! Why was this touted as so remarkable an event in the annals of film? To hail Garbo’s laugh as a historic occasion was, of course, a savvy promotional gimmick, one that actually predated the making ofNinotchka,the 1939 film that it was publicizing. MGM wanted to make a comedy that it could advertise with ‘‘Garbo laughs!’’ asAnna Christie(1930) had been promoted with ‘‘Garbo talks.’’¹ But why did it take nearly a decade to exploit the phenomenon of her laughter, as if her powers of speech were quite distinct from, perhaps even incompatible with, her capacity...

    • 8 Female Rampant: His Girl Friday
      (pp. 268-297)

      The film’s title blares out at us from a blur of newsprint. Its bold headline gives undisputed prominence to an ascendant female type with a jazzy moniker—His Girl Friday. The subject of this fanfare is Hildy Johnson, surely the fastest of the fast-talking dames of American screen comedy and perhaps the best newspaperman ever portrayed on film. She makes us aware of how ‘‘talking pictures’’ gave women the chance to speak up, speak out, and speak to their own desires, dreams, and ambitions. Presented with this opportunity, they made the most of it. They spoke fast and furiously, as...

    • 9 The Lady Eve and the Female Con
      (pp. 298-323)

      The Lady Eveis Preston Sturges’s accomplished study of America’s finest comic specimen: sucker sapiens. Its heroine, Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck), is a fast-talking dame never at a loss for a word or a palmed card. Its hero, Charles ‘‘Hopsie’’ Pike (Henry Fonda), is an amateur ophiologist of shy demeanor and halting speech, an easy mark for the dexterous charmer who manipulates words and people with enviable finesse. Sturges, who so enjoyed imagining preposterous combinations, presents us with the comedy of the pair’s improbable courtship as a fable of routed innocence. This fable concludes in a paradoxical moral: the hero...

    • Conclusion: Blondes Born Yesterday
      (pp. 324-340)

      Howard Hawks’s praise of Ann Sheridan captures what was existentially thrilling about fast-talking dames: their goodness encompassed not just a mode of behavior but a way of being, a fullness as well as a liveliness of nature. Sadly, Hawks’s tribute could serve as an epitaph to the era that gave full rein to such quick and good women who seemingly had and could do everything. By the early 1950s the fast-talking dame was an endangered species. We might attribute her eclipse to the silencing or, more accurately, the slowing and dumbing down of the American comic heroine. Disturbing harbingers of...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 341-358)
  9. Index
    (pp. 359-365)