Dames, Damsels and Dangerous Women: The Femme Fatale in Hollywood
Dames, Damsels and Dangerous Women: The Femme Fatale in Hollywood
The stereotype of the so-called femme fatale whose origin was believed to be seen in the beginnings of the talkies the early days of Hollywood which began in the mid to late 1920’s and mostly associated with film noir, black comedy or film which began even as early as the late twenties is a stereotype or archetype of a woman portrayed with a certain power over men which equates to a combination of female sexuality, power (of whatever sort: sexual, economic or otherwise), death and danger, heightened by her being the center of the narrative, not to mention attention, and defying cultural norms if not male superiority (Tasker 117).
The concept, if not the veneer behind it and the corrupt forces in the film industry that both created such images and the real characters, where they existed, was forever immortalized in the book The Day of The Locust published by the writer Nathaniel West. West was a struggling artist from a prominent family, who had just begun to make his mark in Hollywood when he was killed in a car accident at the age of 36 in 1940. His work is remembered for being highly original, distinctive for its point of view, and completely non-commercial at the time.
While he was noted after his death for his strikingly original and timeless critiques of American culture, at the time West lived and wrote he was less than appreciated by those who made their livings promoting the glamour of Hollywood—which, of course, promoted the stereotype of the femme fatale to the hilt, on and off screen. In other words, West’s writing is as much a satirical look at the femme fatale and its construct, not to mention the conditions of the film business which drove people to act that way, as it was of one of its most valuable stock characters—the femme fatale, as this paper will analyze.
West’s critique and ability to see past the smoke and mirrors carefully constructed for the public by the film industry to hide the jaundiced literal and figurative wizened gnomes behind the curtain—or camera in this case—were not appreciated by those who had no desire to see West’s attempts at enlightening the public who were outside the inner sanctums of the industry; the fact of the matter is that the public didn’t want to be educated. The movies were the public’s way of escaping a grim reality. Even in the 1920s, life was very rough for most Americans.
In the thirties, the Depression hit. The talkies were that brief moment of escape and fantasy to get away from it all. They didn’t want their fantasy burst by understanding that the thin veneer of glitter presented on the silver screen was halcyon thin, not to mention understanding how corrupt the machinery was behind it. Plus, many movie goers were culturally and literally illiterate. They couldn’t understand the sophisticated analogies; much less afford to buy a copy of West’s book in the first place.
Paperbacks were not introduced in this country until the 1960’s when Ian Ballantine revolutionized the business, and even today 30% of the American public cannot read, mainly due to disability. West’s work and the era this paper examines was during the 1920’s-1930’s America, where women and African Americans were not equally educated unless the former were very rich, and from very liberal families, mainly European ones and usually of German-Jewish descent. They were precisely the people who ran the movie business.
They wouldn’t have been an appreciate audience for West’s work either, particularly female readers from this demographic who generally despised female movie stars, who were pretty much all labeled “femme fatales” during this period. “Old wealth” women saw female movie stars as “nouveau riche,” not to mention an affront to their power and in many cases, their physical beauty and wealth. In many cases they had a perfect right to feel threatened; studio bosses did not create the stereotype of the “casting couch” for nothing.
In fact, for those in the know, the book did equally badly precisely because it exposed such behavior. In just one example of the disdain for West’s writing, well illustrated by not only the book’s commercial flop—the book itself only sold 1480 copies in its initial print run—but prompted Bennett Cerf of Random House to say, “By God, if I ever publish another Hollywood book, it will have to be My 39 Ways of Making Love by Hedy Lamarr. ” (West xi)
However, this is a perfect illustration of how misunderstood West really was, both in terms of his overall outlook on American life, and his real intent in writing. Although his ongoing commercial failure may have in fact been caused in part by his critique of the societal prejudice of American society towards women, The Day of the Locust reflected the way he portrayed women, specifically his treatment of the so-called femme fatale in his novel about women in Hollywood.
This supposition is supported even more strongly if one reads the writer’s private notes about his own writing. To quote West himself: “If I put into The Day of the Locust any of the sincere, honest people who work here and are making such a great, progressive fight, those chapters couldn’t be written satirically and the whole fabric of the peculiar half-world which I attempted to create would be badly torn by them… I believe there is a place for the fellow who yells fire and indicates where some of the smoke is coming from without actually dragging the hose to the spot.
” (West ix-x). It is this, along with other comments about the alienation and emptiness of Twentieth Century American life, that lead the reader to believe that West uses the film industry as the backdrop—even an analogy for—poking fun at the industry itself—if not American culture at large—and not the women he wrote about.
Furthermore, the fact that he deliberately exposed the ravages and corruption of the industry that forced people who were often struggling on the edges of survival to act in the ways that they did as they were portrayed as acting in the media—on screen and off, as some have suggested—shows he was talking about things that reached far beyond the silver screen. He was, for example, also talking about labor issues both in the film industry and beyond, which were enormously disruptive for everyone—not to mention America itself—particularly in the movie business even before the Depression hit.
In fact, there are many clues within the book itself that this is exactly what he was doing. For example, as he wrote about the Rockefellers: “People used to hate the Rockefellers, but now instead of hollering about their ill-gotten oil dough, everybody praises them for what the Foundation does. It’s a swell stunt and pictures could do the same thing. Have a Cinema Foundation and make contributions to Science and Art. You know, give the racket a front.
” (West 17) In other words West was attempting to illustrate that the “real” Hollywood, not to mention the idea that women who were successful in such a crooked business—any for that matter, and remember, this is also a time when widespread corruption had also just created the Depression—cleaned up and projected to the world via PR machine, was a hoax, no more than a cardboard cutout than the sets the actors and actresses he would caricature as real were false.
And further, West was also suggesting that the way that successful women, or those who tried to be successful by jumping through the hoops Hollywood made every starlet and female star jump through to become successful, had to go through was a double standard not applied to men, in or out of the film business who used equally unsavory tactics to become wealthy (such as the Rockefellers).
Once wealthy, the men suddenly became “respectable” and not “scandalous” like almost every single major female movie star of the period was labeled, forced to play on screen, and depicted as being, rightly or wrongly, in the paparazzi, which of course was driven by the studios themselves. There were very few adult female movie stars of the period who escaped that label. Of course, up until now there are female stars that weren’t able to. Nowhere is this clearer than West’s portrayal of the Madam, Mrs.
Jennings, an actress in the days of the silent movies, who never made the jump to the “talkies,” but who ended up running a high end house of ill repute, and was so cultured and careful about her business that she never allowed a client to sleep with a customer she wouldn’t have slept with herself, let alone even entertained the thought of taking on new clients without personally interviewing them. And during that interview, the potential client was asked questions of a highly educated nature (West 19).
Just this juxtaposition alone is enough to convince the reader that West was trying to make a point of the corruption of taste, values, and morality that he saw all around him in Hollywood and that women in fact were far more educated and cultured than some of the richest people in “high society” America. Nowhere is this clearer than both the juxtaposition of the Madam to the Rockefellers, and in his portrayal of the femme fatale which many critics have portrayed as merely a sexist mirror to reflect a sexist and exploitive industry.
In fact, many so-called femme fatales were defined that way deliberately by the industry who forced them to play roles as either prostitutes or madams. Barbara Stanwyck, who called herself “a tough old broad from Brooklyn” and fits into the stereotype of the femme fatale, was at one point in the early forties, the highest paid woman in show business, despite growing up in foster homes.
She took on many tough roles throughout her career and despite her “scandalous” (by 1940’s era standards) series of divorces, she actually was known for her kindness on set no matter how lowly the crew member, her acting range, which won her four Oscar nominations and several prestigious awards, not to mention a lengthy career, and her commitment to charitable causes despite her continuing off screen image which was created by the studios and the paparazzi as a “scandalous woman.
” Nowhere is this more obvious than a year after she won a golden globe, she actually starred in a film in 1962 in which she played—of all things—a lesbian brothel owner (Haeberli 20). She was trying to keep her career alive. It was a risky move and she knew it. And it was all a sexist industry, which had stereotyped her this way, would offer her. This is the kind of self-fulfilling tragedy that West tried to capture in his work, and even tried to parody it.
In fact, West was actually making fun—if not leveling caustic criticism of the so-called Dream Factory of Hollywood—particularly in its treatment of women and what it did to them in their struggle for survival for precisely this reason and in precisely this way. Nowhere was this clearer than in his writing about the femme fatale, precisely because it was so funny and tragic at the same time. Starting of course in West’s novel, with Faye Greener, a bit of a player, who did in fact have an overwhelming ego complex in her aspirations of being a big star.
However, to put this into perspective, which is something that West also does, women had no real economic opportunities in the early twenties. This was a time when women in particular had just gotten the right to vote. A job that paid, much less a profession, was something almost unheard of for someone of the female persuasion. To have economic freedom, even fame, that allows women the same opportunities as men, was very threatening then as it is today to the male definition of (straight male) gender roles.
That’s one of the reasons so many of the femme fatales, both past and present, have ended up as both camp and gay icons. But in the emasculation department, West himself is not entirely innocent. He, too, was a struggling writer who, albeit coming from a wealthy family, never found financial success or fame. To be surrounded by women who treated him as less than an equal in a society where this was the exact opposite of the norm must have been extremely frustrating, demoralizing and an insult to his concept of masculinity and self-identity.
So there are no easy answers to deciphering West’s writing or his opinion of women in the industry, much less in general. But to say that he was an outright sexist who defined in print the stereotype of the femme fatale is fallacious, to say the least. That said, West was not entirely kind to those who show up in The Day of the Locust as this interaction aptly demonstrates. It is, however, as this paper postulates, precisely the kind of caustic criticism of the industry and what it forced people, particularly women, to do to succeed, and how it warped them and their behavior and why it was included in the first place.
The excerpt below is the interaction of a talent scout with one of West’s femme fatales, Faye Greener, and her subsequent reaction to West’s hapless male talent scout, not to mention the author’s comments about how she looked and appeared to West in the subsequent photo; the movie in which she appeared is the topic of conversation of the excerpt below and West’s subsequent commentary: “It was a picture of Faye Greener, a still from a tworeel farce in which she had worked as an extra.
She had given him [the talent agent] the photograph willingly enough, had even autographed it in a large, wild hand, “Affectionately yours, Faye Greener,” but she refused his friendship, or, rather, insisted on keeping it impersonal. She had told him why. He had nothing to offer her—neither money nor looks—and she could only love a handsome man and would only let a wealthy man love her. Tod [the talent scout] was a “good-hearted man,” and she liked “good-hearted men,” but only as friends. She wasn’t hard-boiled.
It was just that she put love on a special plane, where a man without money or looks couldn’t move. ” (West 11) The talent scout had gone to see Ms. Greener in the hopes of representing her after going all the way to Glendale to see her in a movie where she had only one line to speak—“Oh, Mr. Smith! ” In the opinion of West, she even delivered this one liner badly. In the film, she is described by West as being decked out in a harem costume, wearing Turkish trousers, and breastplates of all things, lying stretched out on a silken divan.
She held a beer bottle in one hand and a pewter stein in another. To put this in perspective, this was still an age where women were still banned from, if not segregated in bars and even smoking in public was still considered socially unacceptable for women. This movie was literally scandalous, on the edge of what was then considered pornography and certainly indecent by society’s standards of the day. Yet Greener is portrayed in ‘real life’ in West’s novel as the epitome of exhibiting lady like behavior, a page out of Emily Post, however cold and calculating.
In the telling description of West of the movie scene however: “She was supposed to look drunk (the allusion is to an opium den and that she was an addict) and she did, but not with alcohol. She lay stretched out on the divan with her arms and legs spread, as though welcoming a lover, and her lips were parted in a heavy, sullen smile. She was supposed to look inviting, but the invitation wasn’t to pleasure. Her invitation wasn’t to pleasure, but to struggle, hard and sharp, closer to murder than to love.
If you threw yourself on her, it would be like throwing yourself from the parapet of a skyscraper. You would do it with a scream. You couldn’t expect to rise again. Your teeth would be driven into your skull like nails into a pine board and your back would be broken. You wouldn’t even have time to sweat or close your eyes. ” (West 12) The allusion to death and suffering is not accidental and is an ongoing theme associated with emasculation, and of course the stereotype of the femme fatale.
So again, West is not entirely innocent, even as he describes the movie industry’s behavior. However, while the overwhelming narrative of the book deals with the underbelly of Hollywood, Faye Greener may not be presented as a movie star, but she is portrayed as a woman with ambition; again, a massive breaking of a societal taboo unfortunately just as common today as it was when the book was originally written, as this interchange plainly shows:
“My father isn’t really a peddler,” she said, abruptly. “He’s an actor. I’m an actress. My mother was also an actress, a dancer. The theatre is in our blood. ” “I haven’t seen many shows. I…” He broke off because he saw that she wasn’t interested. “I’m going to be a star some day,” she announced as though daring him to contradict her. “I’m sure you…” “It’s my life. It’s the only thing in the whole world that I want. ” “It’s good to know what you want. I used to be a bookkeeper in a hotel, but…
” “If I’m not, I’ll commit suicide. ” (West 52) While this could be interpreted as the selfish, self-centered desire of a starlet, the reality is that not only is this exactly the kind of drive, much less self created false reality about almost everything, including self-identity, that makes a star in Hollywood today. Combined with luck, however, but in the 1920s women had so few opportunities for survival outside of marriage and prostitution that this in fact was her reality.
The fact that America didn’t want to accept that fact reflects more about American society than either Hollywood, femme fatales, aspiring starlets or even sexism in West’s work. In fact, it shows that West was trying to highlight the latter and use Hollywood as the ultimate set and backdrop to critique American society for precisely such widespread societal attitudes and discrimination, showing that it provided such limited opportunities for women in EVERY occupation, if not socioeconomic opportunities for men as well.
However, what is interesting about the stereotypical femme fatale in real life as in fiction is what has been written about them outside of the frame of West’s work in cultural revisionism, both about her work, and more importantly the role of the femme fatale and its relationship to burlesque, as personified by actresses like Mae West. To quote Robertson: “Because the sexy spectacle of burlesque consisted of male impersonation and direct female address, it “provoked desire and at the same time disturbed the ground of that desire by confusing the distinctions on which desire depended.
” The male impersonation of female burlesque differed from both serious and comic forms of female impersonation—which relied on the audience’s knowledge of a distinction between the role played and the real gender underneath—because burlesque’s male impersonators represented simultaneously masculine attributes and female sexuality. Burlesque created an upside-down world in which women dominated men with their charismatic sexual power. ” (Robertson 29)
What’s even more interesting in historical revisionism about this issue is something that West also reflected in his work as the passage above aptly demonstrates, and as Do Rozario argues is directly responsible, both in movies portraying real actors and in animated children’s films. Laud is given to Walt Disney, who began making cartoons around this time, for the socialization of children at an early age of what women’s roles in society are supposed to be. And just as importantly, what they ARE NOT supposed to be.
“In Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, released in 1937, the evil and jealous Queen—described by Marling (1999) as “mainly Hepburn, with a soupcon of Crawford and the lips of Bette Davis” (p. 27)—attempts to conquer Snow White’s beauty by turning her into the castle drudge; but the prince falls in love with her, able to see past the patched dress, wooden clogs and bucket. And in Disney’s world it all seems so natural that this prince on his white horse should fall in love at first sight with a girl dressed as a scullery maid who sings to birds.
Under the peasant costume, Snow White is a 1920s/’30s starlet with a flapper’s haircut, rosebud mouth, and high-pitched warble. She matures in the Depression and is happy to pitch in with the working class dwarves in times of high unemployment and poverty until she is found once again by her prince, a matinee idol who bridges the gap between Rudolf Valentino and Tony Curtis. This was the princess of early Hollywood, the Hollywood in which Walt Disney and his colleagues began working.
” (Do Rozario 1) But to come back to the connection to burlesque, which was mainly centered in New York and the theatre and made its way out to Hollywood, there is also a connection between the femme fatale, prostitution and acting and the fact remained that this was one of the few ways that women, particularly young and good looking women, could both make a decent living, and even gain fame if not notoriety. A connection West clearly makes in his novel with his discussion about prostitution.
University/College: University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 30 September 2016
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