We often hear talk these days about the importance of protecting the director’s vision for a film. Back in the 30’s, that wasn’t so much a high priority as just getting the movie done and makin’ money. Our film today, for example, though credited to only one person, was actually directed by three. It was begun by William Dieterle, who was replaced by William Wellman after falling ill. Then, Michael Curtiz took over for a few reshoots, and ended up with the sole directing credit. It’s a little pre-code film from 1933…Female.
The film centers on Allison Drake (Ruth Chatterton), head of the Drake Motor Company. Her father started the business, but Allison has been in charge ever since he passed away several years ago. She surrounds herself with an army of male executives and male secretaries and, make no mistake, she is as tough a boss as any man. She has no interest in slowing down, finding a husband, or starting a family. She even tells an old friend that she’d rather have a canary than a husband. However, when the mood hits her she does enjoy the company of her various male employees (including western star Johnny Mack Brown) at her mansion, often luring them there with the promise of a business dinner and then casting them aside after an evening of fun. At one point, one of her secretaries exclaims that he loves her and he can’t take this anymore…so she ships him off to her plant in Montreal and decides to only hire female secretaries from now on.
Despite running a tight ship, the Drake Motor Company is struggling financially. Allison determines that they need something new to get things moving in the right direction. Miss Drake instructs one of her executives to hire a renowned engineer named Jim Thorne, snatching him away from a competitor hoping that he will bring some new ideas.
One night, Allison is in the middle of hosting a party, filled with adoring men who want to marry her for her money, when she becomes bored. She wonders if anyone would care about her if she were a nobody. So, she throws on something less glamorous and heads downtown. She ends up flirting with handsome man she meets at a shooting gallery. Though the two have a nice evening of dining and dancing, he rejects her attempt to spend the night with him. Imagine her surprise when the next day at the factory, she learns the man was Jim Thorne (George Brent), the engineer she was waiting for. When she has him over to her home for another one of her “business meetings”, he rejects her again. However, the two begin to fall in love after a day in the country together. But will Allison give up being the tough-as-nails head of a big company when the possibility of marriage comes up?
This is a tough little movie to review. I enjoyed Female a great deal, but I know that some viewers will struggle with the ending. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though. The film does have sly sense of humor and a unique lead character. It’s hard to resist a film with a character like Allison Drake. Don’t get me wrong, she’s a maneater, but so help me she’s fun to watch. Ruth Chatterton’s approach to the role is wonderfully nasty. The devilish little look in her eye as she invites her handsome employees back to her lair for “business meetings” is classic. She reminded me a bit of Warren William in Employees’ Entrance, which was released just a few months before this film.
The whole gender reversal aspect of the story is really intriguing and it gives us a truly dynamic character, which is why the ending is so problematic. In the final moments of the film, struggling between big business decisions and the possibility of losing Jim, Allison suddenly turns into a blubbering glob of goo. The tough character we’ve been watching for the last fifty minutes completely disappears. She decides to chase down her man, give up life as an executive and start making babies. It’s very out-of-place. Some ladies may very well be reaching for the remote control when she is told, “You’re just a woman, after all. This job was too much for you.”
The ending wasn’t enough to ruin the film for me, though. Far from it, in fact. Beyond Ruth Chatterton, there are several other great performances. Chief among them is Ferdinand Gottschalk as Allison’s second in command, Pettigrew. He knows every one of her games and is always looking on with a wonderful sly grin on his face. There is also some unique art deco set design that gives the film an interesting look. I especially loved Allison’s pool which looks like an Aztec temple. Supposedly it’s the same pool that was used in Footlight Parade. By the way, a few fleeting exterior shots of Allison’s home are actually the famous Ennis House in Los Angeles, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Though it may get me in trouble with some of the ladies out there, I have to recommend Female. Even with three different directors at the helm, it maintains an unusual sense of humor features a solid performance from Ruth Chatterton. Yet I wholeheartedly admit the ending is weak and disappointing.