Maria Di Battista’s “Fast-Talking Dames” is a reverent reading of screwball and romantic comedies of the 1930s and ’40s and the leading ladies who brought them to life. One would be hard-pressed to find a more worthy or more entertaining area of study: the neglected gems of Preston Sturges and Howard Hawks, the warp-speed repartee delivered by Rosalind Russell or Carole Lombard, the absurd comic genius of Katharine Hepburn. Movie aficionados already familiar with these exquisite pleasures will clamor happily when “Fast-Talking Dames” hits bookstores next month.
Di Battista, a professor of English literature and film studies at Princeton U., gets an A for effort, though her laudable undertaking veers into that questionable contemporary tradition of dutiful scholarship applied unevenly to a secular enthusiasm, with high spirits and good intentions but somewhat dubious results.
Her thesis centers around language as a means of self-creation and self-definition, and the “dame” as an idealized representation of the mid-century American who breaks with historical strictures of class and gender to become a new kind of self-actualized creature. The films studied were subversive acts, Di Battista writes, in which a “social future is being joyously imagined,” or, more precisely, reimagined.
On the first point of her thesis, Di Battista performs admirably. In a lively introduction, she states, “My subject is movie talk, and my concern with the voices, diction, intonation and the fast, syncopated rhythms that make the American language distinct.” When she sticks to it, her arguments are clear and usually convincing.
Particularly edifying are her paean to the peerless Myrna Loy and her analysis, in a chapter on “female Pygmalions,” of Barbara Stanwyck’s performance as the streetwise lexicographer Sugarpuss O’Shea in “Ball of Fire.”
It’s on the dame front that things get a little messy. Di Battista’s pantheon includes Jean Harlow, Claudette Colbert, Ginger Rogers, Jean Arthur, Irene Dunne, Carole Lombard and Greta Garbo. If you’re at a loss as to how one ropes this magnificent but wildly varying collection of women under a single rubric, Di Battista seems to be as well.
She defines a dame as a woman whose “speech as much as her demeanor is what defines (her) as a female type indigenous to American shores. She exists in ironic relation and often rebellious to British dames — in calling a woman a dame, then, Americans are rejecting all the genteel associations adhering to the word.”
Di Battista attempts to prove that a dame can be a lady, a working girl and a tough broad, sometimes all at once; at times, she is clearly over-reaching.
Her taxonomy for the fast-talking dame includes so many exceptions as to seem almost meaningless.She divides blondes and brunettes, for example, but places Jean Arthur, a blonde, in the brunette category. She makes an improbable argument for the legendary sphinx-like Garbo as a fast-talking dame on the basis of her one (admittedly stellar) comic turn in “Ninotchka,” and manages to get through a close reading of the fastest-talking film of them all, “His Girl Friday,” with only cursory attention paid to the dialogue. She positions Katharine Hepburn, in her adorable role as Susan Vance in “Bringing Up Baby” first as “a fantasy-woman coded to male specifications” and then three pages later as a link to the “liberated future” of the human race. (That these latter points, though inconsistent, are both plausible only illuminates the difficulty of Di Battista’s undertaking. And, although it’s a scholarly work, the book doesn’t quite succeed in addressing such contradictions.)Perhaps most problematic here is that Di Battista seems to have overlooked the fact that her stars did not create their own dialogue. And while homage is duly paid to the era’s directors, scant mention is made of the almost exclusively male writers responsible for the witty words that came out of the mouths of dames.
Overall, this work may fall short as a bullet-proof critical text, but as a thoughtful appreciation of a stratospheric moment in the history of film, and of American culture, it can talk the talk.