Female (1933)

A note from Lindsey: This review contains spoilers. They are marked, but read with caution if you’ve not seen the film and would like to avoid them.

Alison Drake (Ruth Chatterton) has a job uncommon for a woman in 1933: she owns and manages a very successful automobile manufacturer, the Drake Motorcar Company.

Of course, her high status in the world of business means that she’s chosen her career over domestic life. She’s currently unmarried and has never been married.

Her love life isn’t completely nonexistent, though: she gets along quite well with some of her male employees, whom she’s prone to inviting over to her house for “meetings” and then quickly dumping.

Alison meets her match in Jim Thorne (George Brent), an inventor who refuses to play the usual games of Ms. Drake. This will either mean disaster for Jim (the loss of his job) or big changes for Alison (a marriage).

(Image via Live for Film)
(Image via Live for Film)

Michael Curtiz directs 1933’s Female. According to IMDb, William Dieterle and William Wellman also directed scenes for the film. Female was written by Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Female. Would it be a standard gender-reversal film in which Alison would act exactly like any one of the many smarmy male businessmen who were commonly seen in 1930s films? Would she be “redeemed” from her career focus by getting hitched and giving it all up in the end? Or would she do it all, realizing that she could find love and run a company?

As it turns out, Alison [SPOILER] is neither redeemed or a “do-it-all” woman. She chooses to put Jim in charge of the business, marrying him and planning to have nine children. I can’t fault the character for this. Perhaps she was at her wit’s end, dealing with obnoxious colleagues and the pressures of running a company. It isn’t the outcome I would have chosen for her, but at least she isn’t giving up the business because Jim wants her to. [END SPOILER]

The character of Alison is very interesting and quite nicely-written throughout most of the film. I have trouble with the stereotype of the strong female character as a “tough broad” – outspoken, career-focused, emotionally closed-off. These characters can be great in the right type of film, but they’re often underdeveloped and two-dimensional. Alison seems much more real than that stereotype. We get to see her be strong in the board room and while running her business, but we get to see her more sensitive side as well. She has insecurities and faults to go along with her smarts and goal-orientation. I enjoyed the character, and Ruth Chatterton’s performance.

(Image via John D. Hill on Pinterest)
(Image via John D. Hill on Pinterest)

Jim is a character it took me much longer to warm up to, especially since he tells Alison that she, as a woman, is “made for” marriage and home-making at that her position as a CEO is all just a big charade, a game she’s been playing. [SPOILER] But he comes to his senses! At the end of the film, he helps Alison catch a plane to meet with the bankers in time to save her business. This is a bit problematic because he ends up with a sort of savior complex — she was ready to give up the business for him, and only because he urges her to immediately catch a plane is the business saved. But just as I felt about the outcome for Alison, this film handled the situation better than other classics would have. Heck, it was handled better than it would be in most modern films, too. [END SPOILER]

Though not as saucy as some of its fellow pre-codes and not as foreward-thinking as some modern viewers might hope, Female is a film with solid performances and an interesting story to tell. The score: 3.5/5

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