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Summer Books

Funny, witty and fearless: I want to be a dame

By Maria DiBattista
Yale University Press, 365 pages, $27.95


I want to be a dame.

No, not a member of the British royalty. I mean a real dame -- a hip-swaying, gin-drinking, don’t-take-nothing-from-nobody kind of gal. Think Roz Russell or Barbara Stanwyck. Think Kate Hepburn and Myrna Loy. Think of all those actresses who lit up the silver screen in the ’30s and early ’40s, offering the world a new image of smart, savvy femininity.

This is the kind of woman whom Maria DiBattista features in her new book. Fast-Talking Dames evokes an era in film when women were expected not only to have minds but to speak them as well.

Says Jimmy Stewart to Claudette Colbert in “It’s a Wonderful World” (1939), “You sort of changed my whole philosophy about women. I always figured they all ended at the neck. You sort of begin there.”

The women in Fast-Talking Dames all began at the neck, or more precisely the mouth. This is not to say that they lacked the bodily charms usually associated with movie stars. As the book points out, these actresses moved with grace and style and with a physical confidence that matched their inner grit. But what made them stars was less their beauty than their fast-talking wit. Through them, says DiBattista, “America was hearing articulated, in a distinctive and irrepressible voice, the very genius of the American idiom.”

What genius of the American idiom, you ask? Consider the conversation in “Ball of Fire” between showgirl Sugarpuss O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck) and the professor of linguistics (Gary Cooper) who has come to document her colorful manner of speaking. When the professor attempts to explain his mission, Sugarpuss tells him to “cut the chorus” and to “stop beating with the gums.” After a few minutes of verbal sparring, the showgirl finally tells the professor, “Okay. Scrow, scram, scraw,” to which he replies delightedly, “A complete conjugation!”

According to DiBattista, Hollywood’s (and hence America’s) love of fast-talking women grew from several sources. For one thing, movies had only recently acquired sound. In silent films, women could use only their eyes and gestures to communicate, and they tended to fall into four different types: “the vampire, the somnambulist, the erotic predator and the sexually compliant woman.” When talking movies were invented, there was a scramble to find scripts and actors to fit the new medium. Speech was the new coin of the realm, and fast-talking speech emerged as the gold standard.

Moreover, the quick banter in movies mirrored a quickening pace of life, as technology changed everything from the food we ate to our modes of transportation.

Says DiBattista, “The American language proved a supple medium for a forward-moving, often jittery modernity. No one spoke this language with greater ease, confidence and quickness than the fast-talking dame.”

The ’30s and ’40s were also times of economic hardship, and the self-reliant women on the screen offered reassurance that American pluck could survive pretty much anything.

Having gone through one world war, the United States was developing a new national identity that was different from that of our European allies. Democracy, rugged individualism, disdain for aristocratic airs -- these combined to form a new and distinctly American kind of woman: “In calling a woman a dame, then, Americans are rejecting all the genteel associations adhering to the word.”

Though DiBattista does provide explanations for the emergence and popularity of the fast-talking dame, she does not allow these to diminish in any way the sheer joy that watching these movies brings. Reading the book, I found myself wishing that the publishers had included copies of the films so that I could sit down and enjoy them immediately without having to prowl through the “Classics” section of the local video store.

For, as Fast-Talking Dames points out, the age of the funny, fearless, self-made heroine who took no prisoners (unless, of course, they were as handsome as Gary Cooper) and took no guff has all but vanished. That era gave way to what DiBattista calls the age of the Dumb Blonde who was sexy not because she talked but because she talked so little. Even most contemporary movies don’t give women much to say that’s worth saying. Smart actors like Susan Sarandon and Jodie Foster have to make do with scripts that are clearly beneath their verbal talents.

Thus, though DiBattista eschews most feminist theories about film (she denies, for instance, that movies are tools of ideological oppression), she confesses that she hopes her book will remind readers of what she calls “the most exhilarating and -- to use a much abused but in this instance indispensable word -- empowering model for American womanhood.”

Fast-talking dames didn’t give a hoot about respectability. They were, according to the author, “equally dismissive of the domestic and sexual pieties of the genteel tradition.” They did what they damned well pleased. Not that they were hard-hearted. In nearly all of the films featured in DiBattista’s book, love prevails: a dynamic that my mother used to describe by observing wryly, “He chased her till she caught him.”

But the dames picked men whom they could respect and who respected them. “What they gave these men in return was a blithe mastery of words. This was their dowry.”

Somewhere along the line, we lost those spunky heroines of the cinema. We lost them at the same time that Rosie the Riveter was told to pack up her tools and put on her apron, when the world wars were over and we no longer had to ask so much of ourselves. Maybe it’s no wonder that in an era of unparalleled economic well-being, the most we ask of our female movie stars is that they moan in sync with the movement of the sheets.

I’m longing for the good old days. So if this weekend you see a wannabe dame giving the kid at Blockbuster the business, telling him to cut the chorus and make with the goods -- well, you’ll know who it is.

It’s Theresa Sanders, Georgetown University associate professor of theology. Neither of her books, Body and Belief: Why the Body of Jesus Cannot Heal (The Davies Group) and Celluloid Saints (Mercer University Press) has yet been optioned as a movie.

National Catholic Reporter, May 11, 2001