I’m perched on a table, legs pressed against the small of a stranger’s back. Lauren Bacall’s eyes are on me, shirt sleeves rolled up to her elbows, cigarette hanging from her left hand, eyebrows arched wryly and eyes conveying an expression that combines an inviting magnetism with just the slightest hint of superiority. The surface in front of her is printed with a single word in bold yellow lettering: ’Trouble’.The Trouble Club is a new club for women founded by journalist Joy Lo Dico, originally pitched as a ‘pop-up’ experience for November and December 2014 (although there have been joyful whispers of an extension into 2015). The club hosts talks and debates on a wide variety of subjects, delivered by a host of women, all experts in their fields.
Scuttling down a dark alley in Soho towards an innocuous-looking black door, I was reminded of the club’s tagline – ‘She was looking for Trouble… and she found it’.
I’m here to attend a talk on women in 1930s Hollywood, delivered by the charismatic and knowledgeable Professor Sarah Churchwell. Having arrived with fifteen minutes to spare, I’d made the mistake of ‘popping out’ to hunt for a cash point and on my return was faced with a crowded room, a table top seat and a blocked path to the bar.
Not that it mattered once the talk started. Professor Churchwell is an engaging public speaker and her passion for the subject was evident from the easy way obscure references dropped from her lips.
Her talk was focused on the male-female dynamic in the screwball comedies of the 1930s and early 1940s and the way the portrayal of that dynamic has shifted across the decades since. The women of screwball comedies are beautiful, yes, but they are also smart, witty, stylish, ballsy and – crucially – imperfect. To use Professor Churchwell’s phrase, these are women who have ‘moxie’.
As a film lover raised on the movies of Hollywood’s ‘Golden Age’, it was great fun to re-watch familiar scenes and discover new ones with fellow enthusiasts. In the hour talk, we were treated to clips from ‘The Thin Man’ (1934), ‘It Happened One Night’ (1934), ‘Nothing Sacred’ (1936), ‘Bringing Up Baby’ (1938) ‘The Lady Eve’ (1941), ‘His Girl Friday’ (1940) and (my personal favourite), ‘The Philadelphia Story’ (1940) – all of which I would highly recommend to the uninitiated.
However, what was really fascinating was the comparison drawn between the female protagonists of these films and those of our present day rom-coms. To use Professor Churchwell’s phrase, the screwball comedy “glorifies women’s intelligence” in a way that hasn’t been done since. Instead, the modern movie industry infantilises men and women, both onscreen and off. Judging by a typical cinema billing, every man secretly longs to be a comic-book hero and every woman a blushing bride. Whilst modern Hollywood frequently fails to cater to women, the screwball comedy made space for a female audience in a way that we’ve failed to emulate since.
“The idea of the chick-flick is a self-fulfilling prophecy, assuming the definitive triviality of both the chick and the flick that she watches.”
Professor Sarah Churchwell
Of course, this critique is nothing new and there was plenty of sexism behind the glossy ‘Old Hollywood’ exterior, but I found it fascinating how regressive our modern film culture appears when viewed alongside the superficially dated screwball. The screwball woman is not the toxic seductress of the film noir, nor the simpering blonde of the post-war comedy. The women of the screwball have moxie and the men are drawn to them because of it. Their breakneck back-and-forth banter is not just verbal foreplay, but rather the process of working out what equality might look like*. Crucially, they have self-respect. Perhaps it wasn’t just the elegant costumes that drew me to these movies as an adolescent.
* Fascinatingly, this was the only era in Hollywood’s history when top actresses earned more than their male equivalents. Troubling indeed.
I came away post-talk feeling inspired, riled up and hungry for more. Fingers crossed Trouble continues into 2015.