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Addicted to “The Fizz on the Soda”

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on June 25, 2008 1 Comment

Three weeks ago, if anyone had predicted I would willingly go to watch a black and white film, made in the 1930s, starring actors I had never heard of, and sit through it spellbound, I would have laughed my head off. Really. However, incredibly, I just returned from a fifth such movie, as a part of the Joan Blondell retrospective playing at the PFA, titled “Joan Blondell: The Fizz on the Soda.” It was my second double bill in the last fortnight, and I am unabashedly addicted. It’s not just Blondell’s spunk and versatility that has appealed to me; every film I have watched so far has allowed me to immerse myself, as cliched as it sounds, in a different world and time.

Joan Blondell, in Blonde Crazy

One of the things that I find most thought-provoking about the movies has been the transparent sexism of the language, the dialogs. I remember how I squirmed throughout “Blonde Crazy” (1931), where James Cagney playing a sleaze ball con artist, continuously referred to Blondell as “hoooooooney.” Every woman, it seemed, was “honey.” I cannot explain very clearly why, the way he said it (with an extended drawl)…and that he said it…seemed to be very belittling and derogatory. I have heard infinitely more “derogatory” stuff in contemporary mainstream cinema, but there was something so shocking about the almost salacious way he said it, I guess it was because I had never imagined “old films” to have any kind of sexual “bite” to them, especially not in terms of language (I don’t know why I had such a preconception). The Night Nurse (1931), Footlight Parade (1933), There’s Always a Woman (1938), and Three Girls About Town (1941), all contained at least some startlingly sexist language. Common themes in the men’s dialogs included that the “little woman”‘s place was in the home, that she was by and large brainless, and should leave the thinking to the men. However, the spunk, wit, and intelligence of Blondell show the sheer stupidity of these “evaluations,” which I find very interesting. Despite the surface but open sexism of the language, Blondell, for the most part, glitters brightly in these roles, as a brilliant and industrious detective, as a smart con artist, as a capable and compassionate nurse, and as a very resourceful hotel “hostess.”

Joan Blondell

With every utterance of sexist language in the films, there was an audible collective gasp that rose in the darkened PFA theater. For someone like me who, very unfortunately, has little more than a glancing acquaintance with the history of the feminist movement, it was literally shocking to see the kind sexist language that was freely employed in the Depression-era movies. The objectification of women is not something that surprises me to see, since that is still a thriving tradition in Hollywood and elsewhere, but the overt sexism of the language is. As much as I adore these movies, I cannot wrap my head around the fact that such language was acceptable, or normative…How was it ever possible to talk about women this way? And, even if the language has been “cleaned up” now, to what extent has the political correctness in public discourse really been matched by changes in how women are perceived and treated in actuality? Ok, no easy answers, but nevertheless important to think about….

For any of you interested, there are a few more screenings left…go check them out. Prepare to be transfixed, mesmerized, and…a little revolted.

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One Response to “Addicted to “The Fizz on the Soda””

  1. daveski on: 3 July 2008 at 9:55 pm

    It makes me wonder how many ways we have of using language nowadays are going to be ‘tagged’ as blatantly _____ist (you name it) by future generations. Although every time I watch David Letterman or other mainstream TV the sexism is still really evident…

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