One of my friends was asking me about my inspiration for Jessica Minton and Elizabeth Hennessey in my novel Bait and Switch, and I explained that I love creating characters in the vein of those smart-talking gals from films of the 1940s (sometimes ‘50s and 30s, too)––especially film noir. Lots of ink has been devoted to the femme fatale/innocent girl split-personae of women in noir, but not enough has been devoted to the women whom writers and actresses created who could not be easily relegated to either the “whore” or the “Madonna” category. Sheri Chinen Biesen moves us in that direction, though, with her article “Manufacturing Heroines: Gothic Victims and Working Women in Classic Noir Fiction,” where she discusses “multi-faceted, working career women” as part of the film noir cast of characters. I can see definite overlapping between her working girls and my smart-talking gals. What I’d like to do is focus on several actresses who made careers out of playing the smart talking gal––and you can feel free to suggest and write about such actresses, yourself, in this page’s comments.
First, though, what is a smart-talking gal? She’s too sharp witted, independent, and experienced to be the virginal, innocent. Still, she has too much wit and class to be anyone’s moll. Further, she’s definitely not a femme fatale. She doesn’t so much use wiles as wit; and her strength, smarts, and experience serve to get at the truth, solve conflicts, and protect herself and those she just might let herself care about––if they prove they’re worth it. She has a heart, but hard knocks have taught her to armor it. She may be sexually experienced, she may not be; she’s definitely not an innocent. This type redefines what it means to be a “good girl.” Some actresses who best personify the smart-talking gal include Joan Bennett, Claire Trevor, Ella Raines, Ida Lupino, Veronica Lake, Lucille Ball, Lauren Bacall, Rosalind Russell, and Lizabeth Scott. How about we look at a few of them at a time?
Joan Bennett: Joan has to be my favorite, and in many ways, she inspired the wit and independence of Jessica Minton in Bait and Switch. Now, Joan could play the evil femme fatale with the best of them. Think of Kitty March in Scarlet Street. Still, even some of her “hydrochloric dames” (as a NY Times critic put it) revealed genuine humanity behind caustic smart talk and ostensible manipulativeness. In The Woman in the Window, The Macomber Affair, and The Woman on the Beach, her characters act in defense against the bullying of men, and their seeming femme fatale status is a projection of a man’s fears and darker nature. However, in other films she’s a lot more fun––or at least clearly not the villainess. This is definitely more like Bait and Switch’s Jessica. In House Across the Bay, Joan’s a show girl not about to let anyone reduce her to a kept woman “dressed up in furs” who “takes a Pekinese for a walk around the block.” She’s also no pushover for a tough broad, either. When a jealous dame calls her, “Cheap, cheap, cheap,” she laughs back, “Where’s the bird seed?” And when that same dame pushes her luck further, Joan’s Brenda Bentley nails her with the rejoinder that she has a voice like “four panes of cracked glass.” The Man I Married finds Joan getting away with kicking Nazis in the shins and telling a German-born husband who has let German imperialism go to his head, “Heil, Heel!” In Confirm or Deny, she forestalls Don Ameche’s passes with dry humor and upholds national security with determination as the London blitz rages on. While in The Secret Beyond the Door, when faced with almost the same problems as the second Mrs. deWinter, rather than turning to whimpering mush, she uses common sense, humor, honesty, self-confidence, and a healthy dose of Jungian analysis to set everyone, including herself, straight. The Scar shows Bennett at her most incisive and tart, deflating Paul Henreid’s attempt to charmingly snow her with, “First comes you, second comes you, third comes you . . . . and then comes you.” When he later calls her “a bitter little lady,” she shoots back a cool, “It’s a bitter little world.” And yet Joan’s Evelyn Hahn has the heart to trust him when he finally does try to be on the square with her, only to have that heart smashed when fate, not his duplicity, makes it seem he has deserted her. In my film noir class, all the students, upon seeing her shadowed expression of resignation at the end of the movie, call for a rewrite.
Claire Trevor: Here’s another actress who can also hand you a dangerous femme fatale, but with NO redeeming traits. Her sexy villainesses in Johnny Angel; Murder, My Sweet; and Born to Kill all epitomize the characterization made by Anne Shirley’s character in Murder, My Sweet as “‘big league blondes.’ Beautiful, expensive babes who know what they’ve got . . . all bubble bath, and dewy morning, and moonlight. And inside: blue steel, cold––cold like that . . . only not that clean.” Nevertheless, Claire could deftly play the smart-talking gal with wit and warmth, as evidenced by her art critic in Crack-Up, Brian Donlevy’s seen-it-all secretary in The Lucky Stiff, the girlfriend who helps Dennis O’Keefe escape prison in Raw Deal (and gets one, herself when he dumps her for Marsha Hunt), and her government agent in Borderline. She’s particularly fun to watch in Crack-Up and Borderline. In the first, she helps a former “Monuments Man,” played by Pat O’Brien, evade the police when he’s framed for art theft and murder, while juggling Herbert Marshall’s British Intelligence agent and the police. Driving up and rescuing O’Brian’s fugitive art expert from being picked up by the police, she responds to his suspicion and lack of gratitude by pulling the car over and remarking with a neat blend of sharpness and warmth: “You can wait here. They’re going to put in a streetcar soon. Unless . . . unless you have some dim idea of what you’re doing and want me to help you.” Borderline finds Trevor as an undercover police woman trying to crack a narcotics ring by pretending to be part of a couple whom a drug trafficker will use to smuggle drugs. What she doesn’t realize is that her “husband” is also an undercover agent with a different agency, who is just as ignorant about her. The two have some wonderful exchanges, and their attempting to get each other to “cooperate” and go straight with each other’s agencies at the border is worth a chuckle or two.
Ella Raines: Ella Raines of the pert page-boy bob; the mischievous, knowing half-smile; and the clear green eyes that hint of something devilish up her sleeve is always a joy to watch. In The Phantom Lady, she’s Kansas, the faithful secretary who’ll move heaven and earth to clear the boss she unrequitedly loves of a murder frame-up. She’s tough enough to stalk a bartender to break his lying testimony (only to overplay her hand when she frightens him into running in front of bus rather than into telling the truth). She’s intrepid enough to doll herself up like a tart to try and pump a hyped up (or is it hopped up?) drummer for exculpatory info. Yet she’s compassionate enough to tread gently when she finally finds the fragile woman who holds her boss’s (and beloved’s) alibi in her broken mind. The Runaround finds Raines outsmarting two P.I.s hunting her down to bring her back to a father who doesn’t want his daughter marrying the man he believes a bounder, all with a knowing twinkle in her eyes. In The Web, she plays Noel Faraday, efficient and almost all-knowing secretary to shady Vincent Price––she doesn’t realize quite how shady Vincent is. All this while, initially parrying the come-ons of a brash lawyer played by Edmond O’Brien, replying to his claim that when he has “forty million” he’ll have a secretary that looks like her with: “Oh, my tastes are fairly simple. Twenty million would be quite enough.” Also check her out The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry, Impact, and White Tie and Tails. A neat web site on Raines can be found at: http://ellarainesfilms.blogspot.com/2013/01/ella-raines-in-web.html
Quotations from Claire Trevor’s movies can be found at “Claire Trevor,” on the IMDB, under quotations for the film. Quotation from Ella Raines’s film can be found at “Ella Raines,” on the IMDB, under quotations for the film. Quotations from the Joan Bennett films can be found in the films noted. I remember them. What can I say; I’m a movie geek––but I don’t live in my parents’ basement. So there! Photos of Joan Bennett from the author’s collection (mostly bought from Jay Perino’s The Mint); photos of Claire Trevor from unknown sources; and photos of Ella Raines from the ellarainesfilms.blogspot (second image) and unknown sources.