Classical Hollywood Cinema

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Kate Woodford

Modernity, Consumerism and ‘The Women’

In the 1920s, ‘modernity’ swept through America, with a enormous economic shift that transformed the pre world war one country from a society still rooted in a predominately agricultural small town past into the worlds primary industrialized urban nation with the formation of the city. It was through corporate capitalism, mass production and consumerism and the process of the mass media that this was done. Where Paris was THE city of the 19th Century, the 1920s New York city skyline boasted an arena for the circulation of bodies and goods, and the exercise of a consumer driven era, and it was women that were taking on these new roles of the consumer. Gone were the days of the 19th century cult of domesticity and in its place emerged the ‘new woman’ of the 1920s. Opportunities in all walks of life emerged for women, the possibility of work outside the home emerged and female secretaries sprung up throughout the new cities, thus enabling them to go shopping and become socially visible. This new ‘Female Marketplace’ fueled women’s desires for power, freedom and pleasure. Companies took advantage of this desire by advertising the purchase and consumption of mass-produced commodities such as cosmetics, fashion and home furnishings, saying that they were life’s ultimate gratification’s and worthy female activities. As Stewart Ewen suggests;

Women were being educated to look at themselves as things to be created competitively against other women, painted and
sculpted with the aids of the modern market.
(EWEN, 1976: 172.)

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This cultural revision of femininity was conducted primarily through the mass media. This mass media came in the force of the Hollywood Film Industry, which responded to the ‘needs’ of women both as consumers and as the ‘modern’ woman. It is in this essay which I intend to examine the characteristics of the 1930s Classical Hollywood film which defined and displayed the issues of modernity and the need for a consumer culture and the role that women played in it. The film which I am going to look at is The Women (1939 US; George Cukor) which is set in 1930s Manhattan milieu of idle socialites and gossip. Despite the total absence of men, they are still the central topic of conversation in the social circle of Mary Haines and her catty clique of high-society wives. Mary’s tidy world is turned upside down when she learns of her husband’s infidelity with Crystal Allen, a vicious vixen and ruthless gold digger. The concept of modernity is rampant in ‘The Women’, from the opening image we are introduced instantly to the bold words of the ‘Park Avenue Sydney Salon’, this immediately sets the tone of a bourgeois class and that ‘style and appearance’ are important factors in the film. A smartly dressed woman enters the salon and briskly sails round the room, enabling the audience to be introduced to the salon, which is full of women being pampered and having made-overs. As the camera roams from one room to another, women are seen bathing in mud bathes, exercising and gossiping. The air of the independent women is in the air, the modern woman is able to move out of the home and enjoy the luxuries available in the public sphere and she is able to come and go as she pleases. Another scene, which emphasises this freedom, is when Sylvia Fowler is exercising in the gym. She has moved into a previously male dominated space and makes it her own. This can be seen to mirror a scene out of the Hollywood film Dancing Lady (1933 US; Robert. Z. Leonard) which places

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the character Janie Barlow in the gym with Clark Gable, where she does many of the exercises that he does and thus becomes his equal in a male sphere. Other factors that can be attributed with the ‘modern’ woman are freedom and equality...
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