not in our stars, but in ourselves
If you’ve done so much as dabble in film theory, you’ve probably come across Laura Mulvey’s game-changing essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema“. While it’s more than possible to criticize her arguments, those arguments – published in Screen in 1975 – changed the way film critics and scholars thought about what they were looking at, why, and how. It is, therefore, a bit strange to watch a documentary from 1965 that’s basically about “visual pleasure” and the erotics of looking at pretty ladies on the screen. It’s strange because, in 1965, during the death throes of the studio era, Mulvey’s feminist interpretation of all that visual pleasure was still light years away from mainstream thought. And so, we have this odd, creaky, largely uncritical documentary about sex on the screen – but, as its title promises, mostly about the women involved.
With plenty of clips from (mostly American) movies, The Love Goddesses traces the treatment of sex in cinema. From early nickelodeon shows featuring high-kicking can-can dancers and undulating so-called exotics; to virgins, pure as the driven snow, threatened with a fate worse than death by nasty brown people in D.W. Griffith movies; to vamps clad in spiderwebs, in case you didn’t quite get that they’re about to lure you to your doom; to flappers whose frank attitudes towards sex and fun belied their essentially conservative nature; to European imports who seduced circles around their quaint American colleagues; to Depression-era fast-talking dames who were on the make; to good little girls waiting for their daddies or husbands or whomever to return home from the war; to larger-than-life ciphers of womanhood whose ripe sexuality was no more than surface-deep, and who all really just wanted husbands and houses in the suburbs and 2.5 children. Initially, the documentary focuses ever so slightly on the men watching these women (noting that a bellydancer gave Mark Twain a heart attack), but mostly sticks to the films themselves.
For those who enjoy old movie clips – and who doesn’t? – this is an enjoyable enough approach. Narrator Carl King sets up the context for each little scene, featuring this or that “love goddess,” and lets us watch the kind of thirty-second snippet you might be able to find on YouTube. Who can argue with that. These actresses – Clara Bow, Mae West, Carole Lombard, Ginger Rogers, Rita Hayworth, Barbara Stanwyck, Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren, etc., etc. – are all iconic for some reason or other, and we get to see them do their thing.
However, the film falls pretty flat in the analysis department. I guess I can’t fault it too much there. As mentioned previously, the majority of filmmakers, filmgoers, film scholars, and the rest of them were not applying all that much critical thinking to their movies during the last years of the studio era. It wasn’t until the very late 1960s and early 1970s that film theory started to become a serious field of study (rooted largely in psychoanalysis and Marxism, at least to start), so we can’t fault The Love Goddesses for not really knowing what it’s talking about. (And of course, I’m not going to argue that any of those film theorists really know what they’re talking about, either, but at least they’re trying to think critically about what they see.) Still, it’s an unsatisfying document of sex on the screen.
For one thing, aside from very briefly mentioning that apocrypha about Mark Twain, the film almost never addresses the men implicated in these decades of cinema. Not the audience, not the directors, not the writers, not the actors, not the studio bosses, nothing. If we are indeed talking about sex, and if that sex is almost uniformly heterosexual (we get the token glimpse of Dietrich in her tuxedo kissing a girl in the audience, but that’s not really a story about lesbians – pretty as Gary Cooper may be), then it seems ridiculous not to bring the men into the equation. Then again, for whom was this documentary made? Probably not for women; probably not for gays; probably just by and for straight white dudes who’d been jerking it to sexy ladies at the cinema since the 1890s. As of 1965, they’d never been challenged to think that other people might have different experiences, that their worldview was not shared by those of the fairer sex or by others even more disadvantaged. The poor boys – they couldn’t help being so clueless. As Bill Holden’s character says in Sunset Boulevard, don’t ever wake a sleepwalker.
Overall, I’d say The Love Goddesses is most successful when talking about movies from the silent and Pre-Code eras. Perhaps those movies were far enough away that the filmmakers were able to gain some perspective. Perhaps they weren’t afraid of offending too many people who were still alive. Perhaps those movies from that time were just clearer examples of on-screen sexuality, and therefore easier to unpack than the Code-corrupted examples of womanhood that existed from the second half of 1934 until the late 1960s. King does mention an interesting idea: that, with the more overt allusions to sexuality ruled out – especially after World War II – the focus went from what all these women were doing (flirting, seducing, fucking, etc.) to what all these women looked like. In addition to all the bizarre ideological movement in the American psyche after the war, there was also the sociological movement of all those men returning home from the war, the economy being tremendously robust, and the need for women to participate in anything except hosting cocktail parties having evaporated. From the 1950s onward, women were – in movies and in life – reduced to their bodies. You can see how the world is reflected in movies of the 1920s and 1930s: those women are about as fully realized as any of the men, if not more so. They were participating in the workforce; they were calling their own shots; they were coupling with men when it was mutually convenient and jettisoning them if it proved less so. The point: even though we’ve got plenty of abnormally attractive women onscreen before World War II, and even during, they were a little bit more recognizably human. After the war, their place in society dropped down to “animated merkin” (to borrow Humbert Humbert’s phrase) – and that’s what we see in the movies. Ever available, ever aware of the male gaze, ever willing to keep her own self locked up deep within for the sake of attracting a mate. I don’t know that we’ve recovered since.