A bold feminist satire from nearly a hundred years ago
This extraordinary film was written by Anita Loos, and is one of her splendid early successes, long since unfairly forgotten! The writing credits say Anita Loos and John Emerson, but after marrying her three years later in 1919, he always made his wife put his name on the writing credits even when he hadn't contributed a word, so one wonders how much he really contributed to this script either. Emerson did however do an excellent job of directing this film, for in those days before he became overpowered by laziness and indolence, he did have a great deal of energy and talent, which shows clearly here. Loos was an intimate friend of the three Talmadge sisters, the eldest of whom was Norma. (Anita always used to say Constance was the really talented one, more so than Norma.) Here Norma is cute and lively and does a very good job as the heroine. She plays a working girl from Wichita who has come to Manhattan to work as a stenographer. She lives in the Woman Stenographer's Club (such residences for young ladies were common in those days and well into the 1950s, see for instance the excellent and truly fascinating film HOTEL FOR WOMEN, 1939, and my review of it, which alas is the only review it has received to date). She and her friends are constantly losing their jobs because of the most intolerable sexual harassment in the workplace, where the men simply will not stop pinching them, fondling them, trying to kiss them, and making outrageous efforts to seduce or rape them. By the time Anita wrote this, she was already 28, though she would have looked more like 16, partly because she was so tiny and had her boyish bob. (The stories about her being only 12 when she started writing scripts are not true, even though she naughtily encouraged them. She merely looked 12. It was one of her many witty jokes to pretend she was still the child that she appeared long after she had grown up.) But she obviously intended this film to be a powerful blow for women's self-respect and freedom to work without molestation, and indeed it was. One wonders when the feminists of today will discover this marvellous classic, which is preserved in an excellent print. Norma sees an ad in the paper seeking a social secretary who must be 'unattractive to men'. (This is typical Anita humour.) The ad has been placed by a society woman from Riverside Drive who is sick of her secretaries continually quitting to get married. (That problem has not disappeared today because women simply will not stop being interested in those rotters, men.) Norma dresses up as a 'perfect Friday night fright' as the credits say, or as we might say, a dreadful frump (or is that too old-fashioned too?) She then goes and secures the job because she looks so awful and dresses in such an appalling manner. She moves into the grand mansion with the family and keeps up this disguise, though she begins to get feelings for the handsome son. One of the men who tried to rape her then attempts to persuade the daughter of the house to marry him, for the sake of her money. He does not recognise Norma because of her frumpy disguise. But Norma reveals her true appearance as an attractive young woman and is willing to sacrifice her job to try to expose the man and save the girl from his clutches. And so the story goes on. Anita pulls no punches in her attack on the injustices shown to working women, and this is a strong tract indeed for such early times, when women could still not even vote. I knew Anita to a certain extent, having met her on several occasions and talked with her on a non-superficial level. That was when I was young and she was old. And thus the generations often overlap. She was a marvellous woman, so intelligent, witty, and kind, and such a delight to know. The very first time I met her, I was 17, and she nearly fell over with shock when she realized I knew who she was and starting asking her to tell me all about my hero D. W. Griffith. She said to me: 'Do you mean that there are young people today who have heard about D.W.?' She always adored him, and this really cheered her up. Now I find myself wondering in my turn: 'Are there young people today who have heard about Anita Loos?' If not, it is certainly their loss. This film is also important in that it contains an early performance by Erich von Stroheim, who plays a scavenger of tabloid scandals, aptly named Adam Buzzard. He creates a really memorable and convincing creepy character. This was only his fourth credited film role, and he had only been in movies for a year at the time it was made. Yes, this was still the early days, but this film was probably not surpassed in its message until Melanie Griffith made WORKING GIRL in 1988, 72 years later. That is how ahead of her time Anita was. And I would say some people have still not caught up with her subtle and incomparable satirical humour. For a proper dose, just sit down and read her original novel GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES, make a few allowances for the passage of time and changes of society and customs, and laugh your head off. There were two earlier silent films called THE SOCIAL SECRETARY, made in 1912 and 1913, but they are not related to this one, and I believe they are lost.
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