Mannish ultra-efficient A.B. is the real force behind the Bancroft paint business. But on a weekend house-party when she overhears the boss's grandson (Jimmy)'s unflattering opinion of her ...
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Mannish ultra-efficient A.B. is the real force behind the Bancroft paint business. But on a weekend house-party when she overhears the boss's grandson (Jimmy)'s unflattering opinion of her (unseen) lack of charms, she's hurt. Jimmy's grandmother takes her under her wing, makes her over, and teaches her to flutter her eyelashes and only say the two phrases to win a man: "Do go on!" and "Aren't you wonderful?". And Jimmy falls hard, not knowing his darling girl is the dreaded A.B. But can A.B. maintain her girlish guise while setting Jimmy on the right track to financial security and a proposal? Written by
Something I'm learning about early DeMille films, he LIKED women. He was willing to flatter his actresses and record bold yet true emotions from them into his camera. His stories are equally bold, but not as true. The plots are farces, bedroom plays of cheating husbands and scheming wives which rely on coincidence to further the plot, and ultimately climaxing with his star in a stunning costume as she manipulates the men with sex appeal.
The Clinging Vine is a twist on that old plot, suggesting women would be superior in the office as well as the home. Enter Leatrice Joy as A. B. who is practically running the company, but has given up her femininity. Introduced only with initials, and seated at a desk of whirring office activity, we accept A. B. as a man. Helped by a dashing haircut and tailored business suit Leatrice Joy is the image of a young hero. Dedicated, hardworking, and ready to be the victim of female manipulation.
Much ballyhoo was made of Joy's daring haircut at the time. Hollywood rags dished on how DeMille was angry she could no longer play leads, and titillating stories about Joy passing for a man and flirting with young women.... This was mid-1920s. Flapper styles were slim and boyish, many had bobbed their hair. Women were adopting the modern look, and voting and working. Hollywood ballyhoo aside, Leatrice Joy just took it to the next level.
Once DeMille establishes that A.B. is an office woman, he lingers on Leatrice Joy as she acts very convincingly as a man. There is a sort of titillation here as she runs the office efficiently, even writing on her sleeve. She is not just mannish, she is a man's man, a go-getter, a brash young hero beating men at their own terms.
Yet it is clear she has no romantic life at all. She is even awkward when a secretary announces her engagement, sadly returning to her office alone. It's not that she's de-sexed, just de-personalized. She has not adopted the clothing of men, she has adopted the clothing of the office. As strong as the transgender theme is visually, it is not a part of the script. A.B. is always treated sympathetically as a woman, just an overly-efficient office woman.
It's hard to suppress our modern post-gender sensibilities, and clearly Joy has created such a convincing, even attractive masculine image that it is confusing when no one in the film reads A.B. as a man, but the film is a light comedy full of topsy-turvy characters. At one point the company execs (a bumbling, hen-pecked patriarchy) are afraid they may lose A.B. and begin scheming to marry her to keep her in the firm! One protests that A.B. would put a timeclock in the bathroom and their socks in a filing cabinet. The "bad" is that she is undomestic, rather than being too masculine, since in this world the men don't seem to be very useful. Clearly though, DeMille and Joy are presenting a polemic image of dualities, first a studied and convincing young man, then a fluttering and exaggerated female.
The boss's wife (Toby Claude as a jazz-age Grandma) steps in as fairy godmother and transforms A.B. into Abigale a "clinging vine" who is decorative and flirtatious. Sensing Abigale has no experience with love, Grandma hooks her up with her grandson Jimmie, whom A.B. has recently fired from the company. Abigale's Pygmalion transformation is so complete that no one recognizes her. Most of the comedy derives from Abigale's clumsy and mannered femininity, in exaggerated puffy gowns and over-sized bonnets.
To modern feminists The Clinging Vine seems like a nightmarish scenario: giving up a career to coddle a simpering man-child -- worse she invests her life savings in his hair-brained invention, but DeMille is not a woman-hater. He takes every opportunity to make A.B. sympathetic, while making Abigale ridiculous. It's true she gives up her career for marriage to an inferior man -- one she even fired, and learns to pacify men by pretending to be stupid..., but it is no different when she affirms her boss's ego allowing him take credit for her work. In DeMille's world women are superior (if unthanked) in the bedroom and the boardroom. When encountering a glass ceiling they learn to switch tactics. This could be interpreted as the goal of a lazy patriarchy, to be pampered and aroused by over-talented submissive women.
The patriarchy falls apart all together however when you look at Grandma. Here this dichotomy of young and old, who slides down banisters and dances to jazz music in her underwear, embodies the ultimate power-wielding matriarch. Knowing her grandson isn't gifted with business sense she marries him off to the company's top whiz. Grandma secures her own bloodline as well as her company's future with an injection of female brains, and by the end of the film Abigale has doubled her wealth using Jimmie as a financial puppet armed with her new powers of sexual manipulation.
The moral isn't pre-feminist, it's actually reverse sexist! Love takes care of the rest.
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