Girls, Meet Gotham
Sunday, June 1, 2008
The scene: Manhattan, where in a corner cafe a group of chic young women finish a lunch spent talking about their lives: their choices, their men, their dissatisfactions. The tone is jaunty, frank, but it plays out in a minor key, shot through with an undercurrent of longing and nagging self-doubt. As they compare their disparate paths, an unmistakable subtext emerges: No matter where life takes them, no matter how they choose to define themselves in this city of endless possibility, their friendship -- a source of consolation and solidarity despite different temperaments and lifestyles -- will survive.
It's not what you think. That sequence appears in "Three on a Match," an urban melodrama starring Bette Davis, Joan Blondell and Ann Dvorak that, when it opened in 1932, was just the latest iteration of one of Hollywood's most successful genres: the three-girls-in-the-city movie. The theme, a cinematic staple since the 1920s, has been an unusually enduring and lucrative one, exploiting each succeeding era's anxieties surrounding women's changing roles and helping define those eras' new ideas of modern life. In them, audiences can watch women negotiate and sometimes subvert the forces that limn and limit their choices. And each offers its mostly female audience the delectable cake-and-eat-it proposition of a morality tale served with plenty of vicarious vice -- and extravagant dollops of yummy fashion.
Most often, it came down to the same questions: To give in to lust or wait for love? To cash in on one's sexuality or remain pure? To marry or to pursue a career? (By Hollywood's rules, they're almost always mutually exclusive.)
The three-girls picture has gone in and out of fashion over the years. But with "Sex and the City," which opened Friday, it makes a splashy, spunky comeback, one that will test whether the genre still has legs -- even when teetering on Jimmy Choo heels. No one will accuse "Sex and the City" of revolutionizing the three-girls picture. But it still resuscitates a genre that, at its best, articulates something essential about womanhood, its unspoken contradictions and ambivalences, its double standards and hypocrisies, and the joys and sometimes life-or-death necessity of friendship among women.
An efficient way for the studios to package their up-and-coming ingenues, the three-girls formula began as early as 1925 with the silent picture "Sally, Irene and Mary." That film was remade in 1930 as "Our Blushing Brides," starring Joan Crawford. And on they came, three by three: "Ladies in Love." "Three Blind Mice." "Moon Over Miami." "A Letter to Three Wives." "Three Coins in a Fountain."
Where the Girls Are
The canon reserves a special place for the three-girls movie in that most enticing and treacherous of cities, New York. In Manhattan, with its vertiginous skyline, its liberating streets, its steady supply of cads and clothes, its lures and snares of self-invention, what it meant to be a woman could be worked out -- in relationships with men, with work, and even with architecture, but mostly with friends. After "Three on a Match" came "Girls About Town." "How to Marry a Millionaire." "Woman's World." "The Best of Everything." "Valley of the Dolls."
It took television, with its tradition of female ensembles, to bring women back to New York. When "Sex and the City" made its debut on HBO in 1998, it seemed that, overnight, packs of young women were roaming the streets from Manhattan to Medicine Hat in shoes they couldn't afford, looking for the next cosmopolitan and shrieking "I'm so Carrie!"
They so weren't -- if only because Carrie Bradshaw, "Sex and the City's" smart, funny, shallow, self-absorbed heroine, isn't so Carrie herself. She's an amalgam of her three best friends, each of whom personifies an archetype of the three-girls vehicle: Miranda, the practical, self-sufficient career woman; Charlotte, the virginal innocent; Samantha, the older, sexually uninhibited temptress.
Once, each of these women would have represented a cherished, ultimately male-identified standard in Hollywood. Miranda would have been the independent, feisty good sport who would die unmarried and alone. Charlotte would be the virtuous girl who would marry for love and receive unexpected riches in return (okay, that story line hasn't changed). And incorrigible Samantha would be the girl who would plunge off a fire escape or penthouse balcony in punishment for her sexually wanton ways.
Mr. Goodbar? Just Candy
In "Three on a Match," Mervyn LeRoy's startlingly dark classic of the genre, the usual rites and rewards come served with a twist. Bette Davis's character, Ruth Wescott, stays true to form: a hardworking stenographer from modest circumstances, she's the Miranda of the threesome, offering sober support and sage advice to her friends but remaining romantically unentangled (and unrewarded). But the hard-partying good-time girl Mary Keaton (Joan Blondell) turns out to be the virtuous one in the end, while upper-crusty Vivian Revere (Ann Dvorak) leaves her family and becomes an alcoholic and cocaine addict, finally jumping out a window to save her child. It's as if Charlotte developed a crack habit and Samantha wound up marrying Harry.
As film historian Jeanine Basinger wrote in "A Woman's View," "In the end each girl gets her wish, but not without suffering."
Made before Hollywood succumbed to the morally censorious Production Code, "Three on a Match" today looks surprisingly racy, proving that long before Carrie and the girls were scandalizing TV viewers with frank talk about men and sex, women's films were occasionally able to tell truths of their own. More often, they lied: In 1953 Jean Negulesco made "How to Marry a Millionaire," starring Lauren Bacall, Betty Grable and a sublimely funny Marilyn Monroe as gold diggers who sublet a Sutton Place penthouse in order to attract Mr. Moneybags. As Bacall explains over cold cuts and champagne: "Where would you be more likely to meet rich man -- in a walk-up on Amsterdam Avenue or in a joint like this?" Unlike westerns or war pictures, where groups of men could be seen doing things like forming a posse or taking an enemy stronghold, the three-girls movie as epitomized by "How to Marry" featured groups of women simply being, existing in a passive state of attractive readiness to embark on her real career: meeting a man and getting married.