The Celluloid Battle of the Sexes--Waged at Work

Susan King is a Times staff writer

“What Women Want” is the latest twist on a venerable movie genre: sexual politics in the office between men and women.

Over the years, the battle of the sexes has gone through many transformations as the role of women in the workplace and in society has changed--and that’s been reflected in films since the early days of cinema.

In 1927’s “It,” for example, Clara Bow played a seductive salesgirl who sets her hooks into her handsome boss. During the early 1930s, films were uncensored and audacious, and Hollywood was not afraid of portraying women as the aggressors at work. In the 1940s and ‘50s, however, steely, brilliant career women found themselves turning into pussycats at the touch of handsome, sensitive male co-workers. More recently, though, underdogs (usually women) have sought the comeuppance of bosses or co-workers who had done them an injustice.

Check out these films that deal with the sexual battlefield at work:


“Female": Ruth Chatterton and George Brent (then married in real life) star in this outrageous 1933 gender-bender comedy that was made before the Hays Production Code went into effect. Chatterton plays the sexy, manipulative owner and manager of an automobile factory who behaves like a lot of executives, romancing and bedding her male employees in her sumptuous digs. But when handsome inventor Brent arrives, he refuses her advances. Chatterton isn’t used to having anyone say no to her, and although she wants to fire him, she finds herself attracted to the strong-willed Brent.

“Baby Face": Released the same year as “Female,” this daring pre-Code drama finds Barbara Stanwyck at her tough-minded best as an ambitious woman--a speak-easy bartender--who callously sleeps her way to the top of a New York City company floor by floor, using and leaving men in her wake. Look for John Wayne in a small role.

“Take a Letter, Darling": Rosalind Russell was the epitome of the ‘40s career woman--attractive without being beautiful, but also strong and intelligent. She could stand toe to toe with any man, and they usually cowered around her. In this funny 1942 romantic comedy, Russell plays a no-nonsense female advertising executive who hires a handsome, struggling painter (Fred MacMurray) to be her secretary. Although Russell tries to act like an iron butterfly around MacMurray, she slowly begins to soften and mellow as she falls in love with him.

“Woman of the Year": Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy teamed up for the first time for this sophisticated 1942 romance directed by George Stevens and written by Ring Lardner Jr. and Michael Kanin. Tracy plays a hard-boiled sportswriter--a real man’s man--who falls in love with Hepburn, an independent-minded columnist at the same paper who’s covering the events of World War II. Will the two-fisted stubborn bachelor and the feminist be able to find domestic bliss? In the ‘40s, the woman usually had to make the compromise, so Hepburn pitifully attempts to become a typical housewife.


Over the 25 years that they were a movie team, Hepburn and Tracy explored the battle of the sexes in several of their films. In 1949’s peppy “Adam’s Rib,” they play successful married New York attorneys on opposite sides of a high-profile case and on equal ground in their marriage.

And in 1957’s amusing “Desk Set,” Hepburn shines as the head of a research department of a major TV network. Blissfully single in her late 40s, she has a longtime boyfriend (Gig Young) who wants to marry her. Tracy is equally a treat as the efficiency expert hired by the network to automate Hepburn’s department.

“Designing Woman": George Welles won an Oscar for his enjoyable screenplay for this saucy 1957 romantic comedy--sort of an updated version of “Woman of the Year"--starring Gregory Peck as a sports journalist who, while on vacation, falls in love and marries a sophisticated dress designer (Lauren Bacall). However, their distinctly different lifestyles don’t mix once they return home to New York. Vincente Minnelli directed.

“Lover Come Back": Two years after Doris Day and Rock Hudson scored a huge success with “Pillow Talk,” they teamed up for this witty 1961 comedy. Day and Hudson play adversarial ad executives working for competing New York agencies. She’s principled; he’s a carefree womanizer. Of course, the two have to fall in love, but not before Hudson tricks Day into believing he has a hot new account, an account she’s eager to steal.

“Nine to Five": In this hit 1980 comedy, three bright secretaries (Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton) decide to turn the tables on their sexist boss (Dabney Coleman). Through a series of coincidences, he gets his comeuppance. The plucky trio assumes control of the department and productivity soars.

“Working Girl": In this Oscar-nominated 1988 comedy, it’s a female boss who gets her comeuppance. Melanie Griffith stars as a secretary who dreams of getting ahead but who finds that new boss Sigourney Weaver is anything but a mentor. In fact, her boss steals one of her ideas. Griffith gets her revenge while her boss is recovering from a broken leg--not only does she get her chance to shine in the business world, she also wins the heart of her boss’ boyfriend (Harrison Ford).

“Boomerang": Eddie Murphy discovers that what goes around comes around in this 1992 comedy. Murphy plays a womanizing advertising executive who meets his match--his new female boss (Robin Givens), who is every bit as callous and manipulative with her male employees as Murphy is with his female co-workers.