Verbal Vixens

Sabine Reichel is the author of "What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?: Growing Up German." She is finishing "The Bad Girl Bible: How to Be Good at Being Bad."

Women have a gift for gab--as legions of exasperated men can attest to firsthand. And though the battle of the tongues rages on rather unceremoniously today, there once was a happy time when sharp wit and snappy repartee were served nonchalantly and fast by sexy "dames."

The movies of the 1930s, mainly the fabulous "screwball" comedies, were jampacked with these intrepid and high-spirited heroines who knew "that silence is not a natural state but a moral and emotional one reached through speech." This is what Maria DiBattista convincingly illustrates in her fascinating book "Fast-Talking Dames," which isn't only about pictures in motion but the power and pleasures of speech. The author introduces an impressive gallery of treasured landmark comedies that would be unimaginable without the sparkling stars we've come to associate with sophisticated fun and outright hilarity.

There are madcap heiresses like Claudette Colbert in "It Happened One Night," snotty society girls like Carole Lombard in "My Man Godfrey," elegant eccentrics like Katharine Hepburn in "Bringing Up Baby" and "Woman of the Year," cool and witty wives like Myrna Loy in all the "Thin Man" movies and Irene Dunne in "The Awful Truth" and spunky working girls like motormouth Rosalind Russell in "His Girl Friday," Jean Arthur in "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" and snippy Ginger Rogers in "5th Avenue Girl."

In a class by herself was Barbara Stanwyck, who effortlessly changed from a slang-spouting showgirl in "Ball of Fire" to an enchanting but duplicitous cardsharp in the Preston Sturges masterpiece "The Lady Eve" (and ended up as the best of all bad girls in the noir classic "Double Indemnity").

Not surprisingly, the fast-talking and quick-witted dames were big-city girls in manner and looks, cunning, stunning and adventurous. But for all their acquired continental chic and sometimes suave affectation, they were also quintessential American heroines, self-reliant and ready to take on the world--and the men in it.

As DiBattista writes in one of her many clever observations, what many of the gutsy girls encountered "in their mad flight for happiness is nothing less than a social map of America, one of whose most natural wonders is the homegrown male, as indispensable to America's mythology as the buffalo." And there were quite a few yummy species to be hunted down. Dominant dames needed good-natured and charming suckers to kick around and to bounce off their verbal gifts, so they were usually paired with extremely handsome but nevertheless verbally inferior males like tongue-tied naifs Henry Fonda, Gary Cooper and James Stewart, who were overwhelmed and mesmerized by such shapely legs and sharp tongues.

In most comedies, men couldn't get a word in edgewise (especially when the couple was Grant and Hepburn in "Baby" or Fonda and Stanwyck in "Eve.") He opens and shuts his mouth like a fish while she talks a blue streak. But there were also debonair William Powell (who plays Loy's husband in the "Thin Man" movies) and cocky Clark Gable, who gave as good as they got. And then there was the iconic Cary Grant, an irrepressible comedic force who managed to be dashing, witty and goofy without ever losing his masculinity and grace.

The "screwball" heroines were usually successful in their often nutty pursuit of men because, as DiBattista points out, "[c]omedy is reluctant to award happiness to those deficient in verbal and social guile, the survival skills in which the fast-talking dame excels." Another reason for the victory of the verbal vixens was sexiness. Because they were playful and direct (and because of the association between fast talk and loose morals), there was always the underlying idea that verbal sparring is like having sex.

Any writer (DiBattista is professor of English and comparative literature at Princeton, where she also chairs the film studies committee) who can convincingly bring together Ginger Rogers' quips and Roz Russell's barbs with Tocqueville, Calvino, Baudelaire and Shakespeare has erudition and imagination. And it's good to see that movies have been elevated enough to make them subjects of social criticism and accepted as powerful cultural treasures. But, though meticulously (and probably lovingly) researched, this terrific and valuable book loses steam in the second half.

There are long stretches of such specific dissections of certain films that only the most ardent movie buffs will understand and appreciate the author's efforts and expertise. In addition, some of the choices of who qualifies for a fast-talking dame are odd.

For example: How did Greta Garbo, by all movie accounts a rather monosyllabic creature (even if she laughed charmingly in "Ninotchka") make it into the book while Eve Arden, an indispensable tart-mouthed sidekick in many movies, is inexplicably absent. Unfortunately, the book's writing style is often overly scholarly and, unlike its entertaining subjects, neither fast-talking nor wisecracking.

And although books about women don't always have to be politically correct tomes of feminism, simply exploring the reason for women's obsession with words, or even taking an up-close and personal glance at certain actresses and why they were able to project believable vulnerability and steely sassiness (Stanwyck's loveless background as a poor orphan from Brooklyn, Hepburn's liberated upbringing by early feminists and suffragettes) would have enlivened DiBattista's thesis.

Although (or shall we say because?) today's women are more independent and influential than they've ever been, their actual power is strangely absent in contemporary movies. Today, the once-glamorous tongue-lasher-ettes have been replaced by dimwitted dames who know less, wear less and talk less. And even when they open their mouths, it is usually not to charmingly chatter away or to hurl witty one-liners at the perplexed hero but to scream bloody murder because they are being beaten, killed or raped--or otherwise silenced.

If nothing else, "Fast-Talking Dames" leaves the reader with a severe longing for the kind of delightful farces and comedies in which the heroine slayed the hero not with a striptease but with her tongue. *

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