Wednesday, November 22, 2017

12 (Very Old) Movies for 'Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries' Fans

The Australian series, Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, has just about everything I look for in a television show: a period setting - the Roaring 20s, Melbourne-style - and a liberated, confident heroine, a jazzy score and gorgeous costumes, vintage cars and airplanes, zippy dialogue, a to-die-for cast of characters that we laugh with and not at, homages to silent movies and Erté, and clue-strewn mysteries. In short, the show is a hoot. Though there are other television series one might recommend, like Poirot and The Bletchley Circle, the show's creators, not to mention the author of the original novels, Kerry Greenwood, have clearly watched their share of old movies and there are dozens that friends of the fabulous Phryne Fisher would love. Here are twelve that I particularly recommend:

Les vampires (1915)
This serial by Louis Feuillade is jaw-dropping. The titular Vampires are the members of an underground criminal organization, their crimes both brutal (the first episode is entitled "The Severed Head") and fiendishly clever (a pen with deadly poison in place of ink plays a key role), their style both ethereal and reminiscent of Edvard Munch's agonized, satanically inflected paintings, especially Vampire: the Vampires and their pursuers race up and down the sides of buildings, scamper across rooftops, up chimneys, and down wells, clad in black catsuits and balaclavas. Les vampires is high art pulp, anticipating Fritz Lang's Dr. Mabuse the Gambler.

The Marriage Circle (1924)
Ernst Lubitsch would later remake this silent film as a musical with Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald with One Hour with You; this first version, starring an especially waxily moustached Adolphe Menjou, is a treat for several reasons, even if the remake is better. For one thing, it's a supreme example of how utterly superfluous dialogue can be, even for Lubitsch, who came to be known for his frothy, sparkling wit. Menjou spices his portrayal of the dashing, but put-upon doctor with a soupçon of vileness, while his wife Mitzi, the feral Marie Prevost, wrapped in slinky nothings edged in lace, is an explosive, extravagant eruption of sex. Lubitsch managed to laugh at the censors in every film; in this one, he's fairly roaring. 

Pandora's Box (1929)
Phryne Fisher's look, especially her sleek, black bob, was obviously inspired by Louise Brooks, who gave her most iconic performance in this magnificent melodrama directed by G.W. Pabst. Brooks plays Lulu, a sexually insatiable flapper who inspires satyr-like obsessions in men and women alike, obsessions that revolve around possessing her, a supremely liberated being. Violence punctuates Lulu's life, driven as much by the logic of economic need (and greed) in an imploding capitalist society as by desire for her body. Pandora's Box is a gorgeous phantasmagoria of Weimar-era cabaret-ready fashion, experimental sexuality, and the moral chaos unleashed by innocence and thoughtlessness.

Piccadilly (1929)
Happily restored in 2004, Piccadilly is an atmospheric melodrama that picks at the wounds at the intersections of class, gender, and race. Though she didn't receive top billing, the stand-out star is Anna May Wong, as Shosho, a Chinese dishwasher whose erotic dancing tosses her into the spotlight of the Piccadilly Circus, a London nightclub leaking money after its main act, a dancing partnership, breaks up. There are surprisingly subversive layers in the otherwise conventional thriller plot, in large part thanks to the subtle performance of Wong, who injects a tacit, but crystal-clear narrative of ambition, fury at being demeaned because of her race and gender, and pain at the costs of getting the accouterments of a luxurious life, knowing she'll never be more than an exotic object in the world she lives in. Look for Charles Laughton, in an odd cameo as a dissatisfied diner, and Cyril Ritchard as a seedy hoofer.

Diary of a Lost Girl (1929)
Another collaboration between G.W. Pabst and Louise Brooks, Diary of a Lost Girl is a crime drama from the point of view of a rape victim, set in a world that sees her as sinful and wanton. Too sophisticated to be a straightforward morality tale and mesmerizing from the first frame, the film follows Thymian (Brooks), a coddled bourgeois innocent whose untroubled life is shattered by her father's smarmy assistant. Remarkably, the film succeeds in positing a moral that, in a less lucid and unromantic film, might cloy, but that works precisely because Pabst has depicted the world in all its colors, its brutalities and its beauties.

Night Nurse (1931)
Night Nurse is insane. It contains everything - and I really do mean everything - that we assume was simply never depicted in a film before the '70s: sex, drugs, nudity, unrepentant criminal activity, child abuse, swearing... you name it, it's here. Pre-code darling Barbara Stanwyck stars as the titular nurse, tough, yet tender-hearted, supported by a wise-cracking, often scantily clad Joan Blondell, and a sinister, moustache-less Clark Gable, cast very much against his expected type at the beginning of his career. The plot is a tad absurd, but this is grade-A pulp, a thrilling, ridiculous ride into a world where doctors and gangsters unite to defeat a nefarious scheme involving trust fund babies.

Mata Hari (1931)
This highly fictionalized biopic of the notorious exotic dancer who spied for Germany stars Greta Garbo, who elevates a pedestrian script with the lazy assurance of a cat batting a bit of hanging yarn. Opposite her Ramon Navarro preens, but has the glamorous looks to get away with it. The real reason to watch Mata Hari, though, is the parade of dazzling costumes draped on Garbo's alluring frame: her gowns and hats drip with metallic beading, sparkling gems, glittering brocade, her negligée is trimmed with fur, silks and satins shimmer in glossy, dreamily lit nitrate. One might crook a satiric eyebrow at certain bends in the plot, but the fashion is ravishing. 

Shanghai Express (1932)
Revered by cinema buffs for its astonishingly gorgeous chiaroscuro cinematography by Lee Garmes and James Wong Howe, Josef von Sternberg's erotic drama set in civil war-ravaged China is a showcase for Marlene Dietrich and Anna May Wong, ravishing in costumes by Travis Banton. The murky plot involves the sex trade, gambling, espionage, opium addiction, and racial politics (plus, some very veiled, but quite alluring suggestions of lesbianism), but the plot, tangled and fascinating as it proves on a first viewing, recedes in importance compared to the sheer glory of the light on Dietrich's cheekbones, shimmering behind black tulle, feathers, and satin.

Trouble in Paradise (1932)
A superlative masterpiece by Ernst Lubitsch, Trouble in Paradise features another of his famously steamy love triangles and stars Miriam Hopkins as a glam pickpocket, Herbert Marshall as an elegant con man, and Kay Francis (in her very best role) as a chic - and very rich - perfumière. Thievery, it turns out, pays very handsomely, though a startlingly moustached Edward Everett Horton does his best to get in the way. Impossibly witty, this is a film to watch with a champagne flute in one hand and a diamond bracelet adorning the other. 

Me and My Gal (1932)
This delicious, but unfortunately very difficult to find, movie stars Spencer Tracy as a cocky policeman whose heart has been captivated by saucy, street-smart waitress Joan Bennett. A rare gangster film of the era with a straight cop as the protagonist, Me and My Gal nevertheless cultivates an anarchic, effervescent sense of humor, reminiscent of everything amusing and nothing irritating in French farce. It was a huge flop when it was released in 1932, but the years have been very kind to it and it deserves a prominent place in director Raoul Walsh's filmography.

Pépé le Moko (1937)
The ruggedly sexy Jean Gabin stars as the titular criminal mastermind in this proto-noir set in the Algerian Casbah, where director Julien Duvivier proves that blinding sunshine in twisting, narrow alleys can be as tensely atmospheric as fog, mist, and cloud-strewn skies. Pépé lurks in the labyrinth of the Casbah, knowing that Inspector Slimane (Lucas Gridoux) can never sniff him out, but the wily inspector espies an opportunity in Gaby (Mireille Balin), a lovely but slightly seedy woman, mistress to a wealthy man, and intrigued by the elusive Pépé. Pépé le Moko is Duvivier's masterpiece, a thrillingly suspenseful romance and a dreamily romantic crime thriller. 

The Lady Vanishes (1938)
The last film Alfred Hitchcock directed in Great Britain before he moved to Hollywood, The Lady Vanishes is an Agatha Christie-esque mystery set on a train, with a veddy English sense of humor. The lady who vanishes is the cozy, constantly knitting Miss Froy, played by Dame May Whitty, who, incidentally, would have made a truly spiffing Miss Marple, while the vivacious Margaret Lockwood, a wide-eyed English tourist, searches ever more frantically for her. The cast is terrific, the standouts being Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford as oblivious cricket enthusiasts, and the plot snaps to like a mousetrap.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

'Strong Women' Will Not Be the Answer

The past year has been a painful one, a year in which powerful men proved that the gains made by women are capable of being eroded, undermined, ignored, or reversed. The most prominent industries have been studded with high-profile cases of serial sexual assault, both state and federal courts have taken steps to eviscerate a woman's right to choose, and the world, globally, must daily face orange-tinted evidence of the worst of American prejudices.

Though the rhetoric is not new to this year, the call for art and entertainment featuring 'strong women' has intensified as the occasional sprinkle of salt in the wound has become a veritable saline flood. It would be lovely if an answer to sexism and misogyny could be unearthed in privileging one quality in fictional characters, or fictionalized depictions of real people, but if it were that easy, we wouldn't still be living in the world we live in.

On the one hand, strength is a very useful quality for any human being, and that's been true since the first australopithecus conked a saber-toothed tiger on its noggin. It's especially useful for women, who consistently face greater violence, merely by virtue of existing as women, than men do. Fantasies of strength enable an illusion that systemic violence can be overcome, one poke in a domestic abuser's eye and kick to a rapist's groin at a time, but these are fantasies that ignore the reality of the imperfectable human body. They trade the facts of the body, its vulnerabilities and weaknesses, for the dream of a body in flawless mechanical order.

Our heroines, the ones that get praised as signs of political progressiveness, better reflect our fear and terror  that we're not making progress than genuine progressive movement forward. Wonder Woman is the quintessential example, but 'strong women' as a trope has become so reified that it's a searchable genre on Netflix. The problem with using strength as a signifier of feminist progress is that it places all responsibility on individuals, while paying no heed to systemic injustice except as a purveyor of traumas that are overcome. 'Strong women' are survivors of their traumas, they 'kick ass,' they're 'fierce' and 'badass' and 'frickin' awesome.' 'Strong women' don't need to be rescued, despite the fact that real women (like real men) do, regardless of their strength, often need rescuing.

The Manichean logic of a feminism of strength is to simply oppose patriarchally mandated feminine weakness with a feminist mandated feminine strength. And in so doing, most women are either forced to conform to a feminist set of standards, or be excluded entirely. By focusing on exceptions, the Wonder Women who, by whatever combination of luck, natural gifts, and determination, succeed where most fail, the standards of patriarchy are not annihilated, but simply put upside down.

Fictional characters can't be equated, one-to-one, with living, breathing women, but our critical treatment of fictional characters reflects one prismatic facet of our general attitudes towards the female. Feminist culture, no less than the larger, uglier, dog-eat-dog patriarchy that surrounds it, won't listen to the voices of those women who betray a weakness. Hillary Clinton lost the election and now we can't seem to stop telling her to shut up. The silencing of women who fail to live up to the Wonder Woman standard has become a salient feature of feminist discourse and activism, fueled by this rhetoric of 'strong women.' I can think of no more alarming sign of the movement's deterioration. As long as a sick woman, a fat woman, a woman who cries easily, a woman who can't get past her traumas, a woman who loses, a woman who needs, a woman who fails, can't be feminist by definition, feminism is just another face for patriarchy. As long as we insist that only 'strong women' can be our heroines, only 'strong women' our icons, feminism fails.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Can the Epistolary Novel Survive?

What will happen to the epistolary novel in the age of email? Will it slip into the past, just as letters have? Or will it find new life? The novel in emails is not an epistolary novel, for emails are to letters what 300 is to The Aeneid: comparable in only the most superficial sense. The heroes and heroines of the new epistolary novel will be eccentrics, characters uninterested in conforming to the usual customs, or to be more contemporarily customary, trends, and unable to adjust to the hyper-evolution of technological change.

More than once I've come across a 'witty' article, listing off all the novels that would end on the first page if the characters had access to the technology that we have today. Jane Austen heroines discover their potential suitors' misdeeds on social media, Dickens's Pip finds out just who has destined him to great expectations before he's so much as bought his new London suit, Hamlet gets prescribed anti-depressants, and so on. Aside from the joke being rather obvious - haha, the past was different than the present - what these sorts of critiques, if I may deign to call them so, miss is the forest for the decidedly trite trees. The limitations and freedoms of any particular age are not simply tending to the now. What the epistolary novel accomplishes that no other form can is the relaying of specific relationships of specific characters with the illusion that the author has disappeared entirely. The characters speak, unmediated - though of course that lack of mediation is a trick, a sleight of pen, and conscious of their own speaking, shaping their discourse according to their interlocutor.

What we mean today by technology - mostly the internet and devices that connect to the internet and collect and store data - connects us more closely, but only in a superficial sense. Modernity has given rise to tools of immense communicative power and has equally created a culture of alienated, atomized individuals. The person who sits down and writes a letter, dares to write a letter, refuses to be deluded by the promises of instant connectivity, refuses to leap straight to the destination without making the journey. The person who writes a letter is not taken in the delusion of living in the future, in a pious superiority over the past.

The epistolary novel, then, if it is to survive into the twenty-first century and beyond, must be the medium of the few, the stubborn, the introspective, those who are unafraid of being out of the gaze of the many in order to seek communion with the few. The epistolary novel, once the province of blistering social satire, sentimental agony, the busy comings and goings of being in the world, must retreat to a new realm, that of the misanthrope, the cynic, the skeptic, but also the kindred spirit, the bosom friend, the rebel who genuinely doesn't care about appearing rebellious. This genre that exposed the hypocrisy, greed, and lasciviousness of a doomed class (Les liaisons dangereuses), that cleaved through snobbery, racism, and misogyny to deal the first blows of the feminist cause (Letters from a Peruvian Woman), turned over the seamy underbelly of sadomasochistic desire and terror (Dracula), shrieked the agony of an impossible love (The Sorrows of Young Werther), ran shivers up and down our spines and set detectives on our trail (The Woman in White), this revolutionary genre must seek its defiant course away from the mainstream, away from the proliferation of thoughtless, split-second exchange, and find its own, strange, singular way forward and into the unfamiliar future.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Book Review: Claire-Louise Bennett's "Pond"

Claire-Louise Bennett's Pond is an extended riff on interiority. One might be tempted to say female interiority, but by that logic, we should talk about Beckett's male interiority, or Proust's, or Joyce's. The femaleness of the narrator pops out at us because of the world we live in, while she herself remains stubbornly uncategorical. Described both as a novel and a short story collection, Pond isn't really either, but it's not not those things. It's a liminal work, one that deadpans its way into the cracks and fissures between consciousness and subconsciousness and taps almost uncomfortably deeply into the more swollen parts of the psyche. 

There is no plot and hardly anything in the way of even an isolated event. We are firmly embedded in the hyperconscious and unapologetic mind of a person for whom solitude and contemplation constitute the fabric of life; she gardens haphazardly, paints her bathroom, reads Die Wand, irons a boyfriend's shirt, tries to order oven knobs that are no longer being manufactured, and takes long, solitary walks. She lives in an ancient cottage, alternately cozy and ramshackle. Perhaps an academic, she gives little insight into her professional life, few friends or lovers acquire names, and she remains difficult to picture. Narrative is denied; thought is both substance and structure. It is not so much that we are listening to a stream of consciousness, but rather that we woke up one fine day inside of this woman who applies the most rigorous intellectual reasoning to domestic life and shows only the quirkiest, most gimlet-eyed concern for what other people think, or really her concern is more like curiosity, a wondering inquiry into whether someone will do something or react in a particular way and whether she can compel that action. When she throws a party, she is distressed when a person other than the one she imagined sits on an ottoman. Or, perhaps 'distressed' isn't the right word.

The right word might be 'nettled.' The emotional tenor of Pond tends to hew closely to the sorts of feelings that we experience daily, but rarely grant much importance. Instead of shrugging off passing observations, dreams, strange and seemingly uncompelled imaginings, the tiny sensations that together add up to a realization that one is alive, the narrator leans in, hard, and confronts them, examines them with microscope or telescope, her choice of closeness or remoteness as much whimsical as anything else. 

This sort of writing by anyone will be prone to accusations of navel-gazing and pretension. When the writer is a woman, it will be prone to even harsher accusations of frivolity, self-indulgence, and insipidity. Given the politically charged atmosphere, a defender of this 2015 debut might try to erect a shield of feminism; they wouldn't be completely wrong - it is still quietly revolutionary for a woman to live alone, to treat boyfriends as pleasing but relatively unimportant, to pursue her own, unsanctioned course - but they also wouldn't be completely right. Pond is a slantways book. It is a book in which vegetables, pond scum, cows, bikes, and blankets drift almost into the way of being characters, while people take on the semblance of leaves blown by the wind, dirt clinging to a boot, radio music carried on the air: notable, but no more important than things. Food, both prepared and eaten, the intrusions of animals into human space and humans into animal space, cleaning, both the body and the abode, are the most overt themes.

In essence, this strategy of slippage is a rebellion against "appearing to be located... that's what I object to, and somehow wish to dispel." It is a book that takes place in a specific cottage, in a specific network of country lanes, ponds, cow pastures, highways, gardens, and grocery stores, and the narrator herself is unquestionably specific, and idiosyncratic in her tastes. But, she won't stay still, either physically (her peregrinations are one of the threads by which the reader follows her) or mentally. Restlessness dominates. This quality allows the book to evade genre distinctions, without forcing a rejection of any particular genre, but it also allows the narrator to elude capture. We can't see her, but there's an uncanny, almost queasy feeling that she can see us. This discomfort, this slippage between being seen and being heard keeps the book insistently liminal, insistently not and yet not not. This is why the sign that marks the pond 'Pond' so irks and irritates the narrator, because "invariably this vital process is abruptly thwarted by an idiotic overlay of literal designations and inane alerts so that the whole terrain is obscured and inaccessible..." The narrator, though conscious of the potential violence that accompanies every woman, like a second heart beat, will not be designated, will not be the subject of warnings, but by the same token, she will erect no flag and storm no enemy. Definition destroys as effectively as an executioner's ax. Pond is murkily undefinable, but it hides in its depths fascinating, wiggling creatures, spiky reeds that puncture or break, rich earth where treasure is buried. 

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Rewrite of a Canonical Novel This Reader Wants and Needs

From the critically acclaimed - Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea being the preeminent example - to the pop hit - Gregory Maguire's Wicked, not to mention everything else he's written - the rewrite of a canonical novel from the point of view of a secondary character, usually understood as somehow badly served by the text that is, of course, equally the site of the character's origin, has become a genre unto itself. Some authors even beat their scions to the chase and write their own rewrites, like Veronica Roth, whose Divergent trilogy has an appendage in an additional novel from the point of view of the love interest, a fourth book about a character nicknamed Four, entitled... Four. In part, this drive to deconstruct and reconstruct classic narratives has an obvious political impetus, whether post-colonial, feminist, sex-positive, body-positive, queer-positive, or whatever other valence the author might write from. But, the fact remains that many of these efforts are also ways to cash in on the craze for intellectual property, especially IP in the public domain.

Given that these novels generally respond to readers' frustration over the way a particular character is represented, I would like to throw my hat in the ring, as a frustrated reader, and offer to whichever novelist will take the challenge the rewrite of a canonical novel that I most want to read:

Authors, wordsmiths, scribblers, where is the novel written from the point of view of Miss Barker's cow? Elizabeth Gaskell devotes a mere two paragraphs to this fascinating and tragedy-stricken character in Cranford. This unfortunate cow belongs to the spinster, Miss Barker, who loves her like a daughter, but is unable to save her from losing all her hair in a lime pit. We never learn the name of this poor, benighted beast, only that she was possessed of "wonderful milk" and "wonderful intelligence" and can take a little comfort in the pajamas that her benefactress Miss Barker sews for her. Oh poor cow of Alderney origin! Oh poor cow, deprived of her own voice! Oh poor cow whom "the whole town knew and kindly regarded," who was pitied and smiled at in her misfortune! Oh woe is cow! Where is the novel that will restore to us this cow's story, so simply sketched by Mrs. Gaskell, who was more concerned with telling the tales of spinster ladies?

You think I am joking, but really, in this topsy-turvey age of imminent disasters of the bleakest sort, isn't a novel about a bald cow in grey flannel pajamas exactly what we need?

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

How One Vocabulary Word Demolishes the Integrity of "A Quiet Passion"

The long-gestating Emily Dickinson biopic, A Quiet Passion, garnered significant critical acclaim upon its release in 2016, with Terence Davies's direction, Cynthia Nixon's performance, and the film's overall 'poetic sensibility' earning especial praise. Whether one likes this film or not depends heavily on the viewer's tolerance for a distinctly artificial cinematic structure, far closer in feel to a theatrical performance in a stuffy, small room than the usual sumptuous opulence of a period piece. I could easily imagine an Emily Dickinson biopic remaining fixed within the four walls of the Amherst home where she lived, eventually, as a recluse, but in fact, Davies's film follows Emily to a concert and a schoolroom.

Rather than attempt to recapture the texture of everyday life, the fairly unruffled and uneventful unfolding of a unmarried woman's life in a small town, nineteenth-century setting, the film is made up of a series of tableaux vivants, scenes that function as miniature, but complete, dramas. For instance, the conflict of Dickinson's brother's desire to enlist during the Civil War and her father's adamant opposition plays out in one, long, elegantly structured scene. These dramatic set pieces are book-ended by interludes of montages of sunshiny flowers and bees, the narrow staircase, a pen scratching across a scrap of paper, and gauzy curtains, with Nixon narrating Dickinson's poetry.

I personally found A Quiet Passion all but intolerable and was frustrated by this greatest-hits approach to a poet who somehow both staunchly and elliptically resists definition. But, an antipathy to style, while it can have a solid and critically argued basis, largely comes down to a matter of taste. Davies's screenplay has a bigger problem and it becomes apparent with one historically absurd vocabulary choice.

In a scene in which Dickinson establishes her belief in proto-feminism and the abolitionist movement, Davies has her say, "Every fight about gender is a war." In part, such statements are symptomatic of a common rehabilitation of figures from the past. Dickinson, constantly misquoted or misunderstood, a beloved mainstay of literary Instagram, is folded into an easily digestible, twenty-first century feminist and anti-racist ideology. By putting twenty-first century into her nineteenth-century mouth, the need for mediation is side-stepped. It's undeniable that Dickinson was unconventional and rebelled against many of the strictures that held women captive to the whims of their male relatives. It's equally undeniable that she would never, under any possible circumstances, have said, "Every fight about gender is a war."

That's because Davies, politically correct to a fault, has Dickinson say "gender" instead of "sex." This piously panders to millennial feminism. The word "gender" did not acquire its current usage until the 1970s and the definitive split between "gender" as self-identity and "sex" as biology is even more recent. Although Judith Butler's extraordinarily influential Gender Trouble questions the rigidity of those definitions, her assertion that gender and sex are constructed rather than inherent has become increasingly accepted, at least in liberal communities.

These are ideas that have not place in Emily Dickinson's world. In that world, the nascent feminist movement operates on an assumption that sexual difference - undifferentiated from gender difference - entitles women to certain rights and protections. Later generations would make the claim that women are entitled to rights and protections, regardless of sexual difference. The distinction between gender and sex is incoherent gobbledygook in the nineteenth-century context.

One could say that I'm nit-picking, that to claim that the use of one word demolishes the integrity of the whole film is an overreaction. Perhaps. But, this kind of usage collapses all of history into two categories: acceptable and unacceptable and presumes that what is current is somehow always fundamentally more correct than what is past. In order for Emily Dickinson to be politically acceptable, she has to be a soothsayer, capable of reading the next century's seminal works of feminist and queer theory without loosening her corset stays. This does Dickinson a disservice, this does feminist history a disservice, and frankly, it reveals a naive feminist positivism that permits the worst sort of condemnatory discourse, dividing all people into good people, who use the latest correct terminology, and everyone else, the people who good people are supposed to silence and shut down, rather than engage with and debate.

The choice of the word "gender," over the historically accurate "sex," renders A Quiet Passion emblematic of the historical blindness and hard-lining that threatens to calcify feminist discourse into a rigid set of applied standards. The poet who wrote of the past, "Her faded ammunition/Might yet reply," the poet who insisted that "To fight aloud, is very brave/but gallanter, I know,/who charge within the bosom,/the cavalry of woe," deserves to be met on her own terms, not ours.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Film Review: "The Girl in White" (1952)

Director John Sturges's most famous films - Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, The Great Escape, Bad Day at Black Rock, The Old Man and the Sea - are quintessentially masculine films about violence, prejudice, the bonds formed by men in confined spaces with each other and with nature, and dogged heroism in the face of despair. It's thus quite a surprise to see his name in inky curlicues scroll by in the credits of The Girl in White, a biopic of one of the first women surgeons in America, Emily Dunning Barringer. The film's steadfast and clear-eyed condemnation of the facilely paternalistic chauvinism that Emily experienced only heightens the surprise.

June Allyson is perfectly cast as Emily, anchoring the film emotionally without a single one of her famous crying scenes, and she is supported by Arthur Kennedy as her colleague and love interest and Mildred Dunnock as the female doctor who acts as her mentor. Based on Emily Dunning Barringer's more prosaically entitled memoirs, Bowery to Bellevue: The Story of New York's First Woman Ambulance Surgeon, the film is a textbook example of the Hollywood biopic, dutifully showing us a formative inspirational experience, a series of successes and setbacks, and, of course, a romance, repeating the formulas that earned Madame Curie, starring Greer Garson, seven Oscar nominations a decade earlier.

There's no question that The Girl in White lacks significant conflict, with a plot that can boast predictability more than anything else, but this isn't a film that attempts to draw the viewer in with suspense, thrills, or theatrics. Instead, it's a quiet, unassuming, but  staunchly focused chronicle of one woman refusing to back down before sexism. Emily's superior phlegmatically explains to her that women shouldn't be doctors since they tend to mix up emotions and facts, her lover complains as he proposes marriage that he doesn't want to come home to find out his wife is out on a house call, a colleague insists that for three thousand years, the only medicine any woman has ever practiced is midwifery. This sort of casual, soberly expressed sexism doesn't make for stirring drama, but it does enforce a sense of how deeply ingrained assumptions about women's capabilities and duties were at the beginning of the twentieth-century. The locus of the film is its emotionally calibrated dissection of the barriers that women doctors faced and this alone renders it an unusual, and precious, document of feminist history, however romantically interpreted.

That feminism, however, hearkens back to the feminism of the narrative's time, the suffragette movement that would ultimately win the vote for women in 1920. This was the movement that campaigned for women to have the right to divorce their husbands without losing custody of their children, to attend universities and earn advanced degrees, and to control their own earnings. The Girl in White is all but free of the common markers of twenty-first century feminism. Emily's victories are painstakingly and gradually earned as she proves herself a surgeon as capable as her male colleagues. The highs are not so very high, and the lows are not terribly low, but The Girl in White manages to be an uplifting experience without turning the world on its head, as though sexism could be defeated by one woman doctor's rescue of a dying patient. It is a sentimental film, in the very best sense of the word. I can think of few films of this period that offer a similarly wholesome, cleanly romantic pleasure, though it certainly has much to offer to happy readers of Anne of Green Gables and its sequels, My Brilliant Career, or Louisa May Alcott's Work. Today, we may not blink an eye at the idea of a woman doctor - after all, even the conservative Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer could make a film in 1952 that insists on the absurdity of barring women from medicine - and that fact ought to guarantee The Girl in White a place, if a minor one, in the cultural record of the victories that feminism has won.