Thursday, May 30, 2013

Kitty Foyle: The Not So Feminist Everywoman

Ginger Rogers won the Oscar in 1940's Kitty Foyle, for a dramatic turn as the titular heroine, a white-collar girl torn between a socialite (Dennis Morgan) and a doctor (James Craig). Kitty is nothing like the characters Rogers played alongside Fred Astaire in musicals such as Top Hat and Swing Time, though she has Rogers's trademark toughness. Instead, she is meant to be an Everywoman, a working girl without wealth or social position.

Kitty comes of age just as the Great Depression hits, forcing her to seek work as a secretary at a magazine. Her boss, Wynn, comes from a snooty Philadelphia clan that can't understand his interest in her. After the magazine folds, Kitty goes to New York to find a job, where Wynn follows her and persuades her to marry him. The wealthy family intervenes, expecting Kitty to attend finishing school and tow the family line. Kitty walks out and goes back to New York, where the doctor, Mark, pursues her. In one day, she discovers she is pregnant and Wynn is engaged to another woman. Rather than tell him about the baby, she decides to become a single mother, but the baby doesn't make it. Five years later, Kitty must decide whether to marry Mark or run away as Wynn's mistress.

There are a few politically incorrect lines - "I'm free, white, and 21" and "We're the same color, aren't we?" - that are positively cringe-worthy, but the gender politics are even more backward and dated. Granted, the production code is partly to blame. In the original novel, Kitty is sensible and has an abortion, while in the movie, she "heroically" becomes a mother only to have the baby die. This is a pet peeve of mine - the pregnancy adds drama, but the baby would be inconvenient for the plot, so it gets killed off. After all, would the doctor condescend to consider a woman who already has a kid? The pregnancy subplot feels cheap and soapy, not to mention predictable, and gives us little insight into much of anything but the conventions of melodrama.

My real frustration with the film is the central premise - will Kitty choose the socialite or the doctor? The possibility that she might turn both of them down (an excellent idea given that they are both priggish and self-satisfied) is never on the table. This is ridiculous. By the end, Kitty has been given the responsibility of opening and managing a second branch of the perfume shop where she works. She's entirely independent and self-sufficient. She doesn't need them. I admit that few producers in Hollywood in 1940 (or today for that matter) would be too keen to embrace a film that considers the possibility that a woman doesn't need a man. But did both of these guys need to be manipulative, demanding, and selfish? Couldn't one of them have been capable of an adult relationship that isn't predicated on the wife being a remote-controlled baby-making machine? Kitty Foyle is a strong, independent heroine. All the more reason to want to her to choose freedom and independence.

In the end, Kitty Foyle is a well-made but very dated drama. Unfortunately, many women may still relate to Kitty Foyle and like her, forget the third option - self-sufficiency.

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