Books May 2001

New & Noteworthy

Fast Talking Dames

This affectionate and astute study of the beguiling cinematic comediennes of the 1930s and 1940s—Jean Arthur, Carole Lombard, Myrna Loy, and Rosalind Russell, among others—celebrates and assesses their use of the American language. It's hard to believe in the age of Titanic, but the highest achievement of American film is its exhilarating, intricate, often slangy dialogue. And no players were given better or breezier scripts, or interpreted them with more verve and precision, than these women, from whom, Maria DiBattista writes, "I came to experience the pleasure to be had in words." Clearly, these "fast-talking dames" helped to give American cinema what Edmund Wilson complained at the time was lacking in American theater: "a language of the quick intelligence." DiBattista makes a convincing case that their smarts, wit, and irony offer an "—to use a much used but in this instance indispensable word—empowering model for American womanhood." (It's depressing that in these liberated times the jejune Gwyneth Paltrow is believed to bring great intelligence to the screen—but then again, the gulf between Paltrow and, say, Katharine Hepburn is no greater than that separating those sometimes snide but never witty Harvard boys Matt Damon and Ben Affleck from William Powell and Cary Grant.) To be sure, DiBattista, an English professor at Princeton, occasionally lapses into cultural-studies silliness, and she makes at least one small but striking error (in Some Like It Hot, Marilyn Monroe's walk is described as "Jell-O on springs," not wheels). Nevertheless, she writes with authority and perspicacity ("Although technically a blonde, Jean Arthur is a brunette at heart"). This is a smart book about very smart women.

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Benjamin Schwarz is the former literary and national editor for The Atlantic. He is the author of a forthcoming book on Winston Churchill.

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