Books May 2001

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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 writing a book about Winston Churchill for Random House. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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