#10: Women in Work – Private Worlds (’35)
Among various scenarios that reoccur in woman’s pictures, the most satisfying often revolve around work. Women installed in fabulous careers never cease to fascinate. Hollywood would ruin a grand movie about a working woman by sneaking in a love story that halted our heroine’s career trajectory. I’d much rather see Joan Crawford run a trucking company (They All Kissed the Bride); Jane Wyman found a department store (Lucy Gallant); Joan Blondell as the boss of a crime syndicate (Blondie Johnson); Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins compete as rival best-selling novelists (Old Acquaintance); Ginger Rogers as magazine editor (Lady in the Dark); Barbara Stanwyck’s cattle queen rancher (The Furies and Forty Guns); Rosalind Russell as an advertising executive (Take a Letter, Darling); Ruth Chatterton, head of an automotive plant (Female); Vivien Leigh play a fashion designer and spy (Dark Journey); Loretta Young as a Colonel in the Air Force (Ladies Courageous) then shift focus to the romantic angle that narrowed the dimensions from the public to the private. A lady with a great job holds far more interest than another variation upon tall, dark and handsome.
Gregory La Cava’s Private Worlds (’35) stands out as a perfect gem exactly because we never lose sight of Claudette Colbert’s work as a doctor in a psychiatric hospital. In every scene, she’s characterised by professional accomplishments and reputation. The backstory emphasises her brilliant research into mental illness, how she upholds a commitment to therapeutic treatment over the horrors of the Victorian madhouse, and that she’s Joel McCrea’s respected colleague. While the head matron counsels solitary confinement and punishment, Colbert’s Dr Jane Everest remains a steadfast practitioner of the talking cure. Colbert’s doctor can reach men cut off and disconnected from reality and help them grasp reason.
When the new superintendent arrives—smoking hot Charles Boyer—and announces that he doesn’t believe in women doctors, viewers gasp at his bigoted point of view, one that can erase the value a woman’s lifework in an instant. He tosses off his opinion as though it were on par with an offhand distaste for something like a goat cheese and beet pairing. Boyer’s ‘I don’t care for it’ response functions as a non-sequitur regarding a woman’s prestigious career. Colbert maintains a chin-up amiability in the wake of such backward presumption and a demotion, from supervising the male ward to tending to the outpatients. Before long, Boyer revises his opinion during a pivotal scene where she saves his neck from a patient on a rampage. In this thrilling scene, viewers are treated to a sight we are starved for—a woman as the most competent person in the room.
At the start of the scene, Colbert watches from the sidelines as Boyer prays with a man in Arabic. No one else in the hospital could answer the man’s request for company in prayer until the worldly Dr Monet arrived. We have the opportunity to see a moment of compassion from the lady doctor hater and recognise how he has a capacity to reform judgment. A patient in the room reacts violently to the screen Boyer places around the dying man’s bed and lunges at hot French doctor, clutching his throat and forcing him by the arm to the ground. Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams plays the patient, Jerry. He’s so enormous he holds Boyer’s arm like it’s a piece of kindling to snap over a campfire.
While all heck breaks loose, as the male patients howl the rafters down, three orderlies struggle to fell the giant, but Jerry’s having none of it. Boyer recovers on the sidelines as Colbert has a turn being thrown to the floor, the sleeve of a lovely frock torn in the process. The quickest way to show a woman has been attacked lies in ruining an otherwise fabulous ensemble. Rather than cower in the corner like the *cough-cough* superintendent, Colbert springs up and persists with a gentle-voiced appeal to Jerry. She reminds him that they’re friends and why would he want to hurt them? Jerry switches from fighting off the men in white coats and latches on to Colbert’s voice as though it were a lifeline. He goes limp and the room quietens, thanks to Colbert’s courage.
When they move to an examination room, so Colbert can X-ray and bandage Boyer’s fractured arm, we’re gifted with another rarity: a man telling a woman that he was wrong and she was right (are you dizzy yet?). First, he thanks her for saving his life. Colbert questions if he realises he instigated with the screen. He admits culpability and compliments her intervention with Jerry. They share a moment. She’s not rubbing his face in it: ‘When people go cold and hard on me, I tend to meet them halfway.’ Colbert depends upon everyday transformations. Then Colbert gets to watch as he chews out the matron and asks for her notice when she disparages women doctors.
A romance develops (hello, Charles Boyer was an irresistible swoon master in the mid-‘30s) although it simmers on the back burner while the real business of a woman’s work as psychiatrist takes the forefront of the plot. Private Worlds contains many pleasures, despite the fact that two women are punished for Joel McCrea’s wandering penis. Claudette Colbert encourages fist-pumping and lighter-flicking allegiance. Charles Boyer makes women sighhard (this was his star vehicle in America). And Joan Bennett looks about 12 and has a delightful turn as a woman unravelling. You can find it online—required viewing for the woman’s picture devotee.