Ladies in Loco-motion: Trains in Movies Starring Claudette Colbert
One If by Rail
The locomotive and the movie camera: introduce the two and you got a match capable of generating enough sparks, steam, and pull to create a memorable and lasting on-screen romance. This was being demonstrated as early as 1895, a mere quarter century after the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in America; the tracks to Elstree and Hollywood were laid by the Lumière Brothers who, showing their minute-long L’Arrivée d’un train à La Ciotat at the first public movie theater in Paris, discovered that reels and rails were indeed made for each other. Sure, some spectators left screaming, but most came back for more.
In 1903, film pioneer Edwin S. Porter revolutionized American cinema with The Great Train Robbery, which brought home that motion pictures were more than pictures in motion, that they could be dynamic narratives unrestricted by the unities of time, action and place (Hamilton 2). Bound and gagged beauties with their lives on the line, inexorable engines speedily approaching, and steel-nerved heroes dashing to the rescue—such are the images that make that up the sequences we still think of as being quintessential to silent screen cinema, indebted though they are to the sensation scenes of the Victorian stage.
More than settings for movie action, film trains can be vehicles for interaction. They set things in motion, bring about or manifest change. To be sure, the static microphones of the early talkies proved a challenge to loco-mobility; but, as moviemaking and storytelling became more sophisticated, the plot-propelling and symbolic potentialities of the locomotive—from far-off soundings of its prophetic whistle to close-ups of its powerful wheels—were explored and exploited in virtually every emerging genre: in mystery (The Lady Vanishes) and musical (The Harvey Girls), in film noir (Double Indemnity) and Western (Union Pacific), in romance (Brief Encounter) and horror (Night of the Demon).
While it is true that the harnessing of the Iron Horse for the silver screen chiefly brings to mind plots involving “melodramatic action” (Douglas 363), locomotion—be it transcontinental travel in a sleeper or the daily commute on the El—plays a significant role as well in Hollywood’s romantic comedies of the 1930s and ‘40s. It is in those love me/leave me narratives that trains and railway stations, platforms and Pullmans, feature as unstable or porous environments, as mobile or transmutable communities in which relationships are as readily forged as foreshortened.
At once liberating and restricted in their time-tabled, track-bound predictability, democratic yet class-conscious, pragmatic yet steeped in romance, episodes in transit are well suited to a comic rendering of the primal boy-meets-girl plot in which the temporary separation of two lovers, destined though they are to shuffle off to Buffalo, is an essential dramatic device. Consequently, producers of Hollywood’s romantic comedies and their zippier, unsentimental cousin—the Hays Office headache known as “screwball”—were locomotivated to devise plots involving getaways by rail and chance encounters en route.
Stanley Cavell defines the screwball genre as “comedy of remarriage” (1). Rather than implying a happily-ever-after, screwball comedies center on the relationship of quarreling partners who question or defy the boundaries of matrimony and, by doing so, reinvigorate what threatens to calcify into a state of mind-numbing bondage. Challenging the institution by asking “Is Marriage Necessary?”—one of the working titles for The Palm Beach Story (Spoto 173)—the screwball twosome eventually arrives, through a series of fights and flights, at an affirmative answer. For the reformed team, the conjugal bond becomes a legitimate yet negotiable playing field on which to explore sexual desires and elective affinities. As Cavell explains it, screwball lovers appear to be merely “playing at being married”; but at the heart of this “set of games” is a “kinship” without which the “eventual marriage would not be warranted,” just as, “without the separation or divorce, the marriage would not be lawful.” Instead of being the last stop in romance, ‘[m]arriage is always divorce,” as it “entails rupture”; and “since divorce is never final, marriage is always a transgression” (103). In flux and subject to renegotiation, screwball relationships are continually redefined by trial and separation.
Few Hollywood actresses of the studio era were as much at home playing women on their way—and using public transportation to get there—as Claudette Colbert. Roles in memorable epics and less memorable costume dramas notwithstanding, Colbert is now best remembered for her portrayals of modern, urbane and enterprising women with an independent spirit and a peripatetic streak. Whereas Carole Lombard and Irene Dunne “got their men through special screwball variations of the dating game,” film comedy scholar Wes D. Gehring observes, “Colbert generally won hers somewhat reluctantly. Her screwball heroines seemed more out for a good time, which is one of the key reasons they traveled so much” (137).
Whether on the go or on the run, pleasure seeking or career pursuing, Colbert’s characters demonstrate the social significance of public transportation in the United States from the Great Depression to the automotive boom of the 1950s. What’s more, the stations of her long career in film (1927-1961) correspond with dramatic shifts in the western representation of women in mid twentieth-century popular culture. From liberated heiress to trapped hausfrau, from homeless adventuress to harried homemaker, Colbert’s heroines convey how studio-era Hollywood made use of the train motif in its definition of gender roles in accordance with changing socio-economic demands.
Claudette Colbert was born in 1903, the very year in which American narrative film was set in locomotion. In 1911, her family immigrated to New York from suburban Paris (Dick 6-7). Prior to her film career, she studied fashion design and supported her family by giving French lessons until she made her first appearance on Broadway in 1923 (Quirk 5-7). Among these early parts, a faint foreshadowing of livelier things to come: The Ghost Train (1926), a creaky mystery melodrama involving travelers forced to spend a night at a seemingly haunted railroad station (Parish 95). It would take a while; but eventually Colbert would hop on trains more in keeping with the spirit of the age.
With the exception of The Barker (1927), Colbert’s 1920s stage career, which she resumed in the mid-1950s, was successful rather than distinguished. Still, her generally well-received Broadway performances made Colbert a marketable player in the emerging talkies business. Unlike many of her Hollywood peers, Colbert did not have to make do with the bit parts that slow-started the careers of Loy or Lombard; instead, she received top billing from her first appearance in talking pictures. After the lost and, according to her, best forgotten silent comedy For the Love of Mike, a less than movie-crazy Colbert made her talkie debut in The Hole in the Wall (1929), a ten-twent-thirt sort of melodrama in which her character takes advantage of an El train disaster to reinvent herself. The woman who crashes and dies in this theatrically horse-and-buggy yet technologically modern way is psychic Madame Mystera—and Colbert’s working-class character is eager to take her place, albeit to not altogether fortuitous effect. The unscheduled departure of Madame Mystera did not mean that Colbert’s character had arrived. Neither had the actress playing that part.
Colbert’s subsequent roles were all over the place, ranging from reckless socialite to wilderness-trained schoolmarm. They include parts in Lubitsch’s exuberant pre-code romp The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), in which Colbert’s character, a touring musician, gives her love rival a musical lesson in how to “Jazz Up Your Lingerie”; Cecil B. DeMille’s biblical striptease Sign of the Cross (1932), in which her Poppea takes a milk bath that, as Thomas Doherty points out, exposed “more of her breast than section VI, part 3 of the Production Code permits” (10); Dorothy Arzner’s Honor Among Lovers(1931), in which her character endures a “series of what in a later era would be called ‘sexual harassment incidents’ from the hand of her husband before entering into illicit bliss with her lover” (Quirk 34); and Torch Singer (1933), an urban melodrama in whose title role Colbert gives up her love child for adoption and nearly gives up on herself as she assumes the guise of a notorious night-club performer.
The reinforcement of the Production Code in 1934 gave Colbert’s film career a sense of direction. Although she reportedly “resented Production Code restrictions, feeling that moralists with no talent or imagination of their own had no right to tamper with creative products in any medium” (Quirk 38), it was screwball comedy—a by-product and crafty interpretation of the Code—that presented Colbert with her most memorable roles. A number of commercially successful pre-code performances aside, Paramount contract player Colbert did not reach major stardom until the studio loaned her to Columbia, the Siberia beyond the prestigious majors, for an unpopular, hard to cast Frank Capra project—a film now widely acknowledged to have anticipated the screwball genre and its undermining of the soon-to-be vigorously enforced standards of decency.
Trains and Veils
The outcome of that Siberian expedition, It Happened One Night (1934), contributed greatly to making Columbia more respectable, comedy more reputable, and Colbert more bankable. Biographer William K. Everson suggests that one of its “major contributions to the art” was that it set up its female lead as “potentially the leading screen comedienne of the thirties,” as well as “serving notice to Lubitsch, Leisen, Sturges and Litvak in particular”—and to “Hollywood in general”—that Colbert was “ready to take over dominance of the genre” (80).
Although considered groundbreaking today, It Happened almost did not happen precisely due to its overly familiar setting. “Forget bus pictures. People don’t want ‘em. MGM and Universal just made two bus operas and they both stink,” producer Harry Cohn reportedly sneered (Capra 161). In order to distinguish Capra’s project, based upon Samuel Hopkins Adam’s novella Night Bus, from omnibus editions such as Fugitive Lovers (1934) and Cross Country Cruise (1934), the title was changed to be at once more ambiguous and more suggestive. “Well, I’m glad you took that lousy ‘bus’ outta the title,” Cohn is said to have remarked after reading the finished script (162).
Reluctantly taking on the part of Ellie Andrews, the young woman to whom “It” happened, Colbert plays an overprotected, malcontent heiress whose millionaire father, determined to keep his daughter’s marriage to a fortune hunter from being consummated, imprisons her on his yacht. The sequestered socialite’s leap from the floating fortress into the strange waters of democracy epitomizes Colbert’s portrayals of strong-willed, progressive women. “Barbara Stanwyck would never have inspired such an opening scene,” Elizabeth Kendall remarked. And while it might have been the “rise of Mae West that allowed Capra to rediscover the comedy dynamic in a woman,” it was “also Claudette Colbert herself.” According to Kendall, “Stanwyck’s effectiveness in Capra’s work had depended on the visible inwardness of her reactions, on a stubbornness that proved ultimately mournful.” Colbert, by contrast, “offered Capra an imperious energy and a comically opaque characterization” (40).
In It Happened One Night, that “imperious energy” was both released and harnessed. Colbert’s Ellie may be liberated, but she is also confined, trapped in the unfamiliar environment that supplants her sheltered existence of entitlement with the alternate reality of Depression-era mobility. As one of the detectives hired to search for the escapee at a bus terminal remarks to his colleague: “We’re wasting our time. Can you picture Ellie Andrews ridin’ on a bus?” (Riskin 7). Neither can Ellie Andrews. Robert Riskin’s screenplay reveals that she is a reluctant traveler who boards the vulgar conveyance only after the elimination of all other options:
The Railroad Station of an active terminal in Miami fades in. The view moves down to the entrance gate to the trains, passengers hurrying through it; then picks out two . . . detectives. Then the view affords a glimpse of Ellie, who stands watching the detectives. This scene wiping off, we see an AIR TRANSPORT, with several planes tuning up in the background. [Then], the front of a Western Union Office comes into view. . . . At the side of the door, two detectives are on the lookout.
This scene also wipes off, revealing the Waiting Room of a Bus Station. (7)
Kendall asserts that the “hardship of the bus trip abolishes social classes and turns everyone into members of a giant, ‘economy class’ community” (46). And yet, by virtue of its “economy,” the bus reinforces class; nor is the community a giant one. Instead, it is rather intimate, and to Ellie intimidatingly so, as she comes up close with the kind of folk she would not have had to deal with in the exclusive circles to which she is accustomed; hers is not a station at which to catch a coach. As Everson points out, cross-country bus travel during the Depression was motivated by necessity, since “busses were cheap, and fulfilled the same function for those migrants who could not afford cars.”
[A]mong the passengers are a young boy and his mother, who have spent their last money on tickets to get to a new town and a job. It is the child’s pleading for his now-stricken mother, unconscious from lack of food, that is responsible for Colbert’s first genuine brush with reality. (74-5)
Whereas “the dynamic relationships in the screwball comedy” of the mid-1930s “expressed the renewed social equilibrium under FDR, with the lower orders injecting warmth and humanity into the cold but salvageable upper class” (Doherty 191), the main theme of It Happened One Night is not the “commingling of classes” (191)—which would more likely occur at a railway terminal—but Ellie’s complete separation from her social background and her conversion into a working class citizen, a task performed by roving reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable), a man whose initial motives are mercenary rather than missionary.
Capra illustrates Ellie’s learning experience, leading to her either/or decision between “a false marriage that represents aimlessness, indifference, self-indulgence, and pettiness” and a “true marriage representing comic rejuvenation, fertility, and community” (Poague 167), with the binaries that are the freedom of the open road and the confining yacht of the father, as well as the plain-talking, down-to-earth Peter and his opposite, the faux “King” Westley, aviator. Having been exposed to water and air, Ellie gradually comes to realize that she is finally in her element. After the treatment she received at the hands of her father, Ellie walks home with a new definition of “grounded.”
It is easy to understand why, despite its critical and commercial success, It Happened One Night remained Colbert’s only “bus picture.” The interior of a motor coach is unsuited to the screwball scenarios in which the actress excelled at the height of her career. With its limited, non-compartmentalized space, it does not allow for the farcical complications in which a screwball couple engages in what Cavell calls a “game of playing house.” Significantly, none of the most memorable scenes of Capra’s classic—the Doughnut-dunking lesson, the hitchhiking incident, or the “walls of Jericho” dispute—actually “happened” aboard the night bus, compared to the elaborate sequences on trains in Colbert’s later comedies such as The Palm Beach Story (1942) or Without Reservations (1946).
It Happened One Night also differs from Colbert’s subsequent films in that it is the last of the actress’s socially irresponsible socialite roles, the to-be-reformed flapper whose selfishness causes the titular offense in the remake of Manslaughter (1930) by driving her motorcar at reckless speed. In the comedies to follow, Colbert generally portrayed single career women who have achieved a certain level of independence and work hard to maintain it; else, she played married women who travel in the attempt at regaining it.
Smarting from the double blow of Colbert’s award-winning and moneymaking interlude at Columbia, the executives at Paramount realized Colbert’s forte and set out to develop her trademark image of sophisticated working girl, instituting, as Kendall puts it “a small and inventive Colbert ‘industry’” (57). This industry was not only inventive but also lucrative for Paramount and business-savvy Colbert alike. Between 1934, the year It Happened One Night was released, and 1945, the year her contract with Paramount expired, Colbert starred in eleven Paramount comedies, among four non-comedic roles at that studio; by 1951 she had appeared in two-dozen Hollywood comedies.
Directed by madcap adept Wesley Ruggles, The Gilded Lily (1935) establishes Colbert’s working-girl image by showing her character eating popcorn on a New York park bench and moving assertively through a crowded subway station. Colbert plays stenographer-turned-media darling Marilyn David, an onomastic nod, perhaps, to comedienne and Hearst sweetheart Marion Davies, practically retired from film in 1935. Having a newspaper reporter as a pal (Fred MacMurray) and an English nobleman as a lover (Ray Milland), David must awake to the marriage potential of the level-headed, All-American latter. The unsuited blueblood suitor she encounters—and whom she leads to safety during a rush hour brawl—conceals his wealth and station when he realizes that David cares little for either. And yet, playing the pleb to please Marilyn, the disguised millionaire can offer nothing of substance. Unacquainted with the workaday, he merely provides momentary diversions, among them a ride on a Coney Island rollercoaster. Indeed, he is about as real and reliable as the pair’s amusement-park souvenir, a photograph taken on a cardboard set of a train, the “Honeymoon Flyer.” The picture infuriates Marilyn’s reporter friend when he finds it in the Englishman’s possession. Back in the real world, it is a newspaper article she reads on the subway that undeceives Marilyn about the identity of her British beau.
Always linked to Marilyn’s Anglo-American romance, the train images in The Gilded Lily serve to subvert the Prince Charming conceit. In a society just emerging from the Depression, it is reality—or Hollywood’s idealized variant of it—that emerges as the reasonable and responsible choice for women in the dog-eat-hot dog everyday of metropolitan America.
Colbert’s two follow-up vehicles, She Married Her Boss (1935) and The Bride Came Home (1935), were contrived to confirm and cash in on her modern image of a woman balancing career and romance, reconciling longed for independence with dreams of domesticity. Although conservative rather than subversive, both films have at their center a heroine who triumphs over her male would-be superior at the office by turning boss into husband, thus advancing from subordination to a potentially equal partnership. In She Married Her Boss, Colbert’s character takes a business trip from New York to Philadelphia and manages to convince her stodgy husband to rediscover his adventurous side and to regain her on her terms.
Whether arising from the exigencies of modern enterprise or the luxuries of hard-earned leisure, mobility remained a significant aspect in the lives of Colbert’s comedic characters throughout the 1930s and ‘40s. Immigrant Colbert played in a number of intercontinental comedies, including The Gilded Lily and I Met Him in Paris (1937), in roles that, as Gehring suggests, were suited to Colbert’s own personality and worldview, manifest in her “unconventional living arrangement” with first husband, actor Norman Foster, in which relationship the partners maintained separate residences. What is more, during the 1930s, Colbert took two “career risking extended holidays”—of half a year or more—in order to travel (137).
“I’m going to Paris as a one-woman rebellion against everything that’s sweet and conventional,” Colbert’s character declares in I Met Him. No idle whim, it is a journey for which she has been saving for years. Rather than assuring the stick-in-the-mud she leaves behind of her fidelity, she adds: “It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if I disgraced myself. Uh-huh. Myself and all my ancestors.” Once in Paris, Colbert’s character meets not one “Him” but two—and beguiles then dodges both in her private compartment on the train rides the trio take from Paris to Switzerland and back.
Among the comedies that transported Colbert’s characters back to Gay Paree also number Tovarich (1937), Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938)—which also involves a less than carefree Honeymoon to Prague by rail—Midnight(1939), and the now all but forgotten Cukor musical Zaza (1939). Colbert was, of course, a US citizen, as she proudly proclaimed on the radio program I Am an American (3 November 1940), and could easily shed the French image when comedies that romanticized the Old World became practically passé by 1941. In fact, in the seriocomic European wartime adventure Arise, My Love (1941), Colbert speaks her native French with an American accent.
By the end of the 1930s, Colbert had become the highest paid woman in Hollywood. New York’s Daily News from 1 July 1940 lists Colbert as the fourth highest paid person in the United States, topped only by the presidents of Lever Brothers and IBM, as well as Louis B. Mayer, who took the lion’s share (“19 of Nation’s Top Salaries” 4). Despite her hefty salary, Colbert’s working-girl image was still convincing enough to pay off in a very different way. At the Communist party’s national convention of 1938, The Daily Worker conducted a poll that established that the delegates’ favorite movie stars were Colbert and Gary Cooper (Finch and Rosenkrantz 261).
In Colbert’s case, at least, the leftist testimonial makes sense. After all, while even a hard-working Cinderella occasionally rises from the ashes to make a pitch for her prince, screwball heroines are generally not status-hungry opportunists. And if they are gold diggers, they are certainly not too delicate to pick up a shovel. In a genre whose escapism is founded on depression-era anxieties, the female leads frequently try to break free from entrenched conventions by invading the fortress of the male dominated work force. Hence, theirs is an escape not necessarily signifying weakness but agency, a conscious step toward emancipation. As Gehring suggests, one “reason for all the travel” in Colbert’s romantic comedies was that her heroines often tried to “dodge possessive men,” among them her father in It Happened One Night, a romantic cabbie in Midnight, and a husband in The Palm Beach Story (137).
In Mitchell Leisen’s Cinderella update Midnight (1939), Colbert is on the run again. As Sennett sums it up, Midnight “follows the accepted pattern for romantic comedy in the thirties: A down-on-her-luck or working-class heroine suddenly finds herself projected into a world of luxury, where she gets the chance to live in plush forever.” Eventually, though, the heroine comes to what Hollywood insists on being her senses and “goes against her mercenary instincts by choosing the poor working stiff who has always adored her.” It was a construct that “permeated so many films in the thirties” that, by the end of the decade, it had “taken on the power of a myth” (Sennett, Hollywood’s Golden Year 52). Colbert’s Cinderella is Eve Peabody, a déracinée in gold lamé. After a train ride from Monte Carlo to Paris, during which she apparently slept quite satisfactorily in her cheap compartment, a drowsy Eve exits at the Gare de L’Est and steps into the dark streets of a dank, disenchanting metropolis. Whereas the purposeful train journey temporarily rearranged her uprooted existence in a scheduled, linear, and compartmentalized order, Eve awakes to a topsy-turvy world demanding alertness, aptitude, and adaptability while affording a chance at transformation. Yet this Eve wasn’t born yesterday. She declines to be taken for a ride by a cabby (Ameche)—actually, another nobleman in disguise—remarking that “a girl never found peace in a taxi.”
Plunging headlong into an adventure beyond her control, Eve manages to sneak into an exclusive party with a special ticket—one from the pawnshop—only to be found out as an impostor by one of the guests (John Barrymore). Claiming to be a baroness from Budapest, Eve is unaware that Budapest has the oldest subway system in the world. The reference to Budapest’s subway reminds Eve at once of her precarious condition: she may claim to be oblivious of life down in the subways of the world, but her blunder reveals that she is not ready for Europe’s elevated circles.
Colbert’s next movie, a modestly budgeted MGM production titled It’s a Wonderful World (1939)—not to be confused with Capra’s classic morality play—is an odd yet oddly familiar concoction. The Ben Hecht and Herman J. Mankiewicz scripted film, directed by the efficient W. S. Van Dyke, has been deemed “one of the decade’s funnier screwball comedies” (MacAdams 199). And yet, as Sikov points out, seeing it “in the most ungenerous light, one could say that it’s merely a detective-story remake of It Happened One Night.” What’s more, “[e]very device has been seen somewhere else, every motivation is derived from past screwball history, and every attitude, far from being unique, comes across as shiningly typical” (214-15). Atypical, perhaps, is the focus on male—and female-assisted—emancipation, and the film’s use of the train as a threat, not a ticket, to liberty.
Guy Johnson (James Stewart), a young private detective and bodyguard to an eccentric playboy wrongly accused of murder, has been sentenced to jail after withholding crucial information. Outsmarting his guards, Guy jumps off the speeding train that is supposed to transport him to prison, rids himself of the officer to whom he is handcuffed, and sets out to exonerate himself (and, by extension, his client) by solving the crime his employer is believed to have committed. Edwina Corday (Colbert), a “famed poetess,” is an unwitting witness to this escape, becomes Guy’s hostage, and eventually—true to screwball justice—his wife. Despite her initially coerced cooperation Edwina is not without resources: it is her car that transports Guy into safety. Both his foreshortening of the compulsory train ride and Edwina’s literal, liberal automobility enable Guy to move forward, with an adventurous and equal companion by his side. While on the run from the law, Guy and Edwina are dedicated to making it legal. Thus, in It’s a Wonderful World, the world just off the beaten or steely tracks is made “wonderful” indeed by the fortuitous substituting of legal authority with lawful matrimony, the lovers’ fetters of choice.
Colbert’s next effort, Boom Town, reteams her with Clark Gable; but the teaming that matters in this movie, financially the most successful Hollywood movie of 1940, leaves her out of the romantic equation. Boom Town is a conservative rags-to-riches story told strictly from a male perspective; both the locomotive that made the titular burg possible and the women that populate it for male heterosexual gratification (with Hedy Lamarr added to the testosterone charged mix) are marginal to a story revolving around wildcatting buddies turned rivals. Since this costly MGM production was not designed for the Paramount star but for MGM’s own contract players, Colbert received third billing, after Gable and Spencer Tracy. “I honestly don’t know what I was doing in that one,” Colbert reportedly summed up years later (qtd. in Quirk 113-14).
Colbert’s career got back on track at Paramount. Reportedly Colbert’s personal favorite among her films (Quirk 115), the Mitchell Leisen directed and Brackett and Wilder scripted Arise, My Love (1940) is a spirited blend of screwball comedy, romance and adventure, with a generous helping of anti-fascist propaganda. Giving its female lead a compelling reason, beyond marriage, for traveling from America to war-torn Europe, Arise, My Love is far less clumsy than Leo McCarey’s Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942) or Richard Thorpe’s Above Suspicion (1943). Colbert plays Augusta “Gusto” Nash, an American reporter who rescues a prisoner of the Spanish Civil War from execution by pretending to be his wife. For a while, Augusta convinces the man, Tom Martin (Ray Milland) and herself, though hardly the audience, that she is only interested in his story. During their escape at breakneck speed by car and plane—their charade having been exposed—Augusta and Tom become united in peril and adventure. However, when their train arrives in Paris, Augusta is celebrated as a heroine, whereas Tom survives in the public eye only as her bylined creation, a sensational news item. The journey back to safety enables Augusta to reclaim her status and reaffirm her patriotic purpose, both of which temporarily prevail over the instinct to mate.
On assignment again as a foreign correspondent, Augusta leaves Paris on a train to Berlin. Much to her surprise, Tom does not settle for a farewell at the station—so common to wartime and war-themed melodrama, including the Colbert vehicles Remember the Day (1941) and Since You Went Away (1944)—but joins her on her mission. While the train once again represents a purposeful, orderly existence, Tom’s presence changes the dynamics of Augusta’s journey. Advancing into enemy territory, the train now is infiltrated by an element that, in Freudian terms, responds to the Id that “Gusto” tries so hard to suppress. At first, she pretends to be indifferent to Tom’s company and struggles through a large portion of Mein Kampf. Gradually, her defenses wear down; at last, she hurls her copy of Hitler’s propagandist tome out of the compartment window and professes her love for Tom, who, having won her with a passionate kiss, ends Augusta’s internal conflict by pulling the emergency brake. For one night, at least, Tom and Augusta get to disappear into the deep, dark woods. They have to exit the train—life as social construct—to lay bare the depth of their love for one another, obscured and suppressed as it is by their masks and roles.
In the comedies of the 1930s, Colbert chiefly portrayed single women who, in a position to choose between a career and one (or two) more or less eligible suitors, to opt for the latter without entirely surrendering the former. By 1940, however, Colbert’s comedic roles changed; she began to play the part of the housewife who wants out—and walks out—but who ultimately works out ways to renegotiate her position within her marriage. While Colbert’s age may have contributed to this change in roles, it was the spirit of the age—World War II and the anxieties produced by single and married women entering a previously male-dominated work force—that transformed female roles in Hollywood film comedy.
Have Guy, Will Travel
Colbert’s next project, Skylark (1941), was based upon a play for which neither Colbert nor screenwriter Allan Scott had much appreciation (Scott 99). The film makes use of the comedienne’s agility by placing her in a series of slapstick situations in which a wayward, adventurous wife (Colbert) is humiliated and humbled into returning to her forgiving husband (Ray Milland) who wins her back from her suitor (Brian Aherne) amidst meddling onlookers in a crowded subway car. Unlike the sheltering home, travel by boat and subway is shown to be potentially hazardous and thoroughly unromantic. Perhaps the most significant achievement of Skylark is that it made Hollywood auteur Preston Sturges aware of Colbert (Spoto 173). Viewing Skylark, Sturges got the “idea … to concoct a situation where the girl, Claudette Colbert, would be compelled to travel and make her way with virtually nothing” (Curtis 159). The result, The Palm Beach Story (1942), is a screwball comedy classic and one of the brightest spots in the careers of Colbert and writer-director Sturges alike.
The Palm Beach Story was Colbert’s only film under the direction of Sturges; as screenwriter, Sturges had been involved in the production of the early Colbert talkie The Big Pond (1930) (Sturges 253), and had worked, uncredited, on the script for Imitation of Life (1934), even though only a few of his lines, “of no consequence,” made it into the screenplay (Spoto 119). Their link to Paramount aside, Colbert and Sturges had much in common. Both had spent their childhood in Paris, spoke French fluently and had maintained their “old world” ties; both eventually returned to France to continue their film careers after the end of their reign in Hollywood.
With the exception of Alfred Hitchcock, whose film narratives often revolve around trains—notably the chase sequence in Number 17, the mysterious goings-on aboard a train in The Lady Vanishes, and the murder conspiracy in Strangers on a Train—few Hollywood auteurs were more fascinated by railroads than Sturges, an attraction that is evident throughout his career. Before becoming a film director in 1940, Sturges wrote the script for Diamond Jim, a largely forgotten film that biographer Donald Spoto calls “curiously unamusing” and “remarkable only for its fascination with trains, train sequences and new train parts.” Indeed, as Spoto points out, trains figure prominently in The Power and the Glory, The Palm Beach Story, as well as Hail the Conquering Hero (127). Not on Spoto’s short list of Sturges’s locomotion pictures is Sullivan’s Travels, which features a number of scenes on—and on top of—trains, including the opening sequence, the movie-within-the-movie. As early as 1933, Sturges was romancing the locomotive in the production of Howard Hawks’s comedy Twentieth Century, named after the famous Twentieth Century Limited, the screenplay for which he adapted from the original stage play (Sturges 276).
Nothing about The Palm Beach Story is particularly original; as Kendall puts it “Sturges all but recapitulates the entire history of romantic comedy.” The movie also retreads the acknowledged first of the genre, with “Colbert making her Jacksonville-New York trip in reverse” (256). Nonetheless, it is the potent combination of Colbert and Sturges that turns this familiar farce into a genre-invigorating romp. Colbert plays a disconcerted wife who takes a train to Florida in order to get a divorce from her rather matter-of-fact husband (Joel McCrea), an unsuccessful civil engineer. The following dialogue between Tom and Gerry—names suggestive of the popular Warner Brothers cartoon characters (Kendall 255) that are onomastic clues to the couple’s cat-and-mouse relationship—illustrates the divergent positions of apparently mismatched mates:
Gerry: “I might not get married. I might become an adventuress.”
Tom: “I can just see you starting for China on at twenty-six foot sailboat.”
Gerry: “You’re thinking of an adventurer, dear. An adventuress never goes on anything under three hundred feet with a crew of eighty.”
Freed from the encumbrances of personal belongings—the past being a hastily packed suitcase that she is forced to leave behind—Gerry takes her life into a new direction. The trip itself turns into a journey of self-discovery. Like Midnight’s Eve Peabody, the penniless Gerry manages to reap profit from adversity and indeterminacy. Her train ticket is paid for by the rowdy Ale and Quail Club, whose members adopt Gerry as their mascot. The loss of her luggage, even of her last skirt, does not deter Gerry from entering a crowded restaurant car; instead, she fashions a coarse Pullman blanket into a serviceable garment and eventually condescends to being lavishly outfitted by one of her fellow travelers, millionaire John D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee).
Some of the film’s comic situations are based on the director’s childhood experiences, as the master of screwball describes them in uncommonly sentimental tones in his unfinished autobiography. As a boy, he himself had been “on that wonderful train, the Twentieth Century.”
How exciting it was to sit out on the observation platform and to see the rails clicking by. . . . How I loved the porters and the dining car waiters. . . . Mother always let me have the upper berth so I could peek out over the top or slide down inside the green curtain to visit her, then climb up again like a monkey.
In The Palm Beach Story, Sturges used “just such sleeping-car berths in a scene where Claudette Colbert steps on Rudy Vallee’s face” (Sturges 36). Another recollection that found its way into the script was young Sturges’s realization that, “after traversing one car, there wasn’t any more train, just a long vista of tracks clickety-clacketing into the distance.” His “utter disbelief” was “mirrored” in the scene in which Colbert’s character goes “back to the car carrying the Ale and Quail Club, only to find that it was no longer attached to the train” (43).
Like Midnight, The Palm Beach Story foregrounds its fairy tale roots. Without being sentimental, it is steeped in nostalgia, especially in its portrayal of the leisure class, railroad passengers like John D. Hackensacker III and the members of the Ale and Quail Club. Although “World War II proved to be a last hurrah for the railroads . . . as the final period in our history when the railroad was able to interact with the lives of most people on a continual basis” and “a time when everybody who had to go anywhere once again rode the rails” (Douglas 382), The Palm Beach Story, with its surfeit of the super rich, does not present ordinary people or essential transportation, but the frivolous escapades of the idle and careless leisure elite. The private compartment of the Ale and Quail Club, as well as the members’ indifference to the car’s splendor as they play havoc with it, epitomizes past glamour of railroad travel. For about half a century, from the 1890s to the Second World War, as a Kennedy and Ludovic point out,
no status symbol in the lexicon of wealth glittered more refulgently than the private railroad car. No property was more explicit evidence of having arrived both socially and financially, since its occupancy breathed of privilege and aloofness and its resources of luxury were almost limitless. When all else had been achieved . . . there remained a crowning cachet of elegance, the capstone of material success. It was a sleek, dark-green private hotel car outshopped to one’s own specification by Pullman and attached to the rear of the great name trains of the period when its owner wished to travel. (128)
Thus, with the eventual disconnection of the Ale and Quail Club’s private car, Sturges, too, seems to bid farewell to the railroad’s golden age.
Not surprisingly, some viewers were offended by the madcap and mischief aboard. After all, during the war, the railroads the chief mode of transportation, as the rationing of fuel and rubber made
long distance trips by car a virtual impossibility. Air routes were severely cut back, and the only people allowed to fly were those who could demonstrate priorities in the war effort. Above all, … the railroad was the primary means of moving the armaments of war. (Douglas 382)
Consequently, the Office of War Information strongly criticized The Palm Beach Story, particularly for its reckless “destruction of the private railway car by members of the Ale and Quail”: “[T]his is 1942, we are at war, there is an acute rolling stock shortage, and there’s nothing funny about the misuse or destruction of a war essential” (Koppes and Black 92).
Instead, what is deemed indispensable in war (guns, trains, boats, and plains) becomes excessive and readily accessible in the inverse (and subversive) sublimity Palm Beach Story’s screwball universe. Even though Tom eventually designs an airplane landing port that is beneficial to wartime America, his invention (actually, Sturges’s own [Spoto 176]) affords Tom and Gerry to reunite, and to live in a style to Gerry, at least, has become accustomed.
The couple’s reunion is achieved by an excess of the most significant war essential of all: manpower. The pair does not split but double. Both Tom and Gerry are twins, identical siblings who serve as ready stand-ins who accept the alternative lovers the spouses have attracted in their Palm Beach adventure. The film, whose concluding lines are “They lived happily ever after—or did they?” thus responds to pressing wartime uncertainties—male anxieties of being expendable and female anxieties of becoming redundant—with farce and fantasy.
The exigencies of war are also felt in Colbert’s final Paramount comedies, No Time for Love (1943), a home front romance involving the construction of a tunnel beneath New York’s Hudson River, and Practically Yours (1945), a mock-melodrama Douglas numbers among films as diverse as The French Connection, Woody Allen’s Bananas, or the musical On the Town, all of which prominently feature subways or els (396). If the former adds little to Colbert’s portrayal of independent ladies in loco-motion, the latter marks a significant change in Hollywood film comedy. Even its director, Mitchell Leisen, called Practically Yours a “one-joke story” and, many years after filming, professed to having been “ashamed” of it: “Claudette’s playing an ingenue, a sweet young thing, which was completely foreign to her. One day Fred [MacMurray] said, ‘Claudette, the trouble with this picture is we’re both too damned old for it’” (qtd. in Chierichetti 202).
Colbert remarked that there was a “sad lack of mature stories in the films of that period in the United States. It was the ‘Boy Meets Girl’ era” (202). Yet while said era neither began nor ended in the 1940s, the female characters in Hollywood’s romantic comedies of the mid-1940s became more submissive, less active.
Practically Yours tells the story of a kamikaze pilot (MacMurray) who is presumed dead after a heroic mission. His dying word is thought to have been “Piggy,” the name of his dog, which is misconstrued as “Peggy” and believed to refer to a former factory co-worker (Colbert). Mistaken for a dead pet and a faithful wife, the patriotic lassie nonetheless agrees to surrender independence and free will to play her part in a romance spun out of falsehood and woven on the loom of wartime propaganda. The film marked the end of Colbert’s contractual obligations at Paramount. Refusing an offer of renewal, she reportedly stated, “Yes, I am free.” Having “worked hard to attain some economic freedom,” she felt that she had reached that stage in her career in which “nothing is gained by a long-term contract.” Instead, she would “get a certain price ($150,000)” for her starring roles in pictures. “I am going to do what I wish,” she vowed (qtd. in Parish 113).
As Everson points out, the decision would prove detrimental to Colbert’s career. Her “subsequent screen roles lacked consistency,” demonstrating that the “studio system, maligned as it often is, does protect and nurture its greatest financial assets, its stars” (126-27). Still, the fact that Colbert’s post-Paramount comedies were inferior to her heyday movies is not simply the result of questionable career choices.
Women’s roles in society—and Hollywood’s portrayal of them—had been transformed by the war. By 1945, as servicemen returned from battle, women were expected to scrap their home front armors, and with them their more prominent, dominant positions. As Kendall puts it, the
national mood was veering away from the concept of a female’s independence coexisting with a male’s. Soon, after the war, would come the domestic comedies, in which the tensions of middle-class marriage would be both ignored and celebrated, in which the arena of the city would give way to the arena of the household, in which husband and wife alike would act restless and numb as a matter of course. (260)
Hollywood’s independent career woman of earlier gender-battle comedies was transformed into the scheming femme fatale or the unhinged egomaniac. Those vamps and viragoes, threatening the male dominance at home and the patriarchal social order in general until eventually defeated and forced into submission, had no place in romantic comedy. Theirs was the domain of film noir and melodrama. Barbara Stanwyck, star of many romantic comedies, set the dark tone in Double Indemnity (1944). With the Clara Bow cuteness of her wide eyes, Colbert seemed less suited to the portrayal of such hard-boiled, stop-at-nothing opportunists, even though she was considered for the title roles in both Mildred Pierce (Schatz 417) and All About Eve (Quirk 160-61). The disappearance of film comedy’s self-directed, working females contributed greatly to the collapse of the screwball genre by the mid-1940s. In her post Paramount years, yesterday’s Cinderella was cast in front of the hearth; and instead of rising from its ashes, Colbert’s characters became helpless, hapless, and humbled.
In Guest Wife (1945), a low-budget production for which securing a high-profile lead such as Colbert meant, in the words of co-star Richard Foran, “hitching a locomotive to rickety stagecoaches” (qtd. in Quirk 139), Colbert plays Mary, a bartered or giveaway bride whose husband Chris (Foran) postpones a “second honeymoon”—Hollywood code for middle-age—in order to help his buddy Joe (Don Ameche) get a promotion. Since Joe has led his boss to believe that he is married to Mary, Chris readily supplies the required commodity and, pell-mell, wraps up his bewildered spouse to go honeymoon-lighting with Joe.
The leave-taking of Chris and Mary at the station demonstrates the inequality of the couple, their lack of marital partnership. The separation resembles a sacrificial act in which the dominating husband gives up the couple’s chance at rejuvenating their union and offers his woman instead on the altar of male bonding. Having primarily his friend’s interest in mind, Chris is oblivious to Mary’s apprehension. The “guest wife,” never having been invited, weeps and screams in protest, but ultimately endures the charade. And while she eventually gets revenge by pretending to have fallen in love with Joe, by threatening—and succeeding—to corrupt the purity of the homosocial union, Mary can hardly be argued to have gained substantially from the torture-filled trip.
Guest Wife, though artistically negligible, signals changes in America’s postwar society, a society in which the platonic ideal of male friendship, fostered during years of combat overseas, clashes with the concept of an equal partnership between the sexes, a bond that is generally shown to be less stable since it is based upon the battle for domination rather than the premise of sameness. Only a few years earlier, in the male-bonding saga of Boom Town, Colbert’s character, while marginal to the main plot, still got to choose between two suitors and had a career (that of a schoolteacher) to fall back on. In Guest Wife, the title character is for the most part passive, a hausfrau who becomes active only to regain the security of the household on whose head she is financially dependent.
More successful, if only at the box-office, was Colbert’s next film comedy, Mervyn LeRoy’s Without Reservations (1946), a movie that recycles elements of It Happened One Night, Arise, My Love, and Palm Beach Story, but that in tone and gender portrayals bears a closer resemblance to Practically Yours or Guest Wife, thus signaling not only the exhaustion of the aging genre but also its damagingly conservative repackaging. As the title implies, the plot revolves around the mishaps and surprises of a train journey out of control, including such standard farcical situations as arise from lost luggage, missing tickets, or a disconnected car – all elements that work so well in The Palm Beach Story.
Colbert plays Kit Madden, a popular writer on her way to Hollywood to supervise the screen adaptation of her latest work. Aboard a train to California, Kit meets two Marines (John Wayne, Don DeFore) and becomes convinced that one of them (Wayne, of course) would be perfect as the male lead. Although Kit appears to be competent and confident in her work, she writes under the male pseudonym Christopher Madden she is loathe to retire. In fact, when Wayne criticizes her writing—meant, no less, to offer solutions to pressing postwar problems—Kit does not defend it by identifying herself as its author but instead assumes yet another persona: Kitty Klotch, a pathetic nominal earsore suggestive at once of Kit’s lack of amour propre and her desperate attempt at appealing to male ideals of kittenish maidenhood. While Kit struggles through situations very similar to those Gerry faces in The Palm Beach Story, she does not rely primarily upon wit, charm or sex appeal to reach particular goals; instead, she is for the most part embarrassed, humiliated, and very much dependent upon the kindness of male strangers. The adventuress who dares to travel without any personal belongings is now reduced to an object of ridicule, a woman stripped of her persona, unable to reveal her self and to safeguard her intellectual property against blatant male chauvinism.
Although Kit is far more sophisticated than the dumb marines, brawn eventually beats brain, and the defeated female is subdued in matrimony—and, presumably, lost to the labor market and the literary profession. The following words mouthed by Wayne’s character sum up the patriarchal weltanschauung expressed in and promoted by Without Reservations: “I don’t want a woman who’s trying to tell the world what to do,” he tells Kit. “I don’t even want a woman to tell me what to do. I want a woman who needs me. A Miss Klotch who’s helpless and cute. . . .”
The apparent surrender of independence for the sake of alleged comforts, Kitty Klotchism was only one of the fates that awaited assertive female characters in Hollywood’s postwar fare. By 1948, the once vibrant screwball heroines were barely viable. In Preston Sturges’s misogynous Unfaithfully Yours, a jealous husband fantasizes about murdering his innocent and unsuspecting spouse. In the same year, Colbert joined the Gaslight-parade of endangered wives by starring in Douglas Sirk’s Sleep, My Love (1948), a specimen of a melodramatic subgenre that was revived with spectacular success by Hitchcock’s superior Suspicion (1941) and includes 1940s films like Love from a Stranger (1944) and Experiment Perilous (1944). Indeed, by the end of the decade, as Colbert biographer Quirk puts it, there had already been “too many pictures of the husband-trying-to-drive-his-wife-insane school, to say nothing of the husband-intent-on-murdering-his-wife genre” (155) for Sirk’s entry to make any impact at the box office.
A decade earlier, it was Colbert who had sent Cary Cooper to the insane asylum in Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife. Now, as a result of the conservative treatment of the battle-of-the-sexes theme, the portrayal of the spousal relationship had become so exhausted that, apparently, only a cleverly constructed murder plot and the prospect of the removal of the bland female character could be expected to generate any excitement. Since Sleep, My Love is not constructed as a whodunit, the audience is privileged in its awareness of the husband’s intentions, while Colbert’s character—weeping and writhing in terror until eventually rescued by a knightly male (Robert Cummings)—remains in a less than blissful state of ignorance until the film’s final showdown.
Although “[o]ne of the elements that Sirk develops with relish in the film, which appears focally in the later melodramas, is a sense of the home as a trap” (Stern 57), Sleep, My Love extends the means of entrapment to the world beyond the hearth. In the film’s effective opening sequence, a train speeding through the night does not serve as the victim’s mode of escape but as the villain’s control and perversion of such. Colbert’s character has been drugged and dragged aboard by her villainous husband (Don Ameche) and his ubiquitous cohorts. The film succeeds in conveying the wife’s harrowing experience as she awakes on the train, not knowing where she is or how she got there. The familiar sounds and sights of a nightly railroad journey are menacingly orchestrated, and the spatial limitations of the compartment evoke a sense of imprisonment. It was a ride that many heroines were forced to be taken for in post-Second World War Hollywood.
Trips Too Bountiful?
In the late 1940s and 1950s, on-screen motherhood was Hollywood’s main resort for veteran actresses like Irene Dunne and Myrna Loy, who had previously excelled in romantic comedies. Even the most irreverent screwball heroines began to display nurturing qualities. Loy, for example, not only played the quintessential postwar mother in The Best Years of Our Lives (1945), but was also being hampered as an amateur sleuth in the third and fourth installments of the screwball-mystery series spun from The Thin Man (1934), outings in which she is called upon to reconcile crime-solving and child-rearing. Eventually, her domestic charges increased to the proportions of Cheaper by the Dozen (1950).
Beyond the wacky worlds of screwball, Colbert, who was equally at home in domestic drama, had played mothers as early as 1934, in Imitation of Life. Ten years later she gave her third Oscar-nominated performance playing the mother of two bobbysoxers (Jennifer Jones and Shirley Temple) in Since You Went Away, a propagandist weaponizing of the American home qua front. In her off-peak years, Colbert was maternally ours in Tomorrow Is Forever (1946), a stepmother in The Secret Heart (1946), and a motherly nun who befriends a young woman accused of murder in Sirk’s atmospheric whodunit Thunder on the Hill (1951). Undoubtedly, maternity themes can provide intriguing material for melodrama. In sexy screwball comedies, however, motherhood is decidedly an encumbrance, something that is tacitly acknowledged in the fifth and penultimate installment of the Thin Man series, which did away with Nick and Nora’s offspring so that the sleuthing, boozing couple could travel again—by train, no less—in The Thin Man Goes Home (1945).
Colbert’s last major box-office success, The Egg and I (1947), is a predecessor of back-to-the-farm television comedy Green Acres, with Bob (Fred MacMurray) exclaiming “You are my wife,” and Betty (Colbert) ruefully replying “good-bye city life.” The film’s opening sequence shows Betty traveling by herself on a train. Although she appears to be the epitome of female independence and mobility, similar to the characters Colbert portrayed in earlier film comedies, the image presented here is deceiving: This woman is a quintessential mother whose thoughts focus on the concepts of procreation and nurture. When a waiter drops an egg from her plate, Betty reprimands him: “I suppose it never occurred to you that this egg is somebody’s child. That it once had a mother.”
As the film narrative enfolds in flashback, we learn that Betty has left her husband after having tried hard to adapt to life on the farm. Expecting a child, she escapes to the city; but, lonely and guilt-stricken, she returns to Bob and presents him with the bundle of joy that ties them together. Although the railroad is the link between town and country, and Betty is shown as the traveler, the two train scenes forming the frame narrative of The Egg and Idepict the couple’s reunification, not their separation. Despite her temporary rebellion, Betty dutifully gets back on track and returns to the farm for the sake of her husband and her newborn child. Marjorie Main’s Ma Kettle—a character so popular that it led to the creation of a spin-off franchise – offers the film’s only positive portrayal of an assertive female figure.
In 1949, Colbert was coerced into taking a Family Honeymoon, the titular train ride in a conservative comedy directed by screwball veteran Claude Binyon. As screenwriter, Binyon had worked on several earlier Colbert vehicles, namely The Gilded Lily, The Bride Comes Home, I Met Him in Paris, and No Time for Love. While still a bride, Colbert portrays a newly remarried widow with three children. Fred MacMurray co-starred, once again, in the role of the husband. Since no one seems to be able to take care of the children during the absence of the second honeymooners, the entire family goes on a train trip to the Grand Canyon. The train becomes an overcrowded living room, a home without the comforts of compartmentalization necessary to assure intimacy and independence. The sexually frustrated husband and stepfather has no quiet moment with his wife because the children cannot be sent to their rooms, the doors cannot be locked, and even the window blinds won’t stay down. To him, the train is like a chastity belt: he has no chance to get off while staying on. As in The Egg and I, a siren is at hand to lure MacMurray’s character away from his wife. Whereas the heretofore unencumbered father is shown to experience a sense of constriction and castration, Colbert’s character is primarily concerned with balancing the conflicting yet equally self-sacrificing demands of maternity and matrimony.
When the limitations of this temporary ersatz-home cause two of the children to leave and miss the train, Colbert’s character, driven by maternal instincts, pulls the emergency brake and terminates the journey. The failed honeymoon having resulted in near-divorce, the film suggests that only a return to—and reunion at—the family home could lead to spousal reconciliation. Once again, maternity and mobility are presented in binary opposition, and the female character, surrendering her mobility and ultimately herself, willingly faces potential stagnation.
Colbert’s last cinematic comedy efforts, Bride for Sale (1949) and Let’s Make It Legal (1951) are faint echoes of the battle-of-the-sexes discourse. They certainly could not resurrect Colbert’s career, to say nothing of the romantic comedy genre that, by the time Let’s Make it Legal flickered and fizzled in American movie theaters, had already begun to be succeeded by television’s situation comedies. In fact, with its low production values and indifferent cinematography, Let’s Make It Legal more closely resembles a TV sitcom than the glittering Paramount screwball extravaganzas of the 1930s and early 1940s. Twentieth Century Fox apparently produced this trifle, in which Colbert portrays a grandmother with marital problems, as a launching pad for the careers of screen neophytes Robert Wagner and Marilyn Monroe.
At a time when family cars and commercial aircrafts began to contest and supersede the primacy of the locomotive in long-distance transportation and daily commute in postwar America, screwball lost its steam. It is obvious that trains as settings—or indeed as engines—of romantic comedy could not simply be substituted by automobiles or airplanes; even though the former may serve as a microcosm of society, the latter lacks compartmentalization and all but rules out the opportunity to make a quick exit. By the late 1940s, even the mischief and madcap of domestic screwball comedies uninfluenced by the changes in mass transportation had turned into tame family fare like The Egg and I or misogynistic revenge tragicomedies like Unfaithfully Yours.
Ultimately, it was Hollywood’s return to the Victorian ideal of the Angel in the House that contributed to the genre’s demise. After all, the premise of screwball is the potential equality of the male and female partners within a relationship and the competition between the partners for the dominant position. Screwball comedies are the closest that Production Code restricted Hollywood ever came to endorsing sadomasochism as a lifestyle choice.
Subsequent heroines of Hollywood film comedy tended to be either sex kittens or virgins; both were pursued. Whereas the seductress is primarily interested in a change of social status, the virgin is mainly concerned with the protection of the status quo. The ladies in loco-motion as portrayed by Claudette Colbert during her Paramount heyday (1934-1942) traveled through life experiencing its vagaries and exploiting its opportunities; they were chancing it, choosing and changing.
More than mere settings, the trains in Hollywood’s screwball and romantic comedies became an instrument that enabled female characters to refashion and assert themselves in an active pursuit of happiness through equality. The fate of the locomotive and of women in 1950s Hollywood can be summed by “The Last Town Car,” a melodrama that aired as part of the television anthology Suspicion (28 July 1958). In it, a middle-aged Colbert is driven into the arms of a psychotherapist after being haunted by the titular automobile, a car occupied by spirits of the roaring Twenties. Mobility and emancipation, so female audiences of the 1950s were led to believe, were outmoded visions, delusions from which they could be—and needed to be—cured, be it by a therapist or the home-entertainment of television.
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