Monday, September 10, 2007

Femme Fatale / Femme Fantastique

Posted by Bruce Miller
As we prepare to open The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers, the latest production in Barksdale’s ongoing Women’s Theatre Project, I’m revisiting the four remarkable women playwrights whose work made it onto the Barksdale stage between 1953 and 1962. Last week I profiled Nancy Mitford (see Barksdale’s First Woman Playwright – Nancy Mitford, Sept. 6). This week, I introduce to you a second woman author who is now remembered as a feminist pulp fiction pioneer and the author of the glitzy showbiz story of Cole Porter’s final musical for film or stage.

VERA CASPARY (1899 – 1987)

It took help from my pal Jackie Jones and the Boston Public Library to find the handsome photo of Vera Caspary that is pictured to the right. And then it cost me $20! But it's worth it to know that Ms Caspary will now show up on Google Images for the first time because of this blog.

Unlike Diana Mitford, Vera Caspary wasn’t famously wealthy, glamorous or socially connected. Yet she danced around the edges of some of the more important events and celebrated people of her time, and emerged as one of the most progressive and successful woman authors of the 20th Century.

Vera Caspary was born in Chicago in 1899. She grew up in a middle class neighborhood next door to Ferdinand Barnett, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and their four children. Mr. Barnett was a lawyer and the founder of Chicago’s first black newspaper. Ms Wells-Barnett (pictured to the left) was a nationally prominent journalist and anti-lynching activist.

A former slave, Ms Wells-Barnett was sought out as an impassioned speaker for civil rights, both in the United States and abroad. She founded the first African American suffragist organization, and was a founding member of the “Committee of 40,” a group of national activists that evolved into the NAACP. Within two years of joining she left the Committee because she felt they were not revolutionary enough.

Vera Caspary was completely taken with her next door neighbors and their progressive politics. At the age of 17, Ms Caspary left high school, took a secretarial course and began earning her living writing advertising copy. She soon felt unfulfilled by this position, and turned her attentions to writing fiction addressing serious social themes.

Her first novel, The White Girl, concerned a black woman from the South who tries to pass for white when she moves north. Her second novel, Thicker than Water, focused on a Jewish family from Chicago. Her first play, Blind Mice, told the story of Chicago’s young working women who lived together in Rolfe House, the low income residence where she herself resided. Blind Mice was not commercially successful, but it took Ms Caspary to Broadway just as she was entering her 30s.

Paramount optioned Blind Mice, reset it in New York City, and filmed it as Working Girl in 1931. (A still from the film is pictured to the right.) Clearly ahead of its time, Working Girl is a subversively funny film laced with an ironic view of marriage, work and class. Film scholar Judith Mayne calls it "perhaps the most daring and innovative film Arzner (the film's acclaimed woman director) ever made." Using this as her calling card to Hollywood, Ms Caspary next wrote the story and the screenplay for The Night of June 13th, a romantic murder mystery of sorts that became her first real commercial success.

In many of her books, especially those from the late '30s, Ms Caspary's heroines were career women, or women attempting to juggle romance and independence, very similar to her own situation. In 1943, Ms Caspary’s career took a giant leap forward when she wrote the novel Laura, which was licensed by 20th Century Fox and turned into a movie by producer and director Otto Preminger. Laura marked a return to the hard-boiled romantic mystery genre of her first success. The novel and the movie were so popular that Ms Caspary soon thereafter co-authored with George Sklar a stage version for Broadway. The play was a hit in both New York and London. It was this stage version of Laura that was produced by Barksdale in 1958, starring Burt Edwards, Bernard Schutte, Jay Lundy, Pete Kilgore, Helen Jervey and Muriel McAuley.

Laura had several elements that seemed to come from Ms Caspary's life. The heroine, Laura Hunt, works as a secretary at an advertising agency, but has some daring and ambition. With some unexpected help from columnist Waldo Lydecker (played by Clifton Webb in the film, pictured in the bathtub above and to the right), she becomes a top executive. At the same time, Laura is forced to balance her professional and personal life, a situation with potentially lethal consequences. In the 1940s and still today, the character of Laura was and is the "quintessential femme fatale."

Shortly after the success of Laura, Ms Caspary co-authored the screen adaptation of her hard-hitting feminist crime novel, Bedelia, which was filmed by John Corfield and Isadore Goldsmith, an Austrian-born producer who became Ms Caspary's husband. Bedelia is considered by many to be the original "black widow" crime story. In 1948, she wrote the screenplay for Joseph L. Mankiewicz's movie, A Letter to Three Wives, which was another huge hit for the studio.

In 1950, the right-wing journal Counterattack issued a pamphlet-style book called Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television. Because of her commitment to Ida B. Wells-Barnett and the early civil rights movement, her authorship of several plays and novels dealing progressively with women’s and other social issues, and her marriage to a left-leaning Austrian who left his homeland to oppose the Nazis, Ms Caspary was included among the 151 actors, writers and other arts professionals identified in Red Channels as communist sympathizers. No evidence against her was ever asked for or collected, nonetheless, being named in Red Channels effectively placed Ms Caspary on the Hollywood blacklist.

During the years of the blacklist, she continued to write crime novels with strong women at their center. She also wrote a story about three gorgeous showgirls and the man who connected them with each other.

In the late 50s, Gene Kelly expressed interest in making a movie musical based on this story. Cole Porter (pictured to the left) was asked to write the score. This was to be Cole Porter’s last musical for film or stage. (He wrote Aladdin for television one year later.) The musical film was called Les Girls, or Cole Porter’s Les Girls in the United States. It included the Porter standard, Ca C’est L’Amour. This was the haunting love song that, decades later, Muriel, Randy Strawderman and Jim Bianchi picked for Bricktop to sing to Cole in Act II of Red Hot and Cole.

Today, Ms Caspary’s hard-boiled and yet romantic crime novels (such as Laura and Bedelia) are still in print and selling better than ever. New generations grant these classics considerable acclaim as early examples of feminist pulp fiction. Their paperback covers today (see Bedelia to the right) are reminiscent of 1940s Sam Spade. Also, the Academy Award-winning Les Girls was recently released on DVD as an example of the final years of MGM’s reign as the world's foremost producer of entertaining musicals. Outshining Gene Kelly, the real stars are the film's three leading femmes fantastique: Mitzi Gaynor, Taina Elg and Kay Kendall.

We will be selling these works of Vera Caspary along with the works of our other featured women authors in the lobby throughout the run of The Member of the Wedding. Her classic works are as fresh today as they were in the 40s, and are well worth your consideration.

--Bruce Miller

1 comment:

Bruce Miller said...

My longtime pal and Deathtrap costar, Jackie Jones, is a far more effective internet searcher than I. With help from the Boston Library, she located an authentic vintage photo of Vera Caspary, and I ordered it today. No images of Ms Caspary appear on Google Images. As soon as this photo arrives, I'll scan and post it with this article.

As I now know, Vera was a very handsome woman. It's a shame there aren't any other photos of her on line. After I receive this one, thanks to Jackie, there will be at least one. Vera will not be forgotten!!