The Clinging Vine (1926)
Something I’m learning about early Cecil B DeMille, he LIKED women. He was willing to flatter his actresses and record bold yet true emotions from them into his camera. The plots are farces, bedroom plays of cheating husbands and scheming wives which rely on coincidence to further the plot, and ultimately climaxing with his star in a stunning costume as she manipulates the men with sex appeal. Women were his largest audience, and DeMille courted them with powerful women characters who fall prey to victimization, then retaliate with glamor.
The Clinging Vine is a twist on his usual plots. Instead of the suffering housewife or or struggling engenue, DeMille puts his heroine in the workplace. But instead of a secretary running from a skirt-chasing boss, she is diligent, respected, and chaste. Enter Leatrice Joy as A.B. who is practically running the company, but has given up her femininity. Introduced only with initials, and seated at a desk of whirring office activity, we accept A.B. as a man. Helped by a dashing haircut and tailored business suit Leatrice Joy is the image of a young hero. Dedicated, hardworking, and ready to be the victim of DeMille’s female manipulation.
Much ballyhoo was made of Joy’s daring haircut at the time. Hollywood rags dished on how DeMille was angry she could no longer play leads, and titillating stories about Joy passing for a man and flirting with young women…. This was mid-1920s. Flapper styles were slim and boyish. Vamps had bobbed their hair. Women were adopting the modern look, and voting and working. Hollywood ballyhoo aside, Leatrice Joy just took it to the next level.
Once DeMille establishes that A.B. is actually a woman, he lingers on Leatrice Joy as she acts very convincingly as a man. There is a sort of titillation here as she runs the office efficiently, even writing on her sleeve. She is not just mannish, she is a man’s man, a go-getter, a brash young hero beating men at their own terms.
Yet it is clear she has no romantic life at all. She is even awkward when a secretary announces her engagement, sadly returning to her office alone. It’s not just that she’s de-sexed, just de-humanized. She’ss not adopted the clothing of men per-se, she has adopted the uniform of the office. As strong as DeMille’s transgender theme is visually, it is not a part of the script. A.B. is always spoken of sympathetically as a woman, just an overly-efficient office woman.
It’s hard to suppress our modern post-gender sensibilities, and Joy has creates such a convincing, even compelling masculine image that it is confusing when no one in the film reads A.B. as a man, but the this is a farce full of topsy-turvy characters. In spite of her masculine appearance the bumbling executives become afraid they may lose A.B someday to marriage, and begin scheming to keep her in the firm by one of them marrying her first! One protests that A.B. would put a timeclock in the bathroom and his socks in a filing cabinet. Her crime is that she is un-domestic, rather than being overtly masculine.
Then another topsy-turvy character appears: the boss’s wife (Toby Claude) as a jazz-age Grandma who steps in as fairy godmother to transform A.B. into Abigale, a “clinging vine” who is decorative and flirtatious. Sensing Abigale has no experience with love, Grandma manuvers her to her own grandson Jimmie, whom A.B. has recently fired from the company. Abigale’s Pygmalion transformation is so complete that no one from the company recognizes her. Most of the comedy derives from Abigale’s clumsy attempts at femininization, in exaggerated puffy gowns and over-sized bonnets. DeMille and Joy are presenting a polemic image of dualities, first a studied and convincing young man, then a fluttering and exaggerated female.
To modern feminists The Clinging Vine seems like a nightmarish scenario: giving up a career to coddle a simpering man-child — worse A.B. invests her life savings in his hair-brained invention, but DeMille is not a woman-hater. He takes every opportunity to make A.B. sympathetic, while making Abigale ridiculous. It’s true she gives up her career for marriage to an inferior man — one she even fired, and learns to pacify men by pretending to be stupid…, but it is no different when she affirms her boss’s ego allowing him take credit for her work. In DeMille’s world women are superior (if unthanked) in the bedroom and the boardroom. When encountering a glass ceiling they don’t give up, on the contrary they adapt and switch tactics.
The theme could be interpreted as the goal of a corrupt patriarchy, to be pampered and aroused by over-talented yet submissive superwomen. However, the patriarchy falls apart all together when you look at Grandma. This dichotomy of young and old, who slides down banisters and dances to jazz music in her underwear, embodies the ultimate power-wielding matriarch. Knowing her grandson isn’t gifted with brains she marries him off to the company’s top whiz. Grandma secures her own bloodline as well as her company’s future with an injection of female power, and by the end of the film Abigale has doubled her wealth using Jimmie as a financial puppet armed with her new powers of sexual manipulation.
The moral isn’t pre-feminist, it’s reverse-sexist! And in the world according to DeMille, love takes care of the rest.