American Movie Critics: Cecelia Ager

[Ryan McNeil of The Matinee and I are reading through the American Movie Critics anthology and discussing each chapter as we go, crossposting on each of our blogs.]

Well, after unintentionally taking a couple of months off from this series, Ryan and I are back to the books with one of the most delightful sections of brief reviews we’ve come across so far. I think it’s fair to say that generally the more broad pieces of long-form writing have given us more fodder to talk about than the weekly reviews, but leave it our first working woman critic to turn that on its head.

Cecelia Ager wrote weekly reviews for Variety (the first woman to do so), finding her niche in covering the fashion in films and moving into more general criticism after that, but always with an eye towards the roles and treatment of women in a movie. She’s also incredibly funny, with a dry wit that often comes across as sincere until you carefully read between the lines. We both thoroughly enjoyed this section, and it was a great way to return to the series.

JANDY HARDESTY
We’ve only had one piece by a woman in the book so far, and H.D. was more of a poet than a working film critic. I was a little concerned when I read that Cecelia Ager came into writing film reviews through first writing about fashion on the screen – first of all, that’s a topic I’m not particularly interested in, but also, what a stereotypical background for our first working female critic. One reason I put off getting back to this series was quite frankly that I didn’t know if Ager would have anything interesting to respond to (which was itself a sexist position on my part, and I apologize deeply!).

While Ager isn’t as theoretical as some of the critics we’ve read, I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed her entire section – we have eleven very short reviews from her in this section. Did you come into Ager with any unfortunate preconceptions like I did, and if so, were they similarly dispelled?

RYAN McNEIL
Jandy (insert middle name) Stone Hardesty!! Sexism from you in 2015 – how is that helpful? How is a cretin like me supposed to free his mind if I don’t have you as an example?

I kid, but I do understand what you’re getting at. When someone talks about something they’re passionate about and it isn’t your passion, there’s a lot of chance your eyes will glaze over and the sounds they make will soon sound like the grown ups on Charlie Brown.

Greta Garbo in Camille (1937)

Greta Garbo in Camille (1937)

I didn’t come into the section with any expectations, but as I started diving into her work, I found myself fascinated. It seems like there are endless pieces written about film from seemingly every angle and element- writing, philosophy, sociology, photography, politics, editing, etc – but so seldom so I think the fashion of film is truly discussed. What’s more, it seems as though when fashion in film is discussed, it’s taken from the stance of how the fashion was informed or how the fashion sets a trend. Seldom, in my meager experience, do we see much discussion of what fashion tells us about the characters and scenes we see.

There is fine showmanship in the externals of [Garbo’s] portrait [in Camille]. Just as her cough grows ever more frequent […] so does the colour of her costumes change from white in the carefree beginning, to grey when the forces of tragedy gather momentum, until at last sable black with all its dark meaning appears. [81]

So even though it must have been a lazy and stereotypical way for Variety to use Ager back in the 30’s, it actually leads to something that really stands out eighty years later.

JANDY
Internalized sexism – we’re all vulnerable!

I guess as a woman, reading women, talking about “women’s things”, it often feels like there’s additional pressure to like it, and I feared I wouldn’t. Simple as that. But I did!

Bette Davis and Douglas Fairbanks Jr in Parachute Jumper (1933)

Bette Davis and Douglas Fairbanks Jr in Parachute Jumper (1933)

As you say, she really did an amazing job of tying the fashion into the film itself, how it shaped or undermined character and plot development. In a way, Ager seemed to be thinking harder about fashion and what it means than the filmmakers or costumers themselves, given the number of times she points out that the clothes a certain character wears tells us something markedly (and apparently unintentionally) different than the script does.

Slowly [Bette Davis in Parachute Jumper] raises her eyelids to sear the hero with her devastating glances, then satisfied, she smiles a crooked little Mona Lisa smile. Unfortunately, this procedure takes place while Miss Davis is wearing a curious pill-box hat that perches on her head at an angle slightly comic. The hat, and her own self-satisfaction, interfere with the effect. [76]

RYAN
Before we leave this point, can I just circle what I loved most about it. I feel as though a lot of this nowadays takes the form of “nitpicking”. Smartassed social media hecklers pointing out that a business woman could never be in a meeting with a skirt that short, or that a passenger on a steamer ship sailing the South Seas would seem absurd traipsing about decks in a sheer gown. Ager, however, doesn’t look at these details as a lapse of judgement by a scatterbrained stylist, but instead deliberate clues that can inform the plot.

Of course, she’s not always so kind – pointing out the overaggression of Claire Dodd, or the unreasonable discontent of Barbara Stanwyck. Still, on the whole, Ager is really using her powers of observation for good instead of evil.

JANDY
Ager does have a particularly biting wit – perhaps a necessary accessory for writing weekly routine reviews of this nature and not go insane. I don’t know whether you’ve seen any of the movies covered (aside from King Kong, of course), but I’ve seen a couple, and she could not be more screamingly right in any of her barbs. Whether it’s the “finishing school” vibe of San Quentin in Ladies They Talk About or the overdetermination of Helen Hayes’ character in Night Flight, Ager had the bead on these films.

Kay Francis and Errol Flynn in Another Dawn (1937)

Kay Francis and Errol Flynn in Another Dawn (1937)

The most wonderful one, though, was for a film I haven’t seen, describing Kay Francis’ “mess of draperies” in Another Dawn (1937).

Miss Francis’s floating scarves, dervish skirts and feather capes do have a certain merit, ballooning in the sirocco; watching them sort of hypnotizes people and keeps their minds off the spiritual things she says. [84]

I generally don’t care for dismissive reviews, but I can certainly appreciate the ones that take their targets down so witheringly.

RYAN
Re-reading that one, I feel as though she thought it was particularly absurd, and worth taking a skewer to. Still, she doesn’t dwell (where some modern critics would go on for one thousand words or more), and brings it back to her eye for detail to underline its silliness.

JANDY
Perhaps the stringent word limit Ager is dealing with has value!

RYAN
Of course, here’s where I’m a “typical guy” – looking at photos of Francis in Another Dawn…I didn’t think she looked so bad!

JANDY
One review that particularly interested me was Personal Property (1937), which is focused largely on Robert Taylor (her other pieces are all focused on the ladies in any given film). We’re all familiar with Laura Mulvey’s famous declaration of the male gaze and how it permeates film to its core; Ager’s description of Taylor in her review suggests the presence of a female gaze in this film, lingering sumptuously on Taylor’s physical form and the way the camera captures it.

In Personal Property, one may have Mr. Taylor in a lather or rinsed, one may quiver to the way he wraps his robe close to his splendid chest and beautifully modelled loins, one may sigh as he ties the belt snug to his waist with such dashing disregard of the buckle. One may learn how he achieves his magnificent coiffure, how he coaxes with his own two hands his lustrous black hair into that proud, clean-swept line, one may even watch him clean his nails. [83]

I’ve seen other writers posit a female gaze in terms of the way Cary Grant appears on screen, as well. I’m no Mulvey expert, but I’m fascinated by the ways that classic films, even nearly forgotten ones, sometimes seem to unknowingly subvert the admittedly dominant relationship between camera and (female) star.

Robert Taylor in Personal Property

Robert Taylor in Personal Property

RYAN
In my copy of this book, Ager’s line about Taylor taking a bath is followed by my note asking if that’s an example of “The Female Male Gaze”? Yes, I mark up my copy.

Of all Ager’s pieces, Personal Property was probably my favorite. The fawning over Taylor is splendid, not just because she swoons over his various states of undress…but also because she gets into the way he wears a suit. I probably should be surprised that a writer who can discuss the absurdity of Garbo’s hat can extol the virtues of a well-cut suit, so I suppose that’s my sexist thought of the day. Moreso than the look of Taylor and his clothing, Ager expresses her attraction to Taylor by way of his grooming. Everything from the comb of his hair to the keeping of his nails does something for Ager. She’s not just entranced because Taylor is “hot” (although, who are we kidding?), she’s into him because of the effort he puts into appearances. It’s the little things, the details, the extremely attainable qualities for any red-blooded male!

Therein lies the difference between the male gaze and the female gaze, and the perspective that makes these pieces stand-out in the sausage-fest that is movie criticism.

It used to be the girls who took the baths in pictures. […] However, this was before Robert Taylor, before the advent of a manly beauty so overwhelming, all the old traditions tottered before its might. Now in Personal Property it’s Robert Taylor who takes the bath. [82-83]

Night Flight was the other piece that stood out for me in the way that half the piece culls together various traits that inform her character. We always harp about how film should be “show-don’t-tell”, and here we have a VERY early example of that in her approach to how one woman’s whole demeanour informs her character.

Helen Hayes waits for Clark Gable in Night Flight (1933).

Helen Hayes waits for Clark Gable in Night Flight (1933).

I get the feeling that she REALLY looked closely at this movie, and I’m not sure that’s done often enough nowadays. Thoughts?

If the audience can’t tell that Helen Hayes loves her husband from watching the good housekeeping details of her preparation for his return, if they can’t tell that she’s a little bird at heart from noting her love for radio music, if they don’t get her spirituality from observing the lack of allure of her routine chiffon and lace neglige […] if by this time they haven’t learned to love her themselves – it’s their hard luck. Night Flight’s not going to lead an audience by the hand. [80]

JANDY
It’s interesting you picked up on Night Flight. I think that’s one of the most subtle reviews we have of hers, and as you say, it focuses on the what the film shows without telling. I’m not sure which character you’re honing in on – her description of Helen Hayes seems to me to be slyly undercutting her character. She’s the long-suffering wife of one of the pilots, and you see her pining after him constantly. Ager’s line “Night Flight‘s not going to lead an audience by the hand” is ironic, because that’s exactly what it does do. Ager is much more moved by Myrna Loy, who’s in the same predicament as Helen Hayes, but waits more quietly, more deeply, and finally, more movingly.

And if they can’t see that a flyer’s might fortunate to have Myrna Loy for a wife, the way she asks no questions, the way she accepts his arrivals and departures, the way she looks at him, but, above all, the way she looks, warm, gentle, yielding – but chances are the audience sees. [80]

Night Flight is also very much a man’s movie, with both Barrymore brothers, Clark Gable, Robert Montgomery, etc. braving the night skies to cut down on delivery times. Ager’s focus on the wives is both typical of her style, and also kind of a radical decentering of the machismo of the film.

Myrna Loy bids farewell to William Gargan in Night Flight (1933).

Myrna Loy bids farewell to William Gargan in Night Flight (1933).

RYAN
I should know the answer to this, but my coffee cup is still quite full this morning – are there any interests of your own outside of film that have informed your take on what you’ve watched? Something that slants what you see in a way it might not for me?

Also, I got to thinking back on this when you and Jon were discussing historians. I’m like the both of you – I hate when historians, experts, or social commentators wade into the waters and say “Y’know…this, this, and this are inaccurate…”. I think what makes me feel so rotten isn’t that they are using inaccuracy-as-technique, so much as I wish they’d use their powers for good instead of evil. The same way they can see what’s wrong with a piece of work, I’d wager they could see what’s right. There must be details and flourishes that the bulk of the audience aren’t noticing, but a keen eye could see.

Ever wonder what sort of information and discussion that could lead to?

JANDY
Of course I have a number of interests outside film, as I know you do as well – mostly the usual suspects like gaming, reading, music, etc, plus a side of history and philosophy, at an amateur level. I don’t know that I tend to bring them into my film writing that much, at least not as explicitly or as pervasively as Ager does. Thinking back to the introduction to this very anthology, Philip Lopate mentioned that often the best critics are the ones who do have a lot of outside interests and bring that into their work. I feel like often we silo our interests off from each other (well, I do this more than you do – I feel like you integrate your life into your writing well – I meant the universal “we” in terms of film writers/bloggers), and perhaps we should be more willing to let it bleed over.

We’re going to go way off-topic if we get into how historians process film, but I do agree with you that there is a place for criticism like that, and it is merely a question of the tone and manner of it. I feel like it may be a lost cause, though, since a lot of times it’s not even the historian who claims “historical inaccuracy = bad” but readers who assume it.

RYAN
So maybe that’s one of the key lessons to take away from this little project of ours – to let not just our lives inform our work as critics, but also to let our passions. One of the moments I remember that coming through in your work was a Cinecast you took part in many moons ago where y’all discussed Agora. There were bits about it that you got into as a history buff and a Christian that set the discussion apart for me. That’s what we’re all aiming for, right? If three thousand of us are all writing about Mad Max, how does one piece ever stand a chance of being noticed?

Our experiences? Our passions? Perhaps?

Rachel Weisz protects her scientific library in Agora (2009).

Rachel Weisz protects her scientific library in Agora (2009).

JANDY
I almost added in “Christianity” to my list of outside interests, but it’s a bit different, isn’t it? In the sense that my faith informs everything I experience to one degree or another, it’s certainly going to “slant what I see,” as you put it, in a way that’s different from someone who doesn’t share it (am I mistaken in thinking you grew up Catholic, or have it in your background?). That’s what came out in that Agora discussion.

I typically don’t bring it to bear explicitly when writing about film, though, unless the film specifically invites it, as Agora did, mostly because I don’t want any dialogue around what I write to be about that instead of about the film. As you say, though, it is something about me that separates me from a lot of other film writers, for better or worse, and perhaps that’s an avenue worth exploring, along with the other outside interests we’ve mentioned. Dang it, McNeil, stop making me be so introspective!