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They Could Be as Bad--and as Good--as Men : Movies: A UCLA series, celebrating the contributions of female screenwriters who worked in film from 1917 through 1967, runs the gamut from screwball comedy to Westerns to noir.

March 01, 1995|KRISTINE McKENNA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The most immediately apparent point made by "Movies She Wrote: Women Screenwriters in the Hollywood Studios," a UCLA Film and Television Archive series that begins Thursday, is that men haven't cornered the market on mediocrity.

Ostensibly a celebration of the unsung female heroes of screenwriting who worked from 1917 through 1967 (dates that mark the beginning of standardized studio production and the end of the Production Code), the series proves that women were capable of turning in serviceable scripts in just about any genre. Screwball comedy, gangster pictures, lavish musicals, morally uplifting family films, Westerns, noir--female writers like Anita Loos, Frances Marion and Lenore Coffee did it all. Nonetheless, this series is noticeably short on masterpieces and includes a fair share of stinkers.

Focusing on women who launched their careers during the silent era then went on to play key roles in defining the filmmaking formulas that were to dominate Hollywood for decades to come, the series kicks off Thursday with Loos' and Jane Murfin's 1939 hit, "The Women," and Vina Delmar's screwball comedy classic of 1937, "The Awful Truth."

Depicting men as pampered pets who serve as the focus of women's lives, and women as vindictive, cackling hens, "The Women" zooms briskly along on brilliant dialogue and is the only inclusion in the series that can unreservedly be described as a great film. The Cary Grant/Irene Dunne vehicle "The Awful Truth," however, is almost as good. Portraying marriage as more fun than a barrel of monkeys and divorce an even bigger laugh riot, "The Awful Truth" is an entertainingly zippy bit of fluff about men who are adorable rogues and dingy, rich women with vast wardrobes of insane hats that they wear perched at odd angles on their heads.

From there the series moves to gangland with Saturday's double bill of "The Big House," a hard-boiled prison drama from 1930 that made Frances Marion the first woman to win a best screenplay Academy Award, and Virginia Kellogg's "White Heat," which stars James Cagney as an aging thug with a psychopathic devotion to his mother. Virginia Mayo gives a great performance here as Cagney's moll--the scene in which she spits out her gum so she can kiss her grumpy husband is priceless.

The series continues Sunday with a matinee program that includes two silent films, along with Greta Garbo's first talkie. In the 1917 film "The Americano," co-written by Loos and director John Emerson, Loos helped shape the image of its star, Douglas Fairbanks, as a suave, witty leading man. Mostly though, this simplistic film is of historical interest only. Also on the bill is June Mathis' "Blood and Sand," a bullfighting drama starring Rudolph Valentino. Credited with discovering Valentino, Mathis fashions a predictable story of a simple peasant boy who sees the bright lights of the big city and goes astray.

There's a bit more meat on the bone of the Garbo film "Anna Christie." Written by Frances Marion, whose credits include 150 scripts and two books on screenwriting, "Anna Christie" finds Garbo cast as a wanton woman grown weary and bitter after years of mistreatment at the hands of men. "Men! Oh, how I hate them!" she wails, as she struggles to hide the fact that she's an alcoholic from the alcoholic father who abandoned her as a child. Oceans of booze slosh through this lugubrious melodrama--indeed, the same could be said for virtually every film in the series. It seems it was always cocktail hour in the '30s, '40s and '50s.

Sunday's program continues in the evening with Loos' "The Red-Headed Woman," a snappy trifle from 1932 that finds Jean Harlow in peak form as a brassy, gold-digging secretary, and "The Affairs of Cellini," a film set in 16th-Century Florence that stars Constance Bennett and Fredric March. Written by Bess Meredyth, who began her career as a Biograph extra in 1911 and started writing scripts for the studio two years later, the film is an adequate bedroom farce despite the fact that the dialogue is a bit starched.

The March 9 program features "Ziegfeld Girl," a bloated stage-door drama written by Marguerite Roberts and Sonya Levien, starring Judy Garland, Hedy Lamarr and Lana Turner, with lavish production numbers by Busby Berkeley. It's hard to imagine anyone without a healthy taste for camp enjoying this sugar-coated valentine to the fantasy of being "discovered."

Also on the bill is "The Great Lie," a classic woman's picture. Populated with bad women who stomp around in mink coats puffing angrily on cigarettes, and good women who lower their eyes demurely, "The Great Lie" was written by Lenore Coffee, stars Mary Astor and Bette Davis (cast against type as the good woman), and features more Byzantine plot twists than you can shake a stick at.

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