Academic journal article The Space Between

Gender, Spectacle, and Machinery: Prix De Beauté (1930)

Academic journal article The Space Between

Gender, Spectacle, and Machinery: Prix De Beauté (1930)

Article excerpt

Typewriters, telephones, Dictaphones, adding machines, duplicators, loose-leaf ledgers, card indexes, vertical filing systems-all interlinked and concentrated in that new kind of building, after 1890 increasingly called the "skyscraper." These devices shaped what business historians now recognize was "a veritable revolution in communication technology" that took place between roughly 1890 and 1910, one that created an interlocking grid of communications and storage-and-retrieval technologies.1 The centre of that grid, its epitome, was an equally novel figure: the female clerical worker, more commonly described as typist, secretary, or stenographer, a figure who not only stood at the centre of a communications revolution transpiring in the real world, but also became a major protagonist within a rapidly changing media ecology that reformulated that world as spectacle; she became both the addressee and the protagonist of plays, postcards, comic strips and cartoons, novels serialized in tabloid newspapers, conduct books, popular songs, poetry, and above all, film. Taken together, these now forgotten works constitute a vanished continent of modern consciousness, one that has only recently begun to be rediscovered and explored.2 While mapping an entire continent is plainly beyond the scope of a brief essay, one representative specimen from 1930 can cast light on the interwoven issues at stake: gender, modern spectacle, trust, and the cinematic machinery marshalled to address them.

Prix de beauté (Miss Europe), or Beauty Prize, can be tersely described as a French film that was released in 1930. But doing so slights the polyglot, transnational character of its production. Its basic storyline was devised by Georg Wilhelm Pabst (1885-1967), an Austrian director then resident in Berlin and perhaps best known in the Anglo-American world for his film version of Brecht's Threepenny Opera (Dreigroschenoper), which appeared one year after Prix de beauté.3 Overburdened with commitments, Pabst bequeathed his plot outline to the French director René Clair (1898- 1981), who developed it into a more or less complete scenario. But shortly before production began, when it was decided to make the film into a sound production, Clair withdrew his participation and was replaced by Italian director Augusto Genina (1892-1957). From its inception, moreover, the film had been seen as a vehicle for the American actress Louise Brooks, while its parenthetical subtitle (Miss Europe) nodded to the notoriety attached to the Miss America beauty contest since it had been so named in 1922.

A word about Brooks, her status, and the film's reception history is necessary before turning to the film itself. After making several films for the American studio Paramount between 1925 and 1928, such as Love 'em and Leave 'em (1926) and A Girl in Every Port (1928), Brooks left for Europe to take up an offer advanced by Pabst. Over the next year, under his direction, she starred in Pandora's Box (Die Büchse der Pandora) and The Diary of a Lost Girl (Das Tagebuch einer Verlorenen), both silent films. It was in the late summer of 1927, however, that Al Jolson had starred in what later legend turned into the first talkie or film with sound, the Warner Brothers' film The Jazz Singer, achieving a box-office success that made the popular appeal of sound an undeniable fact. The process of converting to sound was protracted and complex, but it is the case that Brooks was working in a medium rapidly dying. When she returned to the US in late 1929, shortly after filming Prix de Beauté, it so happened that Pandora's Box finally achieved its American release. It flopped badly, chiefly because audiences now wanted to see talkies, not silents. Prix de beauté, with its post-production synchronized sound, was an uneasy combination, but by the time it was released in France in 1930 it was already a bit dated. It was not shown in the United States until 1958. Brooks is a notorious oddity. …

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