The movies are a far from reliable guide to How We Once Behaved, but sometimes they offer an interesting time capsule of the Perfect Propriety of the Past. So Etiquetteer became enchanted with a B movie from the annus mirabilis of 1939 produced by MGM, These Glamour Girls. Here's the original trailer:
Based on Jane Hall's stories published in Cosmopolitan magazine, today These Glamour Girls gives us a look at what Prom Weekend used to be like - the Perfect Propriety of an era when marriage was the only Perfectly Proper career for a woman.
Once upon a time, for a weekend dance or a big occasion like Homecoming or the Junior Prom, a college man invited his best girl up to his college for the weekend. If he didn't have a best girl, he invited any girl, or got a friend to fix him up with a good friend of his best girl, or went single, or "stag," to the dances. (This is where the expression "stag line" comes from.) There would be cocktail parties, formal dinners and dances, and some sort of athletic competition.
So, what does Etiquetteer miss about those Long Gone Days? Coats and ties for everyday wear. Porkpie hats. Engraved invitations with dress codes that didn't need to be deciphered - and which everyone obeyed. Dormitories with servants. People playing the piano at their own parties. Dance music you could talk over. Conga lines when dancers actually danced the conga and didn't just shuffle forward. Well-cut black satin.
Etiquetteer does not miss institutionalized sexism, classism, smoking at meals, and fruit cup as an appetizer.
Here's our story: all-male Kingsford College is about to host its annual House Parties weekend, when each student residence hosts a formal dinner and a dance "from Friday until wrecked." No expense is spared and there are heart burnings among the New York debutantes who covet invitations. (Because a girl just couldn't show up without a date.) Ann (Mary Beth Hughes) has been invited by Greg (Owen Davis, Jr.), who isn't acceptable to her mother; he's not in the Social Register. Daphne (the delicious Anita Louise) is eager to broadcast that three different beaux have sent her "bids;" Daphne is very much the "mean girl" of our story. Carol (Jane Bryan) is routinely invited by Phil (Lew Ayres). It's assumed they'll eventually marry, even though Carol's family has lost their money and Phil's father is one of the most successful Wall Street titans. Petulant Mary Rose (Ann Rutherford, taking a break from the Civil War picture that came out that year) is frantic that Homer (Tom Browne) hasn't sent an invitation, and plans to escape social humiliation by heading to Bermuda.
Class conflict comes into the picture with Joe (Richard Carlson), who's working his way through Kingsford as a houseboy for several of the characters - and who's burning a torch for Carol. Then there's Jane (Lana Turner, in her first starring role), a taxi dancer who took Phil's drunken invitation at the Joy Lane Dance Hall to "come up for the weekend" seriously. How the debutantes treat her - and how she eventually bests them - is the central story line.
But just as central is the story of Betty (Marsha Hunt), "the last of the too too too diviners," just enough older than the other girls to have a reputation for being older than the other girls, a "prom trotter," and not yet married. "Why, she must be twenty-three at least!" "My dears, a hag!" Her "technique" is outdated - "Poor Betty! She doesn't know that sincerity is back" - and the hard bright veneer of her gaiety turns off everyone, including the men. In a little pamphlet called "Private Lines and Party Conversation" from Elizabeth Woodward, the "sub-deb editor" of Ladies' Home Journal, young girls were taught: "If you go in for sophistication, you will appeal to a smaller but more interesting group of men. But ultra-sophistication is out! A little dewy freshness and appealing ingenuousness will get you farther." Betty obviously missed the memo.
Nowadays, the College Kids don't feel bound to attend big dances or formal events in pairs, and men and women go stag or in groups as they choose. And why not?
The lessons begins almost immediately. A gentleman meets his lady at the train station and has arranged for her accommodation. We see the debutantes six to a dorm room sleeping on camp beds, and not minding it, their long gowns hung on the walls. Would this even be possible today? Gentlemen rise from their seats when a lady joins their table. And everyone comes to the table already knowing what knife goes with what fork. (Daphne, unfortunately, uses bad table manners by planting her knives in Jane's back . . . )
And dear to Etiquetteer's heart, if the invitation is formal, one dresses formally or does not attend. The Kingsford "Glamour Boys" are resplendent in white tie (imagine a college boy in white tie today!), and the girls in a variety of ballgowns that didn't compromise their décolletage. Joe shows up in a tuxedo, which emphasizes that he's doing the best he can working his way through college. But he doesn't show up in a dark blue suit.
One thing These Glamour Girls gets wrong is gloves. At a ball everyone wore gloves, especially the men. With one hand on his dance partner's back, it might leave the mark of perspiration! In an emergency a handkerchief could be used, but gloves were essential equipment. And not one of these college kids is wearing gloves at any of the House Parties. Tsk tsk tsk.
With marriage the only possible career option Back in the Day, and higher education considered "mannish" and inappropriate, it meant women had to be awfully nice to a whole lot of Dudes Who Were Duds. Etiquetteer winced to hear Jane say to Phil, "But no girl can figure out things like . . . like a man!" Thank goodness women no longer have to appear less than men!
And thank goodness a woman no longer has to accept attentions from all men, something unthinkable now with the #MeToo Movement. Etiquetteer refers to the custom of "cutting in," which left women at a disadvantage. Back when everyone actually held each other while they danced, a man could tap another man on the shoulder and he'd have to surrender his dancing partner - "cut in" on their dance. Homer calls "Tap tap, old boy!" to Skel, and Skel dutifuly yields his partner, Daphne, up to Tom. And no matter what she might really think of him, Daphne's "Oh, aren't you wonderful?!" expression clearly keeps the boys coming.
But there were several rules for cutting in, put forward even by Emily Post Herself. A gentleman didn't keep cutting in on the same gentleman all night long. A gentleman couldn't cut back to his original dancing partner until she'd danced with at least two other gentlemen. But Mrs. Post made it clear that cutting was an American custom that was thought rude elsewhere. "This seemingly far from polite maneuver, is considered correct behavior in best society in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Chicago, San Francisco, and therefore most likely in all parts of America. (Not in London, nor on the Continent.)"* But a girl could not refuse to dance with anyone. According to Mrs. Post, this led some girls to dance with their eyes closed as a defense mechanism. Continuing to cut in on the same girl all night was called "giving her the rush."
Al Jolson comments on a variation on the theme of cutting in here:
Nowadays, people just get on a dance floor and move as the music moves them. But back then you had to know how to dance. All the etiquette writers of the period emphasized that a ballroom was no place for dancing lessons. When a rhumba begins, Joe says to Carol "I haven't learned to rhumba yet!" That's her cue to take his arm so they can leave the floor. But Jane is ready with all the moves when Skel cuts in and tells her "You're now dancing with one of the ten ranking dancers of the civilized world, including Omaha." And do they cut a rug!
Of course a gentleman does not make a lady conspicuous, even with an exhibition dance, but as it happens this is necessary for the plot to proceed. Daphne publicly calls out Jane as a taxi dancer (scandalous!). But her plan backfires as Jane becomes the belle of the ball!
Then as now, it's not Perfectly Proper to make a scene. And the Perfect Propriety award in this story gets handed to Jane Bryan's Carol, who handles the news that Phil really invited Jane with impressive aplomb. "Everyone knows the Griswolds aren't in the run of average men," she says - and then enlists Joe for a dance to get away. Could her heart belong elsewhere?
How does this end? Some predictable romantic pairings get paired. Mary Rose's "inspiration girl" technique fails to keep Homer ("What do you think I am, a fugitive from a day nursery?") And Homer behaves like a cad to Betty ("That's why I like older women!"). After their abortive visit to a marriage parlor, Betty heads down a shame spiral to a smashing denouement. Etiquetteer really wishes that Mean Girl Daphne had learned a lesson, but in spite of misleading three men, publicly trying to demean Jane more than once, and purposely giving Mary Rose bad advice on How to Keep Her Man, she gets off scot free.
Etiquetteer, with special thanks to the Hunter family for introducing this "exposé of the upper crust," hopes you'll search this film out and enjoy it.
Devotees of another great film of 1939, The Women, will recognize Dennie Moore, Jane's dance hall gal pal Mavis (incorrectly pronounced MAH-vis), as Olga the manicurist, as well as some dance tunes from the Casino Roof used at the Joy Lane.
*Etiquette, by Emily Post, 1922 edition, page 269.