Dipartimento di Musica e Spettacolo - CONFERENZE, Women and the Silent Screen Conference

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"Who Dressed A.B. Like a Girl?" Leatrice Joy's Performances of Gender in "The Clinging Vine" (1926)
Johanna Schmertz

Last modified: 2010-02-22


As part of a protest against the infidelity of her husband (silent screen actor John Gilbert),  Leatrice Joy had her hair cut very short.   Joy was one of Cecil B. DeMille’s favorite actresses, and he purportedly was furious about Joy’s new hairstyle.  But Joy was under contract to DeMille, so movie scripts were developed to fit her new look. One of these was The Clinging Vine, about a masculine-appearing female executive known only by her initials, “A.B.”  Over the course of the movie, A.B. is taught feminine modes of behavior and dress in order to find heterosexual love.  The 1926 film (based on a successful Broadway  play from 1923) openly satirizes masculine expectations of female behavior  and exposes femininity as performance: Joy has only to learn to don frilly dresses, bat her eyelashes and recite stock phrases like “Do go on” for men  to be thoroughly smitten with her. The title cards comment ironically on the events portrayed, making it clear that (as Joan Riviere would state a few years later in 1929), womanliness is masquerade. One title card suggests femininity is simply a matter of buying the right products.  Grandma (the character who reveals the secrets of femininity to A.B.) is described in the intertitles as a “magician” because she “crossed a lemon with a dressmaker’s bill and produced a peach.”

Leatrice Joy’s performance in The Clinging Vine is exceptional, and the film subverts gender roles largely through her performance. Joy embodies masculinity as A.B., to the point where her boss irately exclaims “Who dressed A.B. like a girl?” because he cannot think of her as anything other than a man even though he knows she isn’t. And when A.B. decides to become more feminine, Joy performs femininity in exaggerated ways, thereby exposing it as a performance.  The contrast between Joy’s acting styles—naturalistic when she is playing a masculine persona and artificial and stylized when she is playing a female one--   reveals both femininity and masculinity to be performances. This paper will do a close study of the gestures and movements Joy uses to distinguish male from female behavior.

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