She’s Working Her Way Through College

April 12, 2011 § 2 Comments

Angela: “Ivy looked through my trunk and found out all about me–including the fact that I was featured in a burlesque show.”

Don: “I wouldn’t care if you pitched for a softball team.”

She’s Working Her Way Through College is–wait for it–my first Reagan! I know, I’m surprised it took me this long, too. It’s is one of those mid-century musicals that, while based on an earlier straight play or film, has excised all philosophy, symbolism, or anything else that might hint at–god forbid–depth . . . only to replace all that depth with mediocre musical numbers that are usually irrelevant to what little plot remains. In other words, it was a pretty awful film that I enjoyed an awful lot.

Here’s the plot in a nutshell: Angela is dancing at a burlesque club, and just happens to run into her old high school teacher, John Palmer. They have a quick chat and discover that he’s now Professor Palmer at Midwest State University, and she decides to attend college there. This is all played totally straight-up, by the way–there’s absolutely no discussion or even an oblique joke of how awkward it is for him to run into a former student while she’s shimmying around the stage in a sparkly bikini and he’s there to gawk at half-naked ladies. The movie initially hints that she’s attracted to him–enough to go to a hotel room that she believes is his– but after that, it’s never alluded to again . . . even though she follows him off to his college, takes his theater class, and lives in the upstairs bedroom that he and his wife rent out to students. I’m sorry, but that’s some bunny-boiling behavior going on right there. And nobody mentions it! Ah, the ’50s.

Angela takes to college life like an alcoholic takes to cheap booze. Professor Palmer decides to stage a musical that she’s written, and after having a veritable male harem following her around for the first half of the movie, she settles down with the football star. This, of course, upsets “Poison” Ivy Williams, who’s had her eye on him for years, and despite Angela’s best attempts to get chummy, Ivy manages to find out that she used to be a burlesque performer and blabs it to the entire school. This puts Angela at risk for expulsion, which in turn allows Professor Palmer to give us his best not-quite-Clarence Darrow-worthy speech on the importance of education for everyone, no matter their history.

The depiction of Angela is very much that of The Girl who Has It All, in that she has a pretty face, but she’s not just a pretty face. She gives up her looks-based career to educate herself, and is smart and ambitious enough to write a play. As a result, she’s popular, at least where it counts: with the men. (Ah, the 1950s.) But what I found interesting was her lack of female friendships. This isn’t true at the burlesque club, where on her last night, all the other girls chip in to shower her with presents and flowers, a bit of initial character development that we’re supposed to read as “Angela is well-liked.” But out in “the real world,” this doesn’t seem to be the case. The girls who wear sweaters and penny loafers don’t want to be her friends the way the girls in feather boas and cone bras did. The crowd that trails her around campus is, in almost every scene, exclusively male. (The only time this changes is when they need to switch it up for a musical number.) While Angela is kind to Ivy, Ivy is often openly hostile back–and this continues so far into the movie that it pushes the boundaries of ludicrousness. The audience is supposed to read that Angela’s continued overtures towards friendship are a sign that she’s magnanimous and forgiving, but it really just comes off like she’s too dumb to see Ivy’s ulterior motives. In short: while Angela is the Girl Who Has It All, having it all 1950s-style doesn’t require female friendships.

Her relationship with Professor Palmer’s wife, whom she lives with, is even odder: they have a rapport, but nothing resembling a friendship. (Maybe this isn’t so weird, given the fact that Professor Palmer is lying to his wife about the fact that he originally got reacquainted with Angela at a burlesque show!) The professor’s wife is an strange character to begin with, seemingly inserted into the script only to give the audience a reason why Angela and the professor don’t get together. Her sole purpose is to be pinballed back and forth between her husband and a former love interest–and the choice of who she ends up with isn’t even really hers in the end.

Ah, the 1950s.

It’s a middlebrow musical of its time; you can’t expect miracles. But the depiction of women’s relationships with each other seems lackluster when compared to other movies of the period. Just a year later, in 1953, we get the glorious female friendships of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire: a bevy of beautiful broads who support each other and help each other achieve their goals (even though their sole goal is to marry rich). In this case, it would have been easy enough to show Angela’s popularity with both men and women–and the fact that they didn’t makes it feel kind of like a conscious choice. Or, maybe more realistically, just a lazy one.

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