The title of the 1932 movie “Female” sounds provocative and melodramatic, as though the viewer can expect to learn something about the fairer sex. The plot concerns a very capable female auto executive named Alison Drake (Ruth Chatterton), who runs and autocratic and tight ship at the automobile factory but is prone to salacious behavior at her mansion in her private life. Alison becomes interested in male business associates at the Drake automobile factory, invites them to her mansion under some pretext about work, and seduces them with vodka and come-ons. The men always fall in love with her after the seduction, but she tosses them away by sending them to work in a factory in another town.
The movie never explains how Alison developed such a hard attitude, but one assumes she’s channelling her late father, an industrial giant who built a successful automobile business. At work, the belching smokestacks of the Drake factory appear through the window in the background; Alison works against this backdrop like a dynamo. She’s not only the power, but the heart and soul of the business.
Most of the men find her extremely impressive, and they even refer to her as a “superwoman.” Alison insists she’s “quite human,” but that usually means she wants to make love. Ruth Chatterton embodies Alison to perfection as she makes quick but wise decisions, efficiently takes telephone calls, and directs her male minions with an iron resolve. Her only confident at work turns out to be giddy male secretary Pettigrew (Ferdinand Gottschalk), who poses no threat to her power but obviously wants to emulate her in his dealings with a lesser female secretary. Pettigrew’s knowing looks provide most of the laughs in an otherwise serious film.
Despite this enthusiastic role for actress Chatterton, she never sounds brassy or annoying, just extremely sure of herself. The movie’s central theme wonders if her resolve will ever waver to a more romantic interest in life. Sure enough, along comes Jim Thorne (George Brent), a talented engineer Alison needs to design a new drive shaft. The pair experience a “meet cute” after Alison decides to go slumming alone at a roadside carnival and challenges Jim to a competition at a shooting gallery. After he wins, he buys her a malt and then a hamburger while she slowly becomes enthralled by him. But Jim considers her a “pick up” and sends her away alone.
When Jim turns out to be Drake factory’s new engineer, Alison intensifies her efforts to seduce him, but he’s not an easy conquest. Suddenly, Jim becomes this superwoman’s first serious problem and it leaves her with few answers and nobody but the effete Pettigrew to help her solve it. At the end, the movie implies that Alison may give up her management of the factory for the bliss of marriage and motherhood, but I can’t see Alison making this much of a sacrifice. She’s very good at running the business.