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(See the post below to catch up on what Femicon is.)
I’m embarrassed to say that I’m kicking off Femicon by breaking one of my own rules for it. I intended this series to be about female characters who are both iconic of their times and remain in our cultural imagination. Candy Matson enjoyed a short period of regional fame (her radio show only aired on the west coast of the United States) and then faded into obscurity. Still, I think she’s a fantastic example of how fiction both plays into and challenges the norms of its era, and, plus, classic radio shows are underrated. I had originally intended to include a segment in this post on Margo Lane, Lamont Cranston (The Shadow)’s savvy sidekick and love interest, but I found that she suffers from the good old “Every character on this show besides The Shadow is boring”-itus, and I discovered that I had way too much to say about Candy.
You see, I have a not-so-secret, not-quite-fully-explored love of old-time radio dramas. When I was twelve, my friend Lisa and I loved to listen to recordings of the classic 1930’s radio show, The Shadow, during sleepovers. Orson Welles’s haunting laugh would echo through the darkened room, where we huddled in her bunk bed, conflating the sounds of movement from the cassette tape, already out of date by then, with the nocturnal sounds of her cats running and the house settling. In many ways, I think The Shadow was my gateway drug to Noir.
When we think of the golden age of radio stories, many of us think of mysteries. The hard boiled detectives of Hammett’s novels and the popular “Films Noirs” (not that they were called that at the time. <–crazy trivia) also thrilled audiences every week on the radio, solving crimes, smoking cigars, and trying not to be too swayed by the charms of those ever-alluring femmes fatales. But not every woman in the crime-fighting genre was a damsel in distress or a deadly vixen: lost our cultural memory of the era is the archetype of the female detective.
Candy Matson, Yukon 2-8209 enjoyed a short but illustrious run on the San Francisco radio airwaves in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. By the time the last episode aired in 1951, it had been voted the most popular radio show in the city in a San Francisco Examiner poll (as announced on the episode “The Symphony of Death.” Also, for those of you who are familiar with SF newspapers, the Examiner, not the Chronicle was the paper du jour,) and several radio history websites I’ve encountered have called her the finest of the female detectives of radio’s golden age.
These same websites emphasize Matson’s resourcefulness, toughness, and her ability to speak with the same dry wit that we’ve come to expect from a hard boiled detective. She usually solves the case before her love interest, Lt. Mallard of the SF police, puts together the pieces, and rarely needs to be rescued. These, combined with the recommendation from a dear friend of mine who occasionally does research on old-time radio, prompted me to download a few episodes (they are fairly widely available on the net,) and have a listen. To my surprise, the framing of Candy’s first adventure didn’t reflect any of these qualities at all. In fact, I came close to completely dismissing her when I heard the announcer’s introduction to her first case:
“Do you have a little unsolved murder in your home? Got some blackmail you want to unload? Are you the victim of some vulgar extortionist? I know a girl you should meet. She may not be the greatest private eye in the world, and so what if it does cost you three or four hundred dollars; she sure is sweet.” (from “The Cable Car Case”)
Hearing that, I expected some sort of insufferable, incapable weakling. A girl (not woman) whom we should coddle and pretend does well at her job because she’s so sweet? What kind of adventures could she possible have that would be worth listening to? I thought maybe there was a reason why she retreated back into relative obscurity. Fortunately for me, Candy soon took the microphone and began to speak for herself. Though the beginning of her speech ostensibly confirmed my low expectations, as she continued, I was surprised to hear her slowly subvert her packaging.
“I get into the craziest routines. You see I used to be a model. I’d been told I had the proper displacement for such a career. But I found there wasn’t enough money in it, and a girl has to eat doesn’t she? And she has to maintain a nice apartment on Telegraph Hill [a nice San Francisco neighborhood], and buy enough clothes to highlight the displacement I mentioned, right? Sure. So I turned private eye. You meet a better class of people… mostly named rigor or mortis.” (from “The Cable Car Case”)
Candy herself does nothing explicitly to subvert the announcer’s portrayal of her, but she hints that there’s more to her than meets the eye. Her voice actress, Natalie Masters, speaks with confidence and a slight edge; she’s always completely on top of what she’s saying. While the introduction prepared us for a “sweet,” perhaps stereotypically ditzy woman, we find that Candy has brains and sass. Her comment about “rigor or mortis” gives us our first taste of her wit. And, though this may be my inability to suspend belief to make way for radio-show logic, I find it dubious that being a private eye would pay more than modeling. In any case, when you listen to Matson’s adventures, that you get the sense that she knows what you must think of her, and she’s not going to tell you out-right that you’re wrong, but she’ll use your underestimation to her advantage. She’s the femme fatale of justice.
Ah yes, that phrase “femme fatale.” I keep using it. Does it mean what I think it means?
Before I talk more about Matson and her role in American culture, let me talk a bit about the femme fatale, and women in the Noir genre. In her essay “Women in Film Noir,” lecturer and scholar Janey Place notes of the femme fatale, “independence is her goal, but her nature is fundamentally and irredeemably sexual” (Place in Women in Film Noir pg. 57). I’m probably attributing too much to this quote, but for those of you who A) haven’t read the essay and B) don’t have a secret love for the B movies of the 40’s and 50’s, what this essentially means is that the femme fatale uses her sexuality to maintain Independence (and power) in a male-dominated world. This being the Post-WWII era, this was not a good thing. The femme fatale inevitably lures the hero (be he detective, insurance salesman, or otherwise) into danger. In The Maltese Falcon, Brigid O’Shaughnessy gets Detective Sam Spade involved in a hunt for a legendary object that many would kill for (and gets his business partner killed in the process.). In Double Indemnity, Phyllis Dietrichson convinces salesman Walter Neff to kill her husband for insurance money (and sexual favors.).
Some films (DI, for example) gave the femme fatale a “good girl” counterpart who often served as a love interest for the main character at the end of the story (this doesn’t happen in DI, but I think it does in Murder, My Sweet. But I’m going off on a tangent.). This woman was usually dependent on the men in her life, be it her boyfriend or her father. She did not seek independence. She was not dangerous. And, well, to break my impartial façade, she’s boring in that 40’s, 50’s “perfect” woman sort of way.
Though the Post-WWII Era certainly did not invent the archetype of the dangerous spider woman, it did give us a series of visual cues and mannerisms to define her that still linger in our imagination. Cultural critics also tie the femme fatale so strongly to the Post-War Era because she represents anxieties that surfaced with changing culture. During the war, women took over the jobs of men who had left for the battle fields. Thus, upon their return, men found themselves displaced; women had more freedom and independence than ever before. The femme fatale is frightening precisely because she uses men to maintain her independence but never needs them. She aggressively maneuvers her way through the public sphere.
These cultural tropes are important to keep in mind when we think about why Candy Matson is such an interesting figure within her time period. For the remarkable thing about Candy is that even though she’s working within the Hard Boiled genre, she’s far more femme fatale than she is Noir “heroine.” On an obvious level, she uses her sensuality to her advantage. She’s not afraid to flirt to get what she wants. As she says in her personal introduction, she’s well aware of her “displacements” and is not afraid to use them.
But her ties to the femme fatale go beyond the sexual. As Payne points out, the femme fatale uses her sexuality not because she’s so interested in having sex (which perhaps would have left the hapless hero off easy) but because she wants independence. Candy herself says that she uses her detective gig to maintain her penthouse on Telegraph Hill (a rather fashionable SF neighborhood) and buy herself fancy clothes. Materialistic? Perhaps. But what’s interesting is that she doesn’t need Mallard to have them, and it’s never portrayed as being a negative. She has all the independence of the femme fatale but none of the malice
Furthermore, she doesn’t need Mallard to solve the case, or even to protect her from danger. In “The Movie Company,” she chases a suspect out onto the high ledges of a high-rise hotel building. In “The Valley of the Moon,” she hunts for evidence into a restricted area where she knows she’s liable to be shot at. For all Mallard’s panic over her safety, danger never seems to be too much of a match for her.
So if Candy acts like a femme fatale, how is it that her independence is celebrated instead of “punished?”
I think it’s important to consider Mallard’s relationship with Candy. Though they’re by no means portrayed to be on as equal footing as, say, Emma Peel and John Steed, they do have a similarly bantering, give-and-take kind of relationship. Candy’s not afraid to use her sexual power over him, such as in “The Movie Company,” where she encourages his jealousy when she runs into an old boyfriend because she thinks he’s being childish, she never uses it against him. At the end of the episode, after teasing him profusely, she offers him tickets to go and see his favorite cowboy movie with her. Other times she hides the fact that she’s working on the same case that he is (so that he won’t try to dissuade her from putting herself in danger,) but if they run into a clue when they’re out on a date, as in “Jack Frost” (it’s a radio detective story. It’s supposed to be improbable and illogical,) she’s willing to work with him to crack it. She may not need Mallard, but she enjoys his company. She looks to him as a partner, both in their personal and working relationships. Therefore, her independence isn’t threatening to Mallard, and when it is she’s quick to make nice and stroke his ego a bit.
Unfortunately, this sense of partnership gets undone in “Candy’s Last Case,” which ends with Mallard’s proposal to Matson. She accepts, and he proudly declares that she’ll never have to work as a detective again. In this sense, Matson’s independence is portrayed as a temporary thing, something that she enjoys as she waits for marriage. As soon as she has the opportunity to have someone else provide those needs, she relinquishes her independence (at least financially.). Do we really think Candy’s going to be able to stop sleuthing? Well, judging from her character, I’d think not, but the writers leave that up to our imaginations.
To me, Candy Matson represents an attempt to make peace with the so-called new woman. I think it’s telling that when we think about the women of the Noir/hard boiled genre/style, we remember the femme fatales instead of the heroines (and even at the time, the more famous actresses played the fatales.); they command the screen and our attentions. It makes sense (to me, at least) that writers would try and imagine a case where this same fantasy woman wouldn’t have to be destructive; because let’s face it, she’s really fun. I also love the fact that the series creator Monty Masters, created the role of Candy for his wife, Natalie Masters. I admittedly know nothing about either of them, so for all I know their marriage could have ended in a catastrophic divorce, but, at least at first glance, creating such an awesome role for his wife is a wonderful, romantic gesture.
So it’s a little odd that most people, myself included, had no idea that female hard boiled detectives even existed during the age of Noir. We tend to think of these years as being fairly backwards in terms of gender roles with the exception of radicals. I wouldn’t necessarily call Candy Matson a progressive show–its portrayal of ethnic minorities is certainly less than enlightened, and Candy’s best friend, Rembrandt Watson, a photographer, and perhaps the weakest (in terms of strength and courage) character of the series, likely was meant to be read as gay (that he was included is pretty cool. His job to whine, get called “Ducky” by Candy, and be comic relief for his effeminacy is less so.). Still, it’s neat to see that there were in fact cases in which gender roles were more fluid, where strong women were not portrayed as menaces to themselves and society. Candy Matson, in fact, benefits society, helping strangers and friends alike.
If you want to learn more about Candy or listen to some of her cases, check out these sites:
As I’ve been trying to feel out what sort of content I want this blog to focus on, I thought it might be fun to try doing some pieces on iconic fictional characters. You’re probably wondering why it’s worth looking at fiction when there’s so many incredible, real feminist icons out there to talk about. You’d be right, of course, that reality is perhaps more powerful and inspiring, but I’m still interested in the fiction.
This is approximately my 23rd time trying to write this paragraph, so let’s see if I can explain this without lapsing into academic-ese or turning my prose into pudding. In the conventional wisdom of cultural/media studies, the characters who capture our imagination do so because they speak to deeply held cultural beliefs. They reflect our struggles, our ideals, our challenge to find a place within these ideals, and/or the fantasies of breaking or embodying these ideals. Looking at fictional characters can’t, of course, tell us how people really lived in any given time period, but it can give us an idea of how people imagined themselves.
This series of posts will include female characters (primarily American with a dash of British because, well, I am but one woman with one brain. I only feel comfortable working within the context of the culture that I know well [or reasonably well. Believe me, I know that Britain and American are more different than one might think]. I would like to add more diversity though, and if anyone has ideas, suggestions, or would like to do a guest post, I’d be happy to oblige.) from a variety of media who were somehow iconic in their eras. Granted, when I talk about “eras,” I sound like I’m limiting this to the past. I’m not. Dana Scully, will certainly make an appearance. Perhaps Xena will too. Maybe I’ll even jump way ahead and talk about a current TV show (President Roslin? I guess I’ll have to finish watching “Battle Star Galactica first.) We’ll see. My question is not “were these women feminist,” which is so incredibly arbitrary (also, if a character is popular, most of the time she usually somehow works within or around the gender norms of her society.), and I’ll probably even look at a few characters whom no one would even think of considering feminist. The fun is in seeing how different eras imagine women differently and what kinds of messages we can find in popular media.
If you have suggestions or would like to do a guest post, please comment or email me and let me know. :)