Ocean’s 8 Inspirations

(Welcome to Classically Contemporary, a series where we explore the ways in which new releases echo classic Hollywood.)

Every movie seeks inspiration from films made before. Whether the homage is intentional or not, Hollywood is a land known for cannibalizing itself. Ocean’s 8 builds off several pre-existing properties, and we’re not talking about the film’s obvious inspirations, like the Steven Soderbergh trilogy starting in 2001 with Ocean’s Eleven, nor are we discussing the 1960 Frank Sinatra incarnation of the film of the same name.

What Ocean’s 8 does with its story of eight women and the jewel heist they pull off is draw from the crime capers of the pre-Code, studio era, most notably the 1932 features Trouble in Paradise and Jewel Robbery, where each emphasizes a world where women are in control and crime can be a fun adventure all its own.

People criticize Ocean’s 8’s light and frothy tone, and its penchant for embracing feminine objects like jewels and gowns, but these are items cinema revered for decades and many classic features celebrate the same things. Trouble in Paradise and Jewel Robbery both focus on characters who set up elaborate heists with minute execution and get away with it, a misnomer for those who assume all classic cinema ended with the death or punishment of evildoers. The two ‘30s features benefited from being released before the implementation of the Hollywood Production Code, which forced the list of “dont’s” and “be carefuls” on every movie studio until the 1960s. What the films of this “pre-Code” era were known for was a flippant disregard for rules and authority, acknowledging the world was rotten, yet finding the fun and frivolity within it.

(This post contains minor spoilers for Ocean’s 8.)

Pre-Code and the Power of Women

Jewel Robbery and Trouble in Paradise put women at the forefront, and like the women of Ocean’s, no one’s hands are clean. Trouble in Paradise follows thieving lovers Gaston Monescu and Lily (Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins), who spend their days fleecing people and enjoying the finer things in life. Theirs is a relationship of equals from their first meeting when each attempts to con the other during a romantic meal. As they spew out various lies about their lives – she’s a Countess, he’s a Baron – they both know the other is a criminal. In fact, it is this criminal nature that becomes a turn-on. (It is the reveal that Gaston has made off with Lily’s garter that causes them to fall into each other’s arms.) But though Gaston is the film’s protagonist, he is never presented as smarter than Lily, so when he becomes enamored of wealthy heiress Mariette Colet (Kay Francis), Lily understands exactly what’s going on and calls him out.

Debbie Ocean attempts to frame her lover, Claude (Richard Armitage) in a manner akin to Lily admitting to Gaston that she knows of his growing love for Madame Colet. Lily prepares to make off with all Madame Colet’s money and leave Gaston to take the fall for her. He’s attempting to be something he’s not: a refined straight arrow. Lily knows she’s a crook and isn’t content to live a life, with or without Gaston. And though Lily and Madame Colet are meant to be rivals, they continue to show a decorum for each other. They put their differences aside because they, too, live by a code and refuse to let their own personal hang-ups get in the way of what they want; Lily and her money, and Madame Colet and Gaston.

The same power is found in Jewel Robbery, where Kay Francis’ bored Baroness Teri seeks adventure and excitement in her life. Teri enjoys good food, jewels, and wealth because it’s all she’s known, as with Debbie Ocean and thieving. While Teri is stuck in the middle of a jewel robbery, led by the dashing Robber (William Powell), it gives her something to do short of find a new lover to fill the void left by her blase husband. Teri sees it as her duty to protect the Robber from being found out, even being considered a suspect and accessory in the process. She ingraines herself in criminality without engaging in it personally.

Crime and the Times

Neither film could work were it not for its early ‘30s time period. Made in the midst of the Great Depression, average people stealing from the rich is presented with a Robin Hood quality. The audience roots for Gaston and Lily pulling the wool over the eyes of daffy millionaires too stupid to figure out that Gaston isn’t really a doctor just as much as they hope Lily and Gaston end up together at the end. Later, when Madame Colet loses her $120,000 handbag, it serves as a reminder of her overall mistreatment of money. In fact, Lily brings up as one of the key reasons why Madame Colet deserves to be robbed; her desire to lay down that much coin for a purse when people are starving.

The Code allowed for crime to pay. Gaston and Lily get away with their loot (and Madame Colet is happy to give them more to take with them!) while Teri runs off to Nice to live a life of domestic (and presumably crime-riddled) bliss with the Robber. Ocean’s 8 ends with the women walking off into the sunset with their diamonds. In our current times, where the divide between the rich and the poor is so expansive, there’s a similar catharsis to watching Ocean’s 8’s characters rob the self-absorbed actress Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway) and cause havoc at the most “exclusive” party in the United States. For these women, it’s the new American Dream, wherein they, for once, are able to succeed in a criminal world often dominated by men.

Kay Francis: Caper Queen

Ocean’s 8 greatest callback to ‘30s crime capers is Hathaway’s Daphne Kluger, herself a 2018 amalgamation of the grandiose, spoiled women Kay Francis played. Hathaway’s Daphne is a boastful, sexy encapsulation of everything audiences assume a vapid Hollywood star is and Francis herself made a name playing clotheshorse roles that required her to revel in glamour.

In Trouble in Paradise. Francis’ Madame Colet may be isolated in her wealth and pay an exorbitant amount of money for a purse, but there’s an inner decency to her. She has motives to make Lily like her – she assumes Lily is related to Gaston and thus is a means of getting in good with him – but in the ‘30s, where the wealthy were seen as having caused the Depression, she’s kind enough to give Lily financial security. And at the film’s conclusion, she “gifts” Lily her pearl necklace, an apology for both her mistreatment of her (and her attempt to steal Gaston) and her willful ignorance to the world outside her own. For Mariette, losing a few thousand dollars to these crooks is just a balance of the scales.

Francis’ Baroness Teri in Jewel Robber is a similar woman, out of touch with reality but also uncaring about how her actions are perceived by others. She knowingly cheats on her husband, making no bones about her gold-digger status. We love to hate her, but also can’t begrudge her what she’s done to make her way in the world. It’s a technique no different than Daphne’s struggles to assert herself as a massive star, yet knowing that it’s resulted in her having no female friends. Francis’ characters are flawed yet aware of their defects. Unlike Francis, Daphne does attempt to change. She wants friends, she wants to subvert her image, and it is through collaborating with criminals – people who are equally flawed – that she can do so.

Ocean’s 8 is a solid send-up of the ‘30s crime caper, finding the fun that can be mined from doing something bad. The all-female cast is in charge of their own destiny, just as Lily, Madame Colet and Baroness Teri are. If anything, the women of the Ocean’s film needs to raise a glass to Kay Francis and Miriam Hopkins, women who made being bad look oh-so-good!

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