Remember Mavis Beacon? I can hear the collective you asking “who’s she?” “She” is the computer typing practice program that teachers used to try to pass off as a game during library hour. Yeah, we never quite bought it either. Remember “home keys?” I usually type these posts with two fingers on an iPad (or, in one pinch, my phone) and even on the off occasions where I’m not using a touch screen electronic, I still rely on the “hunt and peck” method to get my posts in so I clearly don’t. Mavis and home keys were the first things I thought of when watching the new French comedy Populaire, a Mad Men era set film (as frothy and light as a whipped cake topping) set in the world of competitive typing. The world of what?
In the 1950s through the late ’70s, France (and the rest of the world) would hold contests for local secretaries to determine which stenographer had the fastest fingers when it came to getting documents typed up with a minimum of error. Populaire is set in this bygone world, where secretarial work is a woman’s only option career-wise, bosses can still liberally sexually harass employees (add to that this is a French film and the standards of office behavior would definitely not pass the mandatory group sensitivity training) and where the champions of these contests go on to become strange sort of stars, earning everything from endorsement deals to world records and all the standing that comes with both.
“It was like reality television,” the film’s director, Régis Roinsard, said in a recent interview with KQED Pop. “The contestants developed followings, fan bases. The women had very distinct performance styles and wardrobe choices.”
Populaire (so named for the typewriter) tells the fictional story of one such contestant. Rose is a small town girl who moves to the big city drawn in by the bright lights and glamour of… office work. Seriously, remember it’s the late ’50s. Rose may be a little clumsy and not really that great a secretary but what she is is a great typist. Seeing this, her boss takes Rose under his wing and, with the precision he brought to his former career as an athlete, trains Rose to become one of the fastest sets of fingers in France and, eventually, the world.
“You have to remember that being a secretary was a way for provincial girls to get off the farms and away from their families,” Roinsard explains. “Compared to being stuck in the house all day waiting for a husband to come home or back with their parents waiting to get engaged, working in an office actually did have a kind of chic to it.”
How people could actually follow typing contests with so much interest at first seems like a mystery until the scenes of the competitions are shown. Imagine the fascination of an American Idol or Survivor with white out. The competitions relied on the characters the contestants developed to keep fans interested and cheering for different woman.
“They definitely had certain tropes that were important: she is the bad girl, this one is the sexy one, you root for her because she isn’t as pretty and plays the underdog. It’s exactly what we do today with game shows or TV contests.” Except that the typists are all skilled in their field and train with the intensity of athletes. There are many Rocky type training montages in the film that show the level of commitment and dedication the contestants had to have in order to even place in the early levels of competitions.
Finding women that were part of this world is still possible and Roinsard had the benefit of having a real life competitive typist on set as an advisor to the film. “She really did do many of the things that were in the film. The relationship these women had to the individual typewriters was very important. It was like the way a cellist feels about their instrument. You get so used to playing one thing that to have someone hand you a typewriter you’re not familiar with would be devastating.” There were also Showgirls like episodes of backstabbing, betrayal and in some cases, even sabotage. “Ribbons (inside the typewriters) would be tapered with, the gears of keys would be made to stick; imagine how terrible it would be to have the keys themselves be made slippery so your fingers wouldn’t be able to properly hit them.” When asked if the women were ever known to have real life affairs with their coaches as depicted in the film, Roinsard laughs and says, “Of course they did. They were young girls after all out on their own for the first time many of them.” As celebrities, it’s not unexpected that, in addition to having fan bases, they also had their share of groupies.
As much as Populaire is photographed and scored in the lush technicolor Vincente Minnelli style of the period, it takes a look at the sexism that pervaded the era and how these contests were one small space where women could stand on their own merit. “It was something that couldn’t be taken away from them,” Roinsard simply states.
When asked, in his preparation for the film, if he actually learned to type using one of the real typewriters of the era to better empathize with his heroine, the director laughs and looks at me with a expression of mock horror.
“Of course not! It’s so hard. No, definitely, no.”
Populaire hits Bay Area theaters today!