Women’s roles…sometimes when people think of women’s roles in old movies, they think of women as being portrayed as dumb blondes, ditsy dames, scatterbrained heiresses, weepy and weak willed, always dominated by men, the proverbial damsel in distress or just sex symbols. Well, I would like to prove those ideas wrong. Now, if you have seen enough of these old movies, you know as well as I do that this is not necessarily the case. There were many strong actresses during that time and many strong roles that left an indelible impression on the viewers. While on the silver screen, they were dressed in stylish, glamorous, elegant fashions, a lot of these actresses showed the inner strength of their character. Their roles varied; they portrayed reporters, unmarried mothers, head of households, intelligent career women, conniving femmes fatales, women struggling through life, and of course women in love. In this article, I will focus on these roles, not necessarily the actress herself, that is another topic altogether. Some of these roles are memorable and some unfortunately have been forgotten. Some actresses were fortunate, they had many strong roles. Sometimes, most times it wasn’t just luck. It was hard earned. Regardless, it was a difficult choice to make but these are the roles that left an everlasting impression:
Norma Shearer as Queen “Marie Antoinette” in the film of the same name released in 1938. In this film Norma portrays the ill fated queen of France as a young romantic girl who is married off to King Louis XVI, who is not really social or bright in politics. Norma’s interpretation of this role is touching. She goes from an ingénue to the life of the party in the French court all the while ignorant of the anger and hatred building up in the people. She is able to show the mature growth of the Queen, as her world crumbles around her. As you watch this film you can’t help but feel that she truly embodies the spirit of Queen Marie Antoinette. Perhaps, this is because she herself, was queen of the MGM lot while her husband-Irving G. Thalberg was alive. When he died at the young age of 37 in 1936, Norma was determined to see his last and final project through. “The film was the last project of Irving Thalberg who died in 1936 while it was in the planning stage. His widow Norma Shearer remained committed to the project even while her enthusiasm for her film career in general was waning following his death.”-Wikipedia It was her favorite role.
“His Girl Friday” 1940: If there ever was a film from the past that presented an intelligent, career woman, it would be that of Rosalind Russell as Hildy Johnson, ace reporter trying to leave journalism in order to have a “normal” married life. However that is easily said than done. Her former boss and ex husband Cary Grant refuses to give her up. As she inadvertently gets involved in a death row case, she realizes that being a journalist really is her life. Her character is intelligent, strong willed and street smart. In real life, behind the scenes, Rosalind had to hire her own writer in order to out banter Grant’s character who seemed to be getting better lines. Many actresses were offered the role, but turned it down. “Howard Hawks then turned to Rosalind Russell. During filming, Russell noticed that Hawks treated her like an also-ran, so she confronted him: “You don’t want me, do you? Well, you’re stuck with me, so you might as well make the most of it.”-Wikipedia
“The Good Earth” 1938: It must be a challenge to play a woman so different from yourself, especially if she is of another ethnicity and from another time. Luise Rainier did a beautiful job of portraying a Chinese peasant woman who lived in the days when China was ruled by emperors. Her interpretation and that of her costar Paul Muni as well, was never comical, never stereotypical and always respectful, so that all you see is the humanity of this couple as they try to survive poverty, migration, droughts, revolution, starvation and other love interests. In the end, she is honored by her husband as he realizes that without her he could have done nothing in life. She epitomizes the sacrifice a lot of women have made for their husbands and or families. Her performance is moving.
When Jane Wyman received the Best Actress Oscar for her role of a deaf mute girl, who is raped in “Johnny Belinda” 1948, she reportedly said, “I accept this award gratefully for keeping my mouth shut for once. I think I’ll do it again.” Indeed, it was a well received award. This is a woman who struggles to survive in her silent world. No one really seems to understand her or what she is living through. Her portrayal is sensitive without being overly melodramatic nor weak. Tragedy befalls her but in the end she triumphs. She was the first person in the sound era to win an acting Oscar without speaking a line of dialogue.”-Wikipedia
As a change of pace, and also because it truly is an unforgettable role- the beautiful Gene Tierney starred as the ice cold, selfish, murderess in the Technicolor film noir- “Leave Her to Heaven” 1945. Who could forget how she idly sits in a row boat as she lets her first victim drown? You could almost see the wheels turning in her mind as this beauty deviously plans her next move to keep her husband to herself. It is truly astounding. It was a a change of pace for her after having been played mostly nice women.
Bette Davis as “Jezebel” 1938 some say that this role was given to Bette as an audition for Scarlett O’Hara, other stories say that it was a compensation for her, for not winning the role. Another story says that David O. Selznick never really considered her. Nevertheless, this was one of Davis’ many strong roles. It was actually based on a 1933 stage play. “It’s about a head strong young southern woman whose actions cause her to lose the man she loves.”-Wikipedia She goes against societies’ norms of the antebellum period. Her fiancée played by Henry Fonda, does not stand for her capriciousness and leaves her. She tries to win him back but it is too late. It is said that this film finally established Bette as a leading lady. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress for this role.
If there ever was an example of an injustice of not receiving the Oscar for Best Actress it would be the case of Gloria Swanson, Queen of the silent films who made a comeback in the film noir “Sunset Boulevard” 1950 for which she was nominated. While Judy Holliday, the recipient of the Oscar, gave a very funny performance as the not -so- dumb, dumb blonde in “Born Yesterday”, it was Swanson’s tragic yet memorable performance as the secluded ex film star that haunts you after you’ve seen the film. She sits in her old mansion, longing for the days of her fame as the world passes her by. She embroils a young screen writer, played by William Holden, into her delapidated world. She becomes possessive of him. She wants to be loved and accepted so she plans her come back.
At the same time in 1950, Judy Holliday gave a very funny performance as the not-so-dumb, dumb blonde. She played the Oscar winning role in “Born Yesterday” 1950, in a very endearing and charming way. By sheer coincidence William Holden, who had costarred with Gloria Swanson, her rival for the Oscar, in “Sunset Boulevard, was also Judy’s leading man. This time he’s hired by her bullying boyfriend (Broderick Crawford) to be her tutor and of course they fall in love. Not only does she gain book smarts but she also gains a sense of self worth, which she didn’t have before, thus enabling her to fight back against her loud mouthed boyfriend and stand up for herself.
Sometimes the best roles are the roles that aren’t glamorous. Case in point, Olivia de Havilland had two such roles. The first one as Catherine Sloper in “The Heiress” 1949. She may have been an heiress but she was extremely shy and plain. Her father’s talk of how beautiful her mother was and how she isn’t, contributes to her low self esteem. He believes no man could love her for her personality alone, that is why he doubts Montgomery Clift’s attentions and intentions, when he comes courting her. He sees that he is a fortune hunter. Catherine only sees her love, her hope, the man that could set her free from her emotionally abusive father. She wants to believe she is lovable. However, things go very wrong for her when her father threatens to disinherited if she elopes. In the end de Havilland’s character turns cold and cruel, just like her father.
The other amazing role for Olivia de Havilland was in “Snake Pit” 1948. De Havilland gives a powerful performance as a woman who doesn’t know why she’s in an insane asylum. She doesn’t remember her erratic behavior. She struggles to understand her situation with the help of her doctor. It’s an astounding look at mental institutions and how patients were handled. The rest of the cast is just as astounding because their portrayals are just as realistic.
Lana Turner best known as the sweater girl, or for being discovered at a counter at Schwabb’s Pharmacy had her best and memorable as the icy cool femme fatale in “The Postman Always Rings Twice” 1945 with John Garfield.
12. Ingrid Bergman is one of those great actresses who gave a lot of memorable performances. It’s hard to choose which of her roles was the best example of a portrayal of a strong woman but if I had to really choose, it would come down to this one: as Paula in 1944’s “Gaslight”. Based somewhat on the British stage play, “Gaslight” is about a woman who is slowly and systematically being driven insane by her husband (Played by Charles Boyer-also in one of his best roles, as well). Bergman as Paula goes from a romantic young woman to a confused and unstable wife to a nervous and unwitting victim of mental and emotional abuse.
“Caged” 1950 with Eleanor Parker is another movie that shows the metamorphosis of a woman. This time it’s a young woman going through the prison system after being accused of a petty crime. Parker’s performance is very sympathetic. You know she’s guilty but you can’t help but root for her. You want her to get out and you want her to do well in life after prison but the system has changed her and not helped her much. It’s brutal and sometimes harsh to watch. If I’m not mistaken, it was the first time the women’s prison system was featured on film.
“Of Human Bondage” 1934, the film that finally justified Bette’s talent as an actress and gave her, her breakthrough role. Before this role, she had been given light roles in light films. She was under contract to Jack L. Warner and she harassed him to let her do this film at RKO. Warner was “afraid” it would ruin her “glamourous image”. “An evil heroine such as Mildred was really unheard of in that day. J.L. could not possibly understand any actress who would want to play such a part”, Davis said.” finally, the studio traded Davis for Irene Dunne for a musical film. She hired a Cockney maid, so that she could learn the accent. The British cast did not like that an American had been cast and Leslie Howard was not really interested until he was informed that Davis was doing an excellent job. “Davis designed her own makeup for the scenes depicting the final stages of Mildred’s illness, changed from syphilis to tuberculosis to satisfy the demands of the Hays Code.
“I made it very clear that Mildred was not going to die of a dread disease looking as if a deb had missed her noon nap. The last stages of consumption, poverty and neglect are not pretty and I intended to be convincing-looking. We pulled no punches and Mildred emerged … as starkly real as a pestilence.””-Wikipedia Davis was so nervous about her performance, she couldn’t go to the premiere. Her mother and her husband went and the performance was so intense that they weren’t sure if the role would make or break her. The critics hailed her acting. Meanwhile the studio was embarrassed that it was made at another studio.
Anna Magnani was stupendous in “The Rose Tattoo” 1955 as a widow who is having a hard time getting on with life after the death of her husband. She has to deal with nosy and gossipy neighbors, a daughter who is ready to leave the nest, the idea that her husband may have been unfaithful to her, and the prospect of starting over with another man.
“The Children’s Hour” 1961 with Audrey Hepburn, James Garner and Shirley MacLaine. Based on the 1934 play, about two school teachers having a lesbian relationship, just that subject matter was surprising. The sensitive portrayals of Hepburn and MacLaine made the movie unforgettable.
Jane Darwell as the strong matriarch trying to keep her family together in “The Grapes of Wrath” 1940. She is every mom. When the father’s strength gives out, she’s the one that keeps the family together in the face of adversity.
Norma Shearer as “A Free Soul” 1931 is described as “pre-Code drama film that tells the story of an alcoholic San Francisco defense attorney (Lionel Barrymore) who must defend his daughter’s (Shearer) ex-boyfriend (Leslie Howard) on a charge of murdering the mobster (Clark Gable) she had a relationship with, a mobster whom her father had previously got an acquittal for on a murder charge.” Perhaps because it was a pre-code film, Shearer’s portrayal of a sexually liberated woman was daring for its time.
“Safe in Hell” 1931 Dorothy Mackaill as the runaway fugitive trying to escape justice for a crime she thinks she committed. Unfortunately Mackaill is almost forgotten now but she was one of the best and most popular actresses of the 20’s and early 30’s.
Another strong role for Bette Davis was in “Now, Voyager” 1942 as an introverted, painfully shy, dominated daughter of a possessive mother who ends up in therapy and afterwards becomes self assured and confident and of course glamourous and finds true love.
Shirley Booth in “Come Back, Little Sheba” as the long suffering wife of a recovering alcoholic. She has a lot to deal with but she never fails to keep her optimism.
Both Bette Davis and Anne Baxter in “All About Eve” 1950. Davis as the diva who will not be unseated from her “throne” in the theater and Baxter as the conniving new actress.
Janet Gaynor whose role in “A Star is Born” 1937 as a star on the rise. It is ironic because at the time of this film, she had lost box office appeal, whereas her character’s was on the way up. This film was a comeback for her but after 2 or more films she retired to get married and have a family. Back in the 1920’s and early 1930’s, her career was at its peak then it started to go down because of lack of good parts from her studio 20th Century Fox, who had more interest in Shirley Temple and Loretta Young. In this film she is funny and dramatic. The other irony is that her costar’s, Fredric March, career was at its height.
Linda Darnell, Jeanne Crain and Ann Sothern, all three ladies have memorable roles of their own but in this film of “A Letter to Three Wives” 1949 they show how funny they can be and what good dramatic actresses they are.
Joanne Woodward’s role as a woman with multiple personalities disorder was surprising and well done in “The Three Faces of Eve” 1957. She won her only Academy Award for this memorable role.
“The Women” 1939 was a funny, glamourous, dramatic and remarkable movie. The ultimate women’s movie…a movie about women with an all star female cast. Among the talent: Paulette Godard, Joan Crawford, Rosalind and Russel and Norma Shearer.
“Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife” 1938 Claudette Colbert was one of the few actresses who could handle comedy as well as drama. This screwball romantic comedy is one of the best examples of her ability to do comedy.
“The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” 1944 Betty Hutton was a great comedy actress and she was at her best in this very funny film by Preston Sturges. she had great physical ability.
Lauren Bacall won Humphrey Bogart’s heart and ours with her sultry look. The perfect heroine in many film noir but it was her introductory role in “To Have and Have Not” 1944 that set her up. Her maturity in handling the role was perfect, she was only 19 and she was nervous that’s why she would give that look to the camera.
Audrey Hepburn in “Roman Holiday” 1950 was charming and beautiful as the runaway princess. In later roles she cemented her acting ability.
Dorothy McGuire was heartbreaking as the mother and sole bread winner of a tenement family in New York at turn the turn of the century in “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” 1945. But it was Peggy Ann Garner as the dreamy young girl wanting a better life that gives the movie its emotional depth. The relationship between mother and daughter is turbulent and sad.
Barbra Stanwyck had many good roles, why this one? Because just like Claudette Colbert, she was equally adept at comedy and drama. In “The Lady Eve” 1941, Stanwyck was hilarious as the conniving con artist out to get shy scientist Henry Fonda, who couldn’t win against Stanwyck’s feminine wiles.
But in “Sorry, Wrong Number” 1948 Barbra Stanwyck is unsurpassable as the terrified woman who overhears a murder plot on a telephone. This film showcases clearly her emotional range.
“Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” 1936 Jean Arthur usually played career girls. In this film as well as in many others she brought warmth to her tough girl image. She was charming and intelligent.
“Song of Bernadette” 1943 Jennifer Jones gentle and believable as Bernadette Soubirous, the young girl who saw the vision of the Virgin Mary over the course of several months in 1858. This was not the first film for her. “Jones had made other films before this, but only under her real name, Phyllis Isley. In an effort to make the public believe that she was “discovered” for this film, her screen credit reads “and introducing Jennifer Jones as Bernadette.””-IMDB
“I want to Live” 195 when Susan Hayward won the Academy Award for Best Actress, it is said that her director said “Now, we can all relax Suzy won the Oscar. Hayward had many great performances but this one was her best as the convicted prostitute of a murder she insists she was not a part of. Her portrayal was intense and heart breaking as she says good bye to her son. “Hollywood writer Robert Osborne, who later became the host of Turner Classic Movies, interviewed Hayward and asked whether or not she believed Barbara Graham had been innocent. According to Osborne, the actress seemed hesitant to answer at first, but ultimately admitted that her research on the evidence and letters in the case led her to believe that the woman she played was guilty.”Wikipedia
“Kitty Foyle” 1939 was the dramatic role that helped Ginger Rogers move away from musicals. She played the role of a working girl, who’s in love with a rich young man who won’t commit because he’s afraid of his family. He purses her for many years until she finally meets a doctor who saves her from continuing down the wrong path with the wrong man.
“The Miracle Worker” 1962 Both Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke had played their respective roles as Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller on stage. Their film director fought for both of them to reprise their role in the movie. Their roles were emotionally and physically demanding. They brought intensity to the story.
Joan Crawford as “Mildred Pierce” 1945 was her comeback role. At the time she had already been labeled box office poison and had left MGM by mutual agreement. She campaigned hard for the role and the director Michael Curtiz tried to get other actresses but no one would sign. It is said she came into the audition with shoulder pads. After seeing the screen test the director gave in. This film also showcased the strong performance of Ann Blyth, who at that time had participated in musicals and good girl roles for Universal. Blyth’s turn as a cold hearted, conniving, spoiled brat really stole the show.
Last but not least Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara the role that many actresses -established as well as newcomers- auditioned for and nobody got. In “Gone with the Wind” Leigh portrayed Scarlett as a coquette, a young woman in love, selfish, fighting for survival and strong despite all of the obstacles. The story of how she got the role; “Hollywood was in the midst of a widely publicized search to find an actress to portray Scarlett O’Hara in David O. Selznick’s production of Gone with the Wind (1939). At the time, Myron Selznick—David’s brother and Leigh’s American theatrical agent—was the London representative of the Myron Selznick Agency. In February 1938, Leigh made a request to Myron Selznick that she be considered to play the part of Scarlett O’Hara.
David O. Selznick watched her performances that month in Fire Over England and A Yank at Oxford and thought that she was excellent but in no way a possible Scarlett because she was “too British”. Leigh travelled to Los Angeles, however, to be with Olivier and to try to convince David Selznick that she was the person for the part. Myron Selznick also represented Olivier and when he met Leigh, he felt that she possessed the qualities that his brother was searching for. According to legend, Myron Selznick took Leigh and Olivier to the set where the burning of the Atlanta Depot scene was being filmed and stage-managed an encounter, where he introduced Leigh, derisively addressing his younger brother, “Hey, genius, meet your Scarlett O’Hara.” The following day, Leigh read a scene for Selznick, who organized a screen test with director George Cukor and wrote to his wife, “She’s the Scarlett dark horse and looks damn good. Not for anyone’s ear but your own: it’s narrowed down to Paulette Goddard, Jean Arthur, Joan Bennett and Vivien Leigh”. The director, George Cukor, concurred and praised Leigh’s “incredible wildness”. She secured the role of Scarlett soon after.”-Wikipedia