This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
“I never realised until lately that women were supposed to be the inferior sex.” – Katharine Hepburn
Feminism, equality of the sexes. Often when watching old movies, the sexism of the time can catch you off guard. Bums are pinched, bimbos bounce, old maids glower, and you shake your head and sigh, glad that those times have (mostly) passed. So when we see classic films with strong, intelligent, impressive, witty, ambitious, feminist female characters, equals to their male counterparts, we sit up and take notice. There are many great classic films with impressive female characters, too many to list here. This article is about the characters that have inspired me personally. Classic feminist films way ahead of their time.
The Passion Of Joan Of Arc (1928)
“You claim that I am sent by the Devil. It’s not true. To make me suffer, the Devil has sent you… and you… and you… and you.”
We start in the early days of cinema with a story about one of the greatest women who ever lived. Watching The Passion Of Joan Of Arc is one of the most visceral, intense viewing experiences you are ever likely to have, all without the use of 3D, D-Box or Atmos sound – in fact there is no sound at all.
The film follows the trial of Joan of Arc – a lone woman fighting for her life in a room full of men. In her second and final film role, stage actress Maria Falconetti bewitches us with her incredible, angular face and large, tragic eyes. The majority of the film is shot in extreme close ups, focusing on the anguish of that face as its doomed fate is sealed, stark visuals of Joan crying, getting her hair chopped off, wearing a straw crown and her will being broken down before death. Viewing this film is a true undertaking mainly due to the simple, oppressive way in which it was shot. For the DVD release, the added score from Richard Einhorn entitled Voices Of Light rattles your bones and forces you to become enveloped by Joan’s story. Films today are rarely as evocative as this. You are always with Joan, literally up in her face as she goes through an unjust trial and execution.
Joan of Arc was one of the bravest women in history, to follow her as she continually defends herself, her beliefs and her actions while alone in a room full of men, men of the cloth and therefore authority, is a privilege. She is unwavering, she is terrified by the idea of death, but she will not surrender. The final scene, of Joan being burnt at the stake, is horrifying not only in its grimly realistic visuals, but in the stoic acceptance of her fate.
Gone With The Wind (1939)
“As God as my witness they’re not going to lick me. I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again.”
Just to be clear, Gone With The Wind has elements that are really racist and dated. Scarlett O’Hara, one of the most iconic female characters of all time, is what I’m discussing here. Scarlett is selfish, greedy, heartless, and cold, but she is a survivor. Every move she makes is pure self-preservation.
Growing up as the spoiled eldest daughter of a wealthy, first generation cotton plantation owner, the film opens with Scarlett living the life of the perfect southern belle – flirting with the boys, having no greater worries than her looks and her status amongst her peers. However, when her entire way of life is turned upside down by the American civil war, Scarlett is forced to fend for herself whilst keeping the few people she cares about afloat. Scarlett is often considered a ‘bitch’ (a word I hate) but she is not. She is cold, selfish and tough, but she loves and feels deeply. Scarlett protects her delicate sister in law Melanie, even though she is married to Ashley, the man Scarlett truly loves, because keeping Ashley’s wife alive will make him happy. When a pregnant Melanie goes into labor, Scarlett delivers the baby then saves them both from a collapsing city.
On return to her home, now derelict, her mother dead and her father mad, Scarlett saves the plantation first by running and farming it herself, then by finding the money for its rent by marrying a wealthy man. Now on steady ground, Scarlett makes that man (and so herself) wildly rich by expanding his lucrative lumber business, and when her husband dies she marries millionaire Rhett Butler and finds herself back on top. A modern feminist woman Scarlett is not, however there has been nothing in her spoiled, vacant, ladylike upbringing to train her for any of this. She is bound by the confines by her time, knowing she must rely on men to succeed, however Scarlett is smart and ferocious enough to adapt and survive and she plays the men around her like a fiddle. No matter what tragedies befall her, not matter what people think of her, always for Scarlett, tomorrow is another day.
The Women (1939)
“I’ve had two years to grow claws mother. Jungle red.”
This is a wonderful film that everyone should watch. The 2008 remake is just terrible and was always going to be because this film is so perfectly of its time. The premise of this film is very simple – every single character you see on screen (including the animals) are women. Not one man is ever seen, but the entire film revolves around them. The true genius of the film is that you never notice this absence of men as the film takes place entirely in the female ‘world’ of the time: beauty salons, ladies lunches, powder rooms, fashion shows and a women’s boarding house in Reno (where women went to attain a divorce at the time). This is why a remake was never going to work, this world is gone and the intelligence of having the men constantly circling the action, waiting off screen but never being seen is absent in a modern setting.
While the film mainly consists of women taking about their (and other women’s) husbands, it is really about women’s relationships with each other, the good and the treacherous. In the film’s opening we are introduced to each character by being shown what animal they are most like. Mary, the lead, good character, is a ‘deer’, her flirty friend Miriam is a ‘vixen’, her sweet friend Peggy is a ‘lamb’, while the woman who steals her husband, Crystal, is a ‘leopard’. This animal motif remains present throughout, with the women calling each other by these ‘pet’ names in times of affection, humor and spite.
While some might criticise the film for displaying ‘catty’ stereotypes of women (indeed, Rosalind Russell’s character is the ‘cat’) it is a film that had an large, entirely female cast of characters with real depth, intelligence, and wit, and one that dealt with the unjust, contradictory rules women had to live by at the time. The Women is sharp, touching, and absolutely hilarious, definitely the best way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
His Girl Friday (1940)
“I wouldn’t cover the burning of Rome for you if they were just lighting it up!”
The second film in our Rosalind Russell trilogy is His Girl Friday. Adapted from the play The Front Page, the fastest talking movie ever made takes place over one day as an ex-news reporter plans to leave her ex-editor (and ex-husband) to remarry and settle down in the country. Cary Grant is as charming as ever as the tricky editor Walter, manipulating everyone around him trying to get the girl he loves, Hildy, to stay. However, the goddess that is Rosalind Russell just blows him off the screen. She is just as funny, clever, sharp, driven, and wily as he is. She is also a woman not only working in a man’s world but dominating it. All of Hildy’s colleagues respect and admire her, they flinch when she reprimands them and all freely admit she is the best in the business. Why would she leave it?
With this question we see that His Girl Friday is an early example of a woman struggling with the ‘shoulds’ of womanhood. Russell’s character feels that its time she be a ‘real woman’ and settle down to have children. Her head tells her thats what she ought to do, but her heart and the pull of journalism keeps dragging her back to the paper and to ‘the story’ and to Walter. Hildy will never be happy in a conventional role because she is not a conventional woman. She is who she is, a modern girl in a changing world, and we love her for it.
All About Eve (1950)
“Funny business, a woman’s career – the things you drop on your way up the ladder so you can move faster. You forget you’ll need them again when you get back to being a woman. That’s one career all females have in common, whether we like it or not: being a woman. Sooner or later, we’ve got to work at it, no matter how many other careers we’ve had or wanted.”
All About Eve is one of the greatest films of all time. I truly love this film and make everyone I know watch it. As yet, I’ve had a 100% success rate; everyone has agreed that it is something special. It is a film that encapsulates the problems of being a woman with, wanting and wielding power. The two main characters show both ends of a journey, one a vintage, beloved veteran of the stage, the other a bright, rising star. Margo is the long-reigning Queen of Broadway, she is a born star and all that comes with it. Eve is a young, seemingly naive girl who worships Margo and the theatre. Flattered by Eve’s admiration, Margo takes the young girl under her wing and gives her a job as her assistant. What follows is Eve’s gradual, calculated and vicious climb to the top, where she manipulates everyone around her to become the new, isolated queen of the stage.
The film is beautifully written, with an interesting narrative structure (the film is told entirely through the memories of various characters) and a killer wit. It is infinitely quotable (“Fasten your seatbelts, its going to be a bumpy night”), and I believe it is the caliber of the writing that helps us really see the stark truth and injustices for women seeking power in this time. The apparent unattractiveness of it – seeming to be masculine or ‘forward’ when you go out to get what you want; when Eve makes a move on Margo’s partner and theatre director Bill, she is knocked back because he finds it gauche: “Just score it as an incomplete forward pass”. Time – how it stalks women, not only in their fading beauty but in their biological clock, will you be successful or have a family? You must choose, whether you are conscious of it or not. Margo is intensely insecure about her age and looks, she is older than Bill and can’t give him children. Eve is a threat because she is fresh, new, everyone wants her, but time is inescapable. Finally treachery – when women are pitted against each other in a patriarchal world that celebrates youth and beauty but admonishes ambition.
Margo and Eve are women who are successful, but they suffer because of it. Even when Eve reaches her peak, a younger, more ruthless ‘model’ enters the scene, and the never ending cycle continues. While Eve is left alone and isolated by her ambition, Margo takes a step back from it and focuses more on her personal life. They make different decisions and live with their choices and we love them because as women we understand those decisions and the unfairness of having to make them.
“Nobody laughs at me! Because I laugh first. At me! Me, from Seattle! Me, with no education. Me, with no talent, as you kept reminding me my whole life! Well, Mama look at me now. I’m a star!”
I can’t get enough of Ms. Russell. In her final appearance on this list we have our only musical, Gypsy, telling the early life story of infamous burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee. Starring Natalie Wood in the eponymous role, Russell plays the original stage mother from hell, Mama Rose. After three husbands and two children, Rose struggles to make ends meet by pushing her children into Vaudeville. Blinded by her own quashed ambitions, Rose ignores that Vaudeville is dying, that her children are ageing and that they are perpetually broke, she is hunting for their big break. Rose is obsessed with glory and fame, but beyond that she wants her girls to have the life and success that she never did and is willing to work herself to death to make it happen.
Meanwhile Gypsy is the traditional ugly duckling, the quite, talentless sister who is dragged along for the ride while her mother dotes on her ‘baby’ June. In spite of this, Gypsy remains fiercely loyal to her mother, making the best of every new situation, staying with her after June and others leave. When Rose becomes desperate and pushes Gypsy into burlesque, Gypsy resignedly obliges but gets more than she bargained for, she has an awakening. Gypsy discovers that her sexuality gives her power and she likes it. She uses that power to get them out of the gutter and into the spotlight and a star is born. Jealous of her success, Rose tries to diminish Gypsy’s achievements, but Gypsy refuses to feel shame. She is in control, she is self-made, she is flaunting her only talent to make a living, she is an independent woman who answers to nobody.
Gypsy is a fantastic film with two iconic leads in Wood and Russell. It is no coincidence that Rosalind Russell appears on this list three times – she was a fantastic talent, a true character with perfect comedic timing and acting ability. A modern woman who took modern roles, gave life to iconic characters and pushed the envelopes of her time.
Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (1967)
“Then take the check, for $5,000, which I feel you deserve, and get – permanently – lost. It’s not that I don’t want to know you, Hilary – although I don’t – it’s just that I’m afraid we’re not really the sort of people that you can afford to be associated with.”
It is a film known for its modern and open approach to inter-race relationships. It is the jewel in Sidney Poitier’s crown. It is the last film Spencer Tracey ever made, and the last time we saw Tracey and Hepburn together on screen. It is beautifully written, masterfully directed and is, oddly, timeless. Along with all of this, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner is truly feminist. The film has eight main characters: the young lovers, their four parents, a priest and a housekeeper. Four men, four women. The men have a lot of eloquent speeches, they argue with each other, they posture, they claim responsibility for the final decision of whether this young, mixed race couple will marry. However it is the women, in their looks, their short, calm exchanges and their shared understandings who are the real wielders of power in this story.
Starting with the young bride Joey, the only character in the film who sees no problem with her decision to marry a black man. Perhaps this is naive, but I rather see it as brave. Even now it is so easy to not do something out of fear of negative reactions; speaking up for your beliefs or living an alternative life to the status quo can be scary when we think of the possible negative responses. Yet Joey doesn’t care. She loves this man and she will marry him, as she would if they were the same race. To not marry him would be wrong, cowardly, illogical. Not only that but she wont mollycoddle those around her, this is her fiancé and they all just have to accept it. Much to the horror of Tilly, the family’s long standing, much loved, black, housekeeper. Tilly is one of the more conservative characters in the film, and the only one who doesn’t try and hide that behind a liberal outlook. She does not approve of the union and makes that clear, but it comes from a place of love for Joey. These are two intelligent, well rounded women who know what they want and what they believe.
Joey’s mother Chris is played by (in my opinion) the greatest actress in history, Katherine Hepburn. Chris is the first character to learn of the young lover’s decision to marry. She is initially shocked but supportive, her only concern being her husband’s reaction to the news. Chris is a working woman, a liberal, but she also believes that marriage is about support and a united front. The crisis for Chris is that in this situation, her husband might let her down. In their scenes together, Hepburn doesn’t speak much, but reacts to what Tracey says in a few minimal words, looks and clenched emotions. There is a natural tenderness and intimacy to their scenes, born from a long term, real life love affair that was slowly reaching its end with Tracey’s failing health. Dying only seventeen days after the movie wrapped, Hepburn’s proud, broken-hearted face during Tracey’s final soliloquy, speaks the volumes that words could never do justice.
Finally there is John’s mother, Mrs. Prentice. She is the quietest character, she doesn’t appear onscreen until halfway through the film and doesn’t say more than a few sentences until the the film has nearly finished. Yet it is her that changes everything. It is Mrs. Prentice’s speech to Tracey that makes him see the errors of his ways and agree to give the couple his blessing. Tracey’s final speech is one of the greatest in film history. It has a resonance that remains today and is made all the more poignant by the actor’s death so soon after, yet that speech is only possible because of the smaller, less grand, more emotive speech made by Mrs. Prentice. Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner is an outstanding film, with four different, courageous, deeply feeling female characters.
The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie (1969)
“I am in the business of putting old heads on young shoulders, and all my pupils are the crème de la crème. Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life.”
In her breakout role, Maggie Smith plays this eponymous, unique, flawed, incredible, monstrous character. The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie tells the story of a teacher in a Scottish, all girls boarding school. Miss Brodie is in her prime, she will not be tied down by marriage or children or the confines of the traditional. She wants her girls to be worldly, exceptional women and they worship her for it. Taking place over six years, we follow one group of schoolgirls under Miss Brodie’s tutelage and in that time we see them go from adoring their young, eccentric teacher to seeing the danger of her recklessness and living without consideration of consequence. Miss Brodie is selfish and manipulative, only thinking of herself, her prime and the possibility of something better. When her lover gets too needy, Miss Brodie tries to influence one of her young girls to have an affair with him, prompting jealousy in another pupil, Sandy, who starts the affair instead.
This is such a meaty film for actresses to sink their teeth into. At first we are blinded by Miss Brodie’s progressive lifestyle, she is a breath of fresh air, intelligent, ambitious, savvy, but slowly we learn along with Sandy that in spite of her modern ways, Miss Brodie is dangerous. Finally she goes too far and unintentionally causes the death of a student. Sandy, who is soon to leave the school, cannot allow Miss Brodie to destroy another group of girls. She stands up to this massive figure of influence and authority in her life, meeting her head on as her equal. To me the film is more about Sandy becoming a woman than “Miss Brodie’s prime.” And as is so often the case, Sandy’s journey from girlhood, is a difficult and scary one.
“Moments. A couple of moments that people remember, that they can take with them, is what makes a good movie.” – Rosalind Russell
These are movies full of such moments, and those moments belong to women. Now, thankfully, we expect strong, well rounded female characters in our films and these ladies, these characters in classic films, were a big part of making that happen. Thank you Scarlett, Hildy, and Jean for being decades ahead of your time.