Arduous Research

So I have a genius idea for a book1 that requires me to watch lots of old American movies from the 1930s, 40s and 50s. It’s tough but someone has to do it. Plus Scott’s never seen a lot of these movies and I consider that to be criminal. Do you know before he met me he’d never even heard of Preston Sturges? What kind of a life is that?

So far we’ve worked our way through the films of (natch) Preston Sturges, George Cukor, and Douglas Sirk. As well as almost all the ones starring Rita Hayworth (Yay Gilda!).

Today we watched Mildred Pierce. Bless it. Bless Joan Crawford and Anne Blythe. The role of Veda is such a hoot. Has a greater bitch ever graced the silver screen? Sure, probably, there’s always Eve Harrington in All About Eve which we watched the day before. Scott had never seen it and is now smitten. Who wouldn’t be? Such a fabulous movie!

Yes, that's Fredi Washington again. Write a book about her already!Watching these more-than-fifty-year-old movies I’ve been struck by how many of them are written by women and how many of them are driven by women. They have not just genuine starring roles, but also lots of juicy supporting parts. There are women older than forty in these movies.

Last time I went to the movies I sat through the regulation ten minutes of shorts and did not see a single woman. Not one. The time before that there were two women and both seemed to be in the girlfriend role and were a long, long, long way off forty. What on Earth happened in the intervening years? How come most of the good roles for women are now on the tellie?

I’d love to hear your theories. Lauren, ex-Hollywood producer friend of mine?

And bonus question what are your favourite movies from the first three decades of talking pictures? (Doesn’t have to be American.) I’d tell you mine but it would take hours . . .

  1. Scott does not believe in the existence of this genius idea. He thinks I just like watching the same old movies over and over. I’ll show him! []


  1. jennifer, aka literaticat on #

    My favourites are all Billy Wilder films. Particularly “the apartment”, “sabrina” and “sunset blvd.” … but then, that’s not really true, I think i’ve loved every billy wilder movie i’ve seen.

    but I love lots of old movies. pretty much anything with gene tierney – she’s a goddess. anything with young shirley maclaine. anything with judy holiday. anything with fred macmurray. anything with jack lemmon. anything with barbara stanwyk. … yes – if I listed all the films i love, it would take hours.

  2. sara z on #

    I’m really curious about your book idea now.

    Mildred Pierce is only like the best movie ever. Talk about “spare the rod, spoil the child”! Anne Blythe is great, but my favorite parts are when Mildred is working in the diner with Eve Arden. “Adam and Eve on a raft – make ’em float!”

  3. Richard on #

    Hmm. A quick guess on favorites of the 30s and 40s would include: The Thin Man, The Third Man, Sullivan’s Travels, M., The 39 Steps, Grand Hotel, Frankenstein, Freaks, Animal Crackers.

  4. TansyRR on #

    The Philadelphia Story, and the rest of the “Katharine Hepburn is nutty, Cary Grant is mostly sane” films, such as Bringing up Baby and Holiday.

    And anything with Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers. But mostly Fred Astaire. I love me a skinny man in tap shoes.

    On a side note, I read Esther Williams’ auto-biography Million Dollar Mermaid recently (I think she was too late, though – born in 1939) – it was an amazing story about the Hollywood industry.

  5. Justine on #

    Those are all mighty fine movies. I would happily watch any one of them again this very minute. Or Out of the Past. I’m definitely craving Out of the Past . . .

    Pssst, Tansy, Esther Williams was born in 1922. Almost all of her films are within my timeframe.

    You know I can’t tell you my idea, Sara, everyone knows that ideas are the hardest part of writing and you must not tell anyone about your ideas for fear of them stealing said idea and writing a genius book of their own. Back away from my sacred idea, everyone!

  6. Gwenda on #

    You HAVE to watch Midnight. Do it now.

    A subject near and dear to me. Here’s a bit about early Hollywood and women, focusing mostly on directors. I also recommend a documentary called Without Lying Down about Frances Marion. You’re talking about slightly later than that though; here’s a decent Mother Jones piece specifically looking at actresses.

    Me have lots of books on this!

    (And Marisa de los Santos’ Loved Walked In is an excellent, make-you-sob update on the classic romance. Came out back in the spring, I think.)

  7. Justine on #

    I second all of Gwenda’s recommendations. Though I confess sometimes I get a little annoyed by only ever seeing the one side of Claudette Colbert’s face . . .

  8. Gwenda on #

    Oh, but there’s that great Cleopatra still where you see her head on. She has the best pissed off face.

  9. sara z on #

    I know I know. You should probably send the idea to yourself in a dated envelope through the US Postal Service, put that envelope in a safe deposit box at an undisclosed location (don’t even tell scott! imagine what he could do with your idea!), and put the key under a floorboard in a closet in the apartment of an aquaintance.

    That’s what I do.

  10. robinwasserman on #

    pet theory – rise of the blockbuster + insistence on superstars who can ‘open’ a movie vs actors/actresses who can actually act + obsession with teen boy demographic + hollywood youth culture = no good parts for women

    pet filmes – silent, non-American: Metropolis. talkie, American: Wizard of Oz

  11. Justine on #

    Gwenda: Oh sure. It’s just seeing her contort herself (and the cameramen) for the length of an entire movie just so she can have only one side of her face on screen. Yet in those early movies before she went insane you get to see both sides of her face—and surprise! The other side of her face is just fine. She crazy!

    Sara Z: You’re a genius! But what if the postie steams open the evelope and steals the idea? What then? And how did you know that Scott is the biggest idea thief in the world? I wear a mask at nights so that if I talk about my ideas in my dreams he can’t hear them and steal them.

  12. klages on #

    Broadway Melody of 1940. It’s Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell, and there’s a wonderful scene where they’re trying to one-up each other tap dancing. They dance *at* each other, and she’s as good, no, better, than he is. It looks like they’re both having about as much fun as I’ve ever seen on screen.

  13. Maureen johnson on #

    You know, Dr. l, I feel like you should develop a viewing list for us–the ignorant masses. I would totally take the Dr. L’s course in great women’s cinema.

  14. Little Willow on #

    Good choice! Most of my favorite films are from that time period. A list of my favorite films, in order of release:

    Bringing Up Baby (1938)
    My Favorite Wife (1940)
    Laura (1944)
    The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)
    Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948)
    Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
    North by Northwest (1959)
    Pillow Talk (1959)

    [the blog overlord has removed films from outside the timeframe specified]

    Near misses include To Catch a Thief.

    Favorite actress: Barbara Stanwyck – amazing acting range, dynamic and commanding presence, atypical looks, strong and bold.

    Favorite actors: Gene Kelly – amazing singer/dancer/director/choreographer/actor/visionary with whom I should have worked; and Cary Grant, dapper, self-depricating (have you read his memoir?), kind, able to play dramatic and comedic roles.

  15. Veronica on #

    Five favorite old movies? Coming right up:

    Wizard of Oz
    Singin’ in the Rain (yes, I know it’s a fairly misogynist piece of work, but I give it a pass because I love it so)
    The Thin Man
    Arsenic and Old Lace
    To Have and Have Not

  16. veejane on #

    My big thing in film from that period is noir — in which, most of the time, the woman is not the subject-position. I mean, helloooo nurse, Lana Turner in *The Postman Always Rings Twice,* but it’s not her story.

    There’s a funny tension in that, how the femme fatale draws the eye and is like this great monster crashing against the walls of appropriateness, and is put to death as punishment. On the one hand, death. On the other hand, who’s the one everybody remembers from *The Postman Always Rings Twice*? It’s not Tyrone Power, nuh uh.

    (Not a woman, but, it was only this past winter that I discovered that Jimmy Cagney is my secret boyfriend for eternity. So, go ahead and include *Angels with Dirty Faces* on your syllabus, okay?)

  17. Gwenda on #

    Justine: agreed. She was, in fact, crazy. But still — love her!

    On the slightly less well known side, I also have a soft spot for Theodora Goes Wild, even though Irene Dunne isn’t my favorite of all-time (which I’ve always felt guilty for, since she was a Kentucky girl).

  18. katerate on #

    I’ve only seen a couple of old movies (my mom is obsessed with them), but I really liked Gaslight and then also I saw an old French movie which was called Diabolique. Both have the women kick major ass. And Diabolique has a crazy ending. It’s not American, but worth watching while you’re at it (if you haven’t already seen it!).

  19. katerate on #

    And har har har, Gaslight isn’t American either. Gahhh. But Angela Landsbury, who’s a supporting actress in it, is.

  20. katerate on #

    Christ. I really should get my facts straight. According to this: It was made in the USA. I think. I am the biggest know-nothing ever. The director guy was from New York.

  21. Justine on #

    You’re spot on about Diabolique. Never watch the dreadful American remake! And um, Katerate, Angela Lansbury isn’t American. She English. Very.

    Gwenda: Theodora Goes Wild! Wow, I haven’t seen that in years! And would you believe it’s not available on DVD? Gah! Midnight isn’t either. Damn and blast! I want to own every movie I love. All of them!

  22. Katerate on #

    I told you I was a know-nothing.

  23. Diana on #

    I don’t think I could list THREE favorites. And my brain isn’t working too well tonight.

    But I can list a couple.

    Notorious (this is American I think, despite having no Americans in the main cast and being directed by an Englishman)
    Holiday Inn
    Yankee Doodle Dandy
    The Philadelphia Story
    Now, Voyager

    I’ve had Mildred pierce listed as “very long wait” on my netflix queue for months now.

    I love midnight. Is *THAT* why Colbert acts that way? I’d always thought it was some bizarre affectation from the English stage or something.

  24. Gwenda on #

    Yeah, that’s the only reason we still have a VHS recorder — all my tapes are old stuff that haven’t made the leap yet. It’s a crime.

  25. Gwenda on #

    ps — We can watch them while you’re here!

  26. sara z on #

    diana – if you have cable tv with on-demand capabilities, browse around the free movies. mildred was there last time I looked.

  27. Justine on #

    Diana: List as many as you like. There are no limits here. And, yup, that’s why Colbert acts that way. She was never on the English stage, just Broadway.

    Gwenda: All my old tapes are back in Sydney. Not that I ever had many. I always hated videos. They get buggered up so easy. I heart DVDs so much more. Yes, please on your cunning plan.

    SaraZ: Diana has no cable and barely any network TV, just DVDs. She claims she gets more work done that way.

  28. Diana on #

    no network tv at all. I shall be heading over to friend’s house tomorrow night to catch v. mars.

    i don’t know if it means more work done. There’s always procrastination. However, it means i get a lot more READING done, and also that i do not waste any hours of my life watching dumb cable programming like “Bride vs. Bride” or reruns of the Ashlee Simpson show. I am in danger of doing that if i have access.

  29. Walter Jon Williams on #

    The quality of the writing in 1930s and 1940s has a lot do with the panic that beset Hollywood when sound came in.

    Suddenly they needed writers who could write dialogue. So they went to Broadway and hired all the playwrights they could. Ben Hecht! Dorothy Parker! Ruth Gordon! Garson Kanin! Preston Sturges! Charles Brackett! Anita Loos! Orson Welles! Herman J Mankiewitz!

    Mankiewitz wrote to Hecht saying, “Will you accept 300 per week to work for Paramount? All expenses paid. 300 is peanuts. Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.”

    Hollywood was always a sexist place, but the success of the “Jazz Singer” panicked the bigwigs into hiring women.

    Alas, when that generation passed, they were replaced by a generation that knew only the movies and television.

    And some fell pretty hard. Ben Hecht wrote “Queen of Outer Space,” with Zsa Zsa Gabor.

    At present there are plenty of women writers in television, where they’re earning better money than the movie writers, but the upper echelon are almost always men.

    By the way, apropos another post, I think Cary Grant did indeed intend the contemporary meaning of “gay,” which did exist then. Sophisticated viewers laughed their hats off, but ordinary folks in the audience thought he meant something else.

  30. Ray Davis on #

    Too many favorites to list. But one reason virtually all of them come from before 1960 is they allowed female characters back then.

    The 1930s and 1940s were helped out by the talkie revolution. (Also just by having to churn out so much product! No pressure for blockbusters = More complexity and variety.) Needing a completely whole bunch of new actors, Hollywood got sharp young men and women both coming in and both working their sexy young butts off. As the years went by, though, the men got older and stayed stars; the women were tossed and replaced with girls. Kind of restricts what sort of relationships show up. And then the ever-magnified male hysteria of the 1960s and 1970s, followed by the hegemony of film school geeks and their fanboy power fantasies, pretty much eliminated any interest in women as people.

    Now 1980s and early 1990s Hong Kong — _there_ were some cool female stars (along with the return of great “churn ’em out” filmmaking). Maggie Cheung reminded me of Barbara Stanwyck.

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