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Strong roles for women in classic films


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I was shocked to find out that my stepson's fiance believes that there were no strong roles for women in film prior to 1960. Of course I snowed her with plenty of amazing pieces from both here and western Europe.

But I'd be fascinated to hear other people's top three best roles for women before 1960- silent or sound, US or anywhere else.


I'm looking for roles here, not actresses


Mine were

Pandora's Box (Lulu)

Gone with the Wind (Scarlet O'Hara)

Open City (Marina)



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Her views are the result of a lack of sufficient exposure to classic film. I hope you can continue to rectify that!


Whatever is current, often has it's antecedents and roots in prior history and in previous generations. Cultural traits and tendencies usually don't appear from out of nowhere.

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I would suggest focusing on Bette Davis' filmography. Start with Bette in THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX. Also, I would say that Bette has a very strong role in THE LETTER (1940) which is scheduled on TCM in January. Even Bette's later stuff, where she plays a potentially deranged servant in the British thriller THE NANNY deserves a look.

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A Star is Born (1937)

Adam's Rib (1949)

The African Queen (1951)

All About Eve (1950)

Auntie Mame (1958)

Ball of Fire (1941)

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Black Narcissus (1947)

Broken Blossoms (1919)

Crazed Fruit (1956)

Dark Victory (1939)

Double Indemnity (1944)

The Innocents (1961)

Jezebel (1938)

Johnny Guitar (1954)

The King and I (1956)

The Lady Eve (1941)

Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948)

The Member of the Wedding (1952)

Mildred Pierce (1945)

Mrs. Miniver (1942)

Ninotchka (1939)

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

Queen Christina (1933)

Rebecca (1940)

Rebecca (1940)

Stella Dallas (1937)

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

The Women (1939)

Written on the Wind (1956)

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I think it's probably easier to just list a handful of actresses, and then have folks seek titles in their respective filmographies.


I already mentioned Bette Davis. Barbara Stanwyck is another one...she definitely played strong dames, even her rare victim roles had bite to them. Joan Crawford's work should be viewed. And so should Lauren Bacall's work and Lizabeth Scott's.


Don't forget Patricia Neal.


I think even someone like Ann Sheridan proves she's a sassy, brassy lady who should be taken seriously, even in lighter film fare.

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> {quote:title=TopBilled wrote:}{quote}I think it's probably easier to just list a handful of actresses, and then have folks seek titles in their respective filmographies.


I was thinking of that as I went down the list. I believe I have never seen Rosalind Russel or Katherine Hepburn in a weak role in addition to the ones you named. I am sure there are many others.

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I would define Gilda as a woman very much in charge of her sex life. She uses her femininity to do as much damage to those men as they do to her.


However, this is not the role I was thinking of when I mentioned Hayworth. I would rate her strong presence in other films above GILDA...namely, THE LOVES OF CARMEN; AFFAIR IN TRINIDAD and THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI.

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Well we can agree to disagree. Rita wasn't a strong character in Cover Girl. She was going to marry a man she didn't love and gave up a man she did love because she was weak and immature. She doesn't get strong until the final seconds.


Yes, she was strong in the two movies you mention but clearly not in all of her roles.

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Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas (1937)

Helen Morgan in Applause (1929)

Jean Arthur in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Ruth Chatterton in Frisco Jenny (1932)

Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce (1945)

Bette Davis in Now, Voyager (1942)

Marlene Dietrich in The Scarlet Empress (1934)

Kay Francis in Confession (1937)

Pauline Frederick in Smouldering Fires (1925)

Katharine Hepburn in Adam's Rib (1949)

Miriam Hopkins in These Three (1935)

Myrna Loy in The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947; and in real life)

Aline MacMahon in The World Changes (1933)

Pola Negri in Hotel Imperial (1927)

Maureen O'Hara in Dance, Girl, Dance (1940)

Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday (1940)

Norma Shearer in The Divorcee (1930)

Mae West in My Little Chicadee (1940)

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I would also add Audrey Hepburn's character in "Roman Holiday". Although she doesn't show the Katherine Hepburn/Rosalind Russel female strength, the great character traits she shows in the final scenes are extremely admirable. Instead of relying on Gregory Peck's character she knows the right decision and makes it. "Stagedoor" has several strong women including those played by Katherine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers who in a way use men to get ahead or as distractions or even free meals. These women are very independent.

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Hmmmm...I'm surprised nobody as of yet has mentioned the lady in this picture here.





I mean, she was strong and forceful enough to not only talk the freshman Senator (pictured in the middle) into not giving up his fight against corruption, but also coached the neophyte in his later battle.


I'm talkin' about Jean Arthur here, of course.



(...Whoops!...it appears I overlooked Norma's mentioning her down below there...sorry Norma!)


Edited by: Dargo on Dec 24, 2011 12:11 AM

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I found this part of your post very interesting: ",,who in a way use men to get ahead or as distractions or even free meals. These women are very independent."


So women that have to use men to get ahead and trade affection (I hope that is all Ginger traded), are examples of independent women. I don't view the world that way but I do find this take very interesting.





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I have to admit, I do not buy Jean's assertions either, if that is what she's suggesting. How strong are you really when you think you can manipulate other's?


I don't see it as independence, but using others for your desires is manipulation. I don't believe button-pushing and manipulating reactions in others are strengths. Is that nobility in one's character?


If you believe you can control others, then they can control you..


Edited by: casablancalover on Dec 24, 2011 12:29 PM, because they might be trolls, but only in their limited imaginations.

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Another paradigm of the "strong, independent woman" in classic film is the portrayal of wives in the *Laurel and Hardy* shorts! Mr Laurel, but especially Mr Hardy is almost always portrayed as married to a utterly domineering and controlling battle ax wife. He can do little without her permission and she appears to have all the power and control within the marital relationship. The "boys" build much of the comedy around this theme and create comic effect by trying (unsuccessfully) to outwit their wives. Never worked!


Laurel and Hardy comedies were never as well liked by women as they were by men, given that wives are portrayed as all controlling, mini-Hitlers. This had to have resonated with many (perhaps most?) of the married men in the audience. For many of them, how far was this from what they felt was the truth?


In those days, it's true not many women held elected office, ran corporations or were heads of state. What authority they could not wield outside the home, they often wielded in the home. The *Three Stooges* also played on this fear or gender conflict in their own shorts, when they were shown being married.

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Yes, Jean played a lot of strong women. Take The Devil and Miss Jones. Here she stands up for workers rights even if it means she could lose her own job.


Another example would be Olivia De Havilland. Even when she was mostly just a pretty face in some of her Flynn pictures, like Dodge City, she played an independent and strong women. While Melanie in GWTW is physically weak her spirit is strong.


Edited by: jamesjazzguitar on Dec 24, 2011 2:06 PM

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I believe Edna May Oliver always played strong women. It was a quiet and unassuming strength. It was endurance in the face of adversity and self-control when confronted with stupidity. She did not have to use people and she did not let others use her. She was a rock upon which others often dashed themselves.


I am amused by the fact that her real last name was: Nutter. It seems to suit her! :)

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I certainly do not view the world this way either. I think I just phrased myself badly. I meant that the women are independent and have identies outside of their interactions with men. I am a woman and do not see the world this way, but I think that you could interpret "Stage Door" in this manner.

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