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Women in Film
by Jennie Rose

I start at the beginning, with this simple fact: women have been in the motion picture business as long as men have.

Thelma & Louise

As the film industry grew from the ground up, the ratio of women to men in positions of power shifted disproportionately. But in spite of a heavy dose of paternalism in the film industry, every generation grows in skill and talent as more women inside - and outside - Hollywood make movies. With the arrival of each new decade comes the arrival of new challenges for women to find their places again, as the changing nature of the business makes new rules and, hopefully, breaks the old ones.

A tougher pill to swallow is the notion of how female characters are written in the movies. That we are expected to believe these roles is distressing. The truth is, with a few exceptions, American male directors and writers have a skewed angle on what women are like and not like. And thus we have a fair share of stereotypes based on some oversimplified ideas about womanhood, like the domestic goddess, the success, and the screw-up.

In over a hundred years of film history, variations on the female image have been winnowed down to a few archetypes: the pillar of virtue (Doris Day in The Pajama Game [1957]), the domestic goddess (Hannah and her Sisters [1986]), hard-headed dames (High Sierra [1941]) or gangster gal (Boxcar Bertha [1972]), the femme fatale (The Lady From Shanghai [1948]), liberated woman (Klute [1971], featuring Jane Fonda's Academy Award-winning performance), women in jeopardy (anything with Ashley Judd), and scrappy, single moms (Goodbye Girl [1977], Erin Brockovich [2000]).

Women's films have often tried to deal with other themes, broadening the scope and the concept of narrative, but not as much in Hollywood as outside. Claudia Weill's milestone, Girlfriends (1978), deals with differences in friendship. Thelma and Louise (1994) is a parable of freedom as is Gillian Armstrong's My Brilliant Career (1979) with the amazing Judy Davis. Things Behind the Sun, Not a Pretty Picture and Gas Food Lodging are all efforts to tackle the subject of rape. Female community, as a theme, is addressed by Daughters of the Dust.

But everyone knows that Hollywood can suck the juice out of themes that stray outside a formula. For instance, the Hollywood spin on women and community can be seen in the 1995 movie How to Make An American Quilt, a coming of age romantic drama offering a superficial treatment of a premise that could go much deeper. It ends with a classic scenario in which a boy and a girl fall in love after a great deal of whining. Themes of empowerment and identity were still being denuded by Hollywood's fluff treatment.

Suffragette City: The Silent Era

In the silent era, the movie industry was a very different place, with more collaboration, innovation and openness than can be found in the industry of today. In the "start-up" era, women worked at every level of the filmmaking process. In fact, women worked on equal levels in Hollywood long before they even had the right to vote. A major body of work from as early as 1912 bears the female imprint on it. But until recently, you might never have known it; the women working in early film have been buried in the dustbin of history.

In 1995, the collective project "Women Film Pioneers" was spearheaded by Duke University's Professor Jane Gaines. A major subject of research is Lois Weber, the first woman to direct a feature film (Merchant of Venice [1914]). She later became one of the top-salaried filmmakers in Hollywood. Because of her financial success, Weber pursued independent productions of her own; her first indie, To Please One Woman (1920), amounted to a sermon about the sin of selfishness. Her droll satires How Men Propose (1913) and Too Wise Wives (1921) appear on this disc of the Origins of Film set.

With the suffragette movement in full swing, women in Hollywood produced films like Mothers of Men (1917), which was remade as Every Woman's Problem in 1921. In 1917, "Women got the vote and the barbers got our hair," wrote Frances Marion, the hardest working scriptwriter in Hollywood, prodigiously cranking out hundreds of memorable screenplays. Marion, just one of many successful women in the business at that time, was freakishly gifted. She became a leader of the early union movement that resulted in the creation of the Screenwriter's Guild and was a creative influence on both silent films and the talkies. At the advent of sound, Marion easily made the leap. In November 1930, she received an Oscar for writing the prison expose The Big House, a technically groundbreaking film because of its use of sound. By that time, Marion had 100 films to her credit.

Today, Marion has the reputation for creating some of the best films about relationships ever written. Her work includes the romantic screwball comedy Min and Bill (1930), starring Marie Dressler, the box office star who helped keep MGM in the black during the Depression; The Champ (1931) about a son and his father; and Dinner at Eight (1933) with an aging Dressler. Also known as the "queen of adaptations," Marion wrote The Scarlet Letter (1926), which starred Lillian Gish as Hester Prynne, the best of the multitude of Letter adaptations during that era. Perhaps the biggest feather in Marion's cap was writing and directing the beautiful and neglected silent classic, The Love Light (1921). A highly insightful documentary about her is Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Power of Women in Hollywood (2000).

Mary Pickford and Frances Marion

Marion wasn't the only female writer of that era to make it big. Women wrote half of all the films released in 1920; among these writers were June Mathis (Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse [1921]]), Lora and Theda Bera, Florence Vidor, Norma Talmadge, and Ada Roger. All of these women were Frances Marion's friends, and they socialized regularly at salons. The boys club was fine, as long as the girls could have theirs too. Frances Marion left a parting thought about solidarity when she wrote, "I owe my greatest successes to so many women who gave me real aid when I stood at the crossroads." During the backlash against feminism in the 1980s, the Hollywood women who weren't hiring other women could have used this reminder of professional sisterhood.

In the 20s, women in film sat at the top of the food chain with nary a shark bite, occupying niches equal in the hierarchy with men. In the years 1912 to 1920, female stars controlled about twenty film companies. Charlie Chaplin's leading lady, Mabel Normand, directed some of the Little Tramp's first films at Keystone, while Gale Henry wrote, directed, and produced several two reel shorts for Century Comedies. Women who headed up production companies in the 1920s included Nell Shipman, Lois Weber, Dorothy Davenport (often credited as Mrs. Wallace Reid) and Norma Talmadge. And then there was Frances Marion's best friend, Mary Pickford. Pickford owned her own production company, and was the only woman involved in founding the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1927.

Women often worked as film editors and cinematographers, two fields of the industry nowadays considered to be typically male-dominated. Margaret Booth, the stalwart of MGM from the 1920s to the 1970s, is still credited today for her fluid and classic Hollywood cutting style. Booth's editing style can be seen as late as the 1973 box office smash The Way We Were (for which she was supervising editor).

1930s: Screwball Women and Screwy Subtexts

The Great Depression of the 1930s brought people to movie theaters in droves. For 15 cents, Americans could escape their worries for two hours. In fact, audience demand for entertainment led to the industry's output of more than 400 movies a year. Everything from screwball comedy to melodrama, morality tales to gangster films, rolled out of Tinseltown in the 30s.

This was also the second full decade in which women had voting rights, and the new freedom found its way into the subtext of many screwball comedies. Perhaps because more of the film audience was made up of women, men in these comedies were often either eye candy or the comic foil. In The Lady Eve (1941); Nothing Sacred (1937) with screwball queen Carole Lombard; The Palm Beach Story (1942); His Girl Friday (1940) with a fast-talking Rosalind Russell); and in The Awful Truth (1937) with Irene Dunne, ladies got the upper hand in situational gender bait and switches.

The Women

My favorite actor from the era, Rosalind Russell, played in one of my favorite movies of the era: George Cukor's version of Clare Booth's play The Women (1939). Adapted by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin, The Women features no men, and also seems to feature no plot. But who cares? The film's ensemble cast - which also included Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Joan Fontaine, Paulette Goddard, Hedda Hopper and at least one hundred other women - dis, argue, gossip and bitch about each other at break-neck speed. It's a riot, though feminist film theorists might have something to say about the apparent paucity of sisterhood.

Hays Code

During this era, the oppressive Hays Code dampened some of the riotousness. The Hays Code (also known as The Motion Picture Production Code) imposed in 1934 moral standards on film artists and demanded that the subject of sex and inference to any so-called "sex perversion" be strictly regulated. Film writers and directors resorted to mere suggestion, doing their best to subvert the Hays Code by writing sexuality into their stories. For instance, they merely hinted at homosexuality through a character's mannerisms and behavior. Since the heart of the screwball comedy was usually romance and lust, it had to be handled with double entendre and euphemism. The result was often very clever dialogue.

It is also interesting to look at Hays Code era films in which sexual themes were entirely suppressed. In 1935, the movie producer Samuel Goldwyn bought the rights to Lillian Hellman's controversial play The Children's Hour, which featured a lesbian character. Rather than have the censors harass her about the script, Hellman erased the lesbian from her play. Directed by William Wyler, the 1936 version of this film, These Three, stifled the lesbian theme; the film is now considered something of a bore. Wyler remade The Children's Hour with Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine in the 1960s, which brought lesbianism out of the closet somewhat, though the subject was not effectively confronted in this version either.

Hepburn and MacLaine in the later version of The Children's Hour

Working behind the lens in the 1930s was the first woman to enter the Director's Guild, Dorothy Arzner (Get Your Man [1927], Working Girls [1931]), who peppered conventional sex roles with a suggestion of lesbianism. Set in a women's hostel, Working Girls shows women dancing together and winking flirtatiously at each other. As usual in films of the era, double entendres are used to broach sexuality (i.e., the protagonist is hired by a lecherous professor, mostly because he feels she can give him "satisfaction.") Arzner also directed Craig's Wife (1936), a morality tale of the sort that was popular at the time, this one focusing on a bad marriage between a domineering woman and the rich man she marries to further her own ambitions.

Queen Christina (1933) featured an androgynous Greta Garbo based on the actual Queen of Sweden, who was a bisexual. In this version of the story, the Queen never finds a suitable love match, but any lesbian undertones slipped under the radar of film censors. Garbo's cross-dressing and disguises, her romantic attraction to her own lady-in-waiting, and a notorious bedroom scene supposedly troubled Hays Code film censors, but the film remained intact.

1937 saw the best "sacrifice everything for your child" melodrama: Stella Dallas (which is sadly out of print on DVD). In this classic weepie, Barbara Stanwyck plays a single mom who would lie down on train tracks for her daughter. But Stella sends the girl to live with her father when she recognizes her shortcomings as a parent. Stanwyck gave dignity and intelligence to a scrappy, underprivileged character. A fair share of similar melodramas would follow (such as Mildred Pierce [1945]) - while in the 1990s, they morphed into the single mom story, a subset of the "Chick Flick" (including a tepid remake, Stella [1990]).

1940s: Femme Fatales

Usually when we think of women and film noir, we think of femmes fatales like Rita Hayworth's Gilda (1946), a calculating woman who spends all of her time manipulating men. This sex role stereotype is so blatant it verges on parody, but Gilda, thankfully, is only a glimmer of the whole picture. Some noir buffs think it a mistake to believe women were always presented as femmes fatales and point to examples such as Nora Prentiss (1947) and Criss Cross (1949); both show sympathetic women, while it's the men who make the bad moves.

A major force behind noir was writer-turned-producer Joan Harrison. A Hitchcock protegé and writer on films like Rebecca (1940), Suspicion (1941) and Saboteur (1942), Harrison also wrote Dark Waters (1944) for the remarkable André De Toth. Like many of the talented women in Hollywood, Harrison bloomed as a producer, and produced five noir films: Ride the Pink Horse (co-written with Dorothy B. Hughes in 1947); They Won't Believe Me (1947); Nocturne (1946); The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945); and Phantom Lady (1944).

The many faces of Ida Lupino

Following in the footsteps of 1920s director Lois Weber, Ida Lupino made pictures dealing with issues of female sexuality and independence. She signed with Warner Brothers in the 1940s as an actress but soon became the heroine of American independent cinema as a director. As an actress, Lupino played ambitious headstrong dames in such noir classics as They Drive By Night (1940) and High Sierra (1941); she even called herself "the poor man's Bette Davis." Her role in The Big Knife (1955), an expose of the studio system, made Lupino rather unpopular with high rolling Hollywood insiders. Lupino became the second woman admitted into the Directors Guild of America, and at the time, she was the only working female of its 1300 members.

On Lupino's director's chair were the words "The Mother of us all," a nod to Gertrude Stein, who wrote a libretto for an opera about Susan B. Anthony. The Hitch-Hiker (1953), Lupino's best film, is technically the only true noir by a woman during the classic noir period of 1944 to 1950. Lupino's film Outrage (1950), starring Mala Powers, dealt with the subject of rape and a woman destroyed by gossip. "There was a great deal of camaraderie between the crew and Ida; they would do anything for her," said Powers.

Lupino was just one of many women who switched with ease between her roles as actor and producer. Bette Davis continued the tradition when she produced A Stolen Life (1946) in the midst of her turns as a dominant alpha bitch and double-crossing dame in women's melodramas of the 1950s.

Continue to Part Two...

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