Filmic Images of Women Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell

Until television overtook them, movies were the favorite visual entertainment in the United States. Fully half of the population, 60 million people, went to the movies each week during the 1930s. Because it was a period of economic depression, people needed the enjoyment, the escape, and the fantasy of films more than ever. The 1930s and 1940s became Hollywood's Golden Era. Among the hundreds of movies produced by the big studios each year, women were featured both in the very popular romance-melodramas and in the newer form, the independent woman films. Often, there were creative mergers: romance combined with independence and Eve types displayed strength and assertiveness. The newer type of film, however, had stronger women playing stronger parts in greater quantity than ever before, or possibly since.

The fantasy power of movies operated at full throttle. Precisely when the Depression created mass insecurity, vivacious women in film were surviving and taking control of difficult situations. As independent Eves, they used their physical attractiveness to carve out decent lives for themselves; as careerists, they became pilots, illustrators, reporters, doctors, lawyers, and businesswomen. And as aristocratic women whose family fortunes gave them unprecedented freedom, they often demonstrated, comically or melodramatically, some of the dilemmas of wealth; after all, women were not expected to function alone as adults. Hollywood also reveled in the opportunity to satirize the rich while clearly showing them in enviable positions. Aristocratic women paraded around in sumptuous surroundings while the masses were unemployed. In My Man Godfrey ( 1936), a classic screwball comedy, Carole Lombard and her socialite friends went to a charity treasure hunt. Lombard won the prize by bringing back a real life bum. In The Women ( 1939) rich New York City women were ridiculed for their useless lives, while a lengthy fashion show punctuated the middle section of the movie.

It is an interesting cultural statement that in the classless United States, during the bleak days of the Great Depression, moviegoers were treated to films about rich women. Many movies showed country homes, servants galore, and gorgeously dressed hostesses presiding over classy cocktail parties. The conspicuous signs of wealth in a country that preached egalitarianism appeared ironic indeed. Yet these films produced no revolutions; audiences enjoyed them and kept coming back for more. Their dreamlike qualities seemed to provide the needed escape. The U.S. public accepted the myth of everyone being equal while knowing full well that it was a myth. Blacks were not equal to whites, and rich people were different from everyone else. But Hollywood's movies about wealthy people in the United States were very popular in the 1930s.
The major studios of Hollywood each produced about 200 movies a year during that period. They satisfied an audience of all ages and races. There were family movies as well as special interest movies for every taste. Actresses found roles, as stars and in supporting roles, in most of Hollywood's offerings, though they were featured in romance-melodramas and independent women films. A generation of female movie stars arose to meet this seemingly insatiable appetite for movies. The list of women who became stars in the 1930s and 1940s cannot be rivalled by any subsequent generation of movie stars, primarily because there are no longer such large numbers of movies made each year. While Bette Davis, under long-term contract to Warner Brothers, often made three or four movies a year during the 1930s, a movie star in the post-1950 generation would be lucky to make one movie every two or three years. Joan Crawford, another star of the era, worked for MGM during the 1930s and made 29 movies during the decade.

While the 1930s generation of women actresses played in all of the standard fare--westerns, gangster movies, melodramas, and comedies--they also starred in the variations of independent women films. This role featured a heroine who was often restless and spent a lot of time discovering herself, though she usually ended up defining herself in terms of romance and marriage. The independent woman was also the working girl who found life bleak during the depression; her only path to future security and happiness was in the arms of a rich man. This film genre, in its variety, distinguished itself from the other types by featuring women, especially strong women, whose personal quest seemed to personify everyone's search for answers in very trying times. Indeed, this may have been part of its appeal; audiences were treated to unsettled times with a woman, usually the traditional anchor of the home, thrust into a new life situation. The resolution, with her returning to the home, offered assurances to both sexes that the difficult, and unusual, times would eventually be righted. The status quo ante depression would be restored.

Though many movie actresses played in this genre, Katharine Hepburn and Rosalind Russell are probably the most clearly identified as exemplars of independent women. In the period under discussion, 1930-50, Hepburn played in five career woman films and four aristocratic women films, while Russell was a career woman seven times and an aristocratic lady three times (see table). Other popular stars of the period, Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, and Joan Crawford, though often known for their work in romance and melodrama, also played many roles where their strength, independence, and grit were critical factors. They demonstrated some of the varieties of independent women. Careerists were portrayed along with aristocratic ladies and independent Eves. Hepburn was never an Eve. Her screen roles were the most consistent as she never entered into a long-term contract with any studio, in contrast to most other actresses. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, as already suggested, did not have the luxury of choosing roles, but their personalities and talents lent themselves to roles about unusual women.

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