Classic Movies with Strong Feminist Leads

Posted on 9 Nov 00:00

A misconception far too common among some movie buffs of this era is the mistaken belief that all classic movies of the silent and golden era portray women as weak, delicate, and defenseless creatures. In fact, some people believe that women in classic movies are put there by directors to wear fancy dresses, look stunning, and act dumb to the man’s glory. While this situation characterizes many old movies and hard to find DVDs, it does not hold true for all classic movies.

Over time, many feminist leads have graced our TV screens with their strong personalities, charisma and guts. These strong women have not only given us rare movies that we will forever cherish as die-hard movie buffs, but they have also shown us that you don’t need balls or a mustache to kick butt on TV. They punch, get punched, and stand up to protect the rights of others, even at their own detriment. Over and above that, they never give up on their hopes and dreams.

For the serious movie buffs and die-hard fans of old movies who want their favorite movie centered around a strong feminist character. Here are a few of the valiant feminist of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

1)  His Girl Friday (1940) – Rosalind Russell (Hildy Johnson)

In this 1940 screwball comedy starring Rosalind Russell, famously portrayed as Hildy Johnson, she is the ex-wife of Walter Burns (Cary Grant) and soon-to-be-married bride of Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy). Divorcee, Hildy, a is former star reporter, who wants to settle down and build a family with her soon-to-be-husband Bruce. However, Walter her former husband attempts to put a wedge between the two of them. He devises a plan to get Hildy to cover a story of a wrongly convicted man,  Earl Williams (John Qualen), an introverted bookkeeper, who supposedly murdered an African-American police officer. 

As a reporter in a male-dominated environment, covering a story of a convicted felon, who supposedly killed a policeman, Hildy proves her strength of character as a strong feminist by refusing to sacrifice her femininity to the negative vibes she receives. Instead, she stands up to the justice system, blackmails the Mayor and gets convicted Earl Williams out of jail. In the movie, Hildy also comes face to face with the barrel of a gun, and she doesn't flinch. Instead, she disarms the fidgety gunman.


2) It Happened One Night (1934) – Claudette Colbert (Ellie Andrews)

This classic romantic comedy is a favorite of many movie buffs and a must-see for fans of romantic comedies. This movie is about Ellie (Claudette Colbert) who is in love with an avaricious pilot and fortune-hunter King Westley (Jameson Thompson).

Westley, is suspected by Mr. Andrews, Ellie’s father, to be a gold digger. Knowing that her father won’t give his consent to the marriage, Ellie elopes with Westley. Her father attempts to annul the marriage, and Ellie determined to reunite with Westley, sets out on her own to reunite with him.  After jumping ship alone in Florida, and taking a Greyhound bus, Ellie meets Peter Warne (Clark Gable), an unemployed reporter looking to cover an exclusive story on her. Ellie agrees to let Warne cover her story if he promises to keep his mouth shut about her current location, and help her reunite with her lover and husband, King Westley. But as they journey together, hitchhiking as they go, they fall in love.

Ellie is the feminist lead in this movie because she stands up to the men in her life, seizing opportunities as they come and never allowing anyone to tell her how to feel. She even takes it upon herself to be the first of the pair (Ellie and Warne) to say I love you.


3)  Queen Christina (1933) – Greta Garbo (Queen Christina)

Queen Christiana is a biographical movie, starring one of the most popular actress at that time, Greta Garbo.  In this film, Christina loves her country, and sought for peace for her people from a war that spanned for thirty years. Queen Christina is not only portrayed as a good and devoted leader in this movie, but she was also portrayed as a self-confident and self-educating woman. When her counselors try to get her to court her valiant cousin Karl Gustav (Reginald Owen), she flees the palace camouflaged as a man. She finds herself in an inn, where she meets and falls in love with a Spaniard, Antonio (John Gilbert). Later in this movie, Queen Christina forfeits her throne to be with her lover, Don Antonio. But she finds him too late. Don Antonio, mortally wounded in a duel, dies in her arms.  Queen Christina was very much a feminist lead in this movie. She ruled her people with a male-dominated council, and stood up to them when necessary.  She also fell in love on her own terms, and gave up the throne when she decided and at her own will.


4)  The African Queen (1951) – Katherine Hepburn (Rose Sayer)

The African Queen stars Katherine Hepburn as Rose Sayer, a British Methodist missionary living with her brother Samuel Sayer in Kungdu Village, located in German East Africa. War breaks out between Germany and Britain. Rose's brother is severely injured in a fight with a German soldier, and eventually dies from his injuries. As the German's take over the island, Rose must leave Kungdu on board the steamboat, the African Queen, which belongs to Charliet Allnut (Humphrey Bogart), the gruff Canadian mechanic who normally delivers their mail and supplies. As their harrowing escape contuines, it is Rose who eventually saves the day.  She devises a plan to transform the African Queen to a torpedo boat that sinks the German gunboat, Queen Luise which allows the British to attack the Germans.

It is Rose Slayer who convinces Charlie Allnut, she is the hero. She displays nerves of steel and determination when confronting the enemy, and bravely faces death when when captured by the enemy. 


5)  All About Eve (1950) – Bette Davis (Margo Channing)

All About Eve stars Bette Davis as Margo Channing, one of the biggest stars on Broadway. Margo befriends one of her biggest fans, Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), who would later manipulates Margo’s close friend Karen Richards (Celeste Holm) to cast her as the lead in a play, a part previously for Margo.  Eve eventually pushes Margo out of the spotlight and becomes a big star.  However, throughout the the manipulations of Eve, Margo manages to maintain her dignity.  Margo displays intelligence, ambition, and confidence. Over and above that, she showed that your flaws do not define one as a woman.


6)  I’m No Angel (1933) – Mae West (Tira)

I’m No Angel stars Mae West as Tira, a sexy sideshow song and dance performer.  She and her boyfriend Slick (Ralf Harolde) are in the pickpocket business. While she performs, her boyfriend, Slick, relieves the unsuspecting audience of their prized possessions. Slick is later jailed for assaulting Ernest Brown, an affluent customer, on the head with a beer bottle. Fearing that Slick will implicate her, Tira asks Big Bill for a loan to retain her lawyer, Bennie Pinkowitz (Gregory Ratoff). He agrees on condition that she does her lion taming act, which includes putting her head into the mouth of one of the beasts, promising her that it will get her (and him) to the "Big Show". It does. 

Tira's fame takes her to New York City, where she is later wooed by Jack Clayton (Cary Grant) and his cousin Kirk Lawrence (Kent Taylor).  In this movie, Tira builds a name for herself in a male-dominated industry using her will, grit, and confidence. True to her, the real life Mae West's nature, she plays a character who fights the justice system and challenges its sexist rules to be seen for what she’s worth.


7)  Mildred Pierce (1945) – Joan Crawford (Mildred Pierce)

This classic movie tells the story of Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford) in flashbacks. Mildred’s second husband, Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott) is killed, and her first husband, Bert Pierce (Bruce Bennett) confesses to the crime. Knowing that Bert was too kind and too gentle to commit a crime, Mildred decides to recap her life story to the investigating officer. At the end of the day, the guilty party, Veda (Ann Blyth), Mildred’s daughter, is arrested. It is revealed that Veda and Monte were having a love affair behind Mildred's back. Mildred provides for her family by baking and selling pies because her husband is unable to provide for the family. She saves enough money to purchase a restaurant, which eventually becomes a successful chain of restaurants. Later, Mildred makes further sacrifices to reconcile with her wayward daughter and agrees to forfeit one-third share of her business to Monte if he will commit to a loveless marriage in order that Mildred can raise her social status for her daughter. Ultimately, Mildred is again betrayed by her daughter.  Eventually, Monte spurns the spoiled Veda who kills him.  In this film, Mildred is the pinnacle of strength, ambitious, caring while displaying a tremendous amount of love and trust for her daughter, though undeserved. She is basically a very loving mother.


There have always been strong feminist heroines in the real life and the movies, and as history has shown, and luckily for all of us, there will always be.

A Few Other Notable Movies:

1)  The Thin Man (1934)
Myrna Loy/Nora Charles

2)  Steel Magnolias (1989)
Female Ensemble Cast Lead by Sally Field (M’Lynn), Shirley McLaine (Ouiser), Dolly Parton (Truvy) and others…

3)  Julia (1977)
Jane Fonda (Lillian), Vanessa Redgrave (Julia)

4)  The Women (1939)
Female Ensemble Cast:  Joan Crawford (Crystal), Rosalind Russell (Sylvia), and others…

5)  Gone With the Wind (1933)
Vivien Leigh (Scarlett O'Hara)

6)  The Guns of Fort Petticoat (1957)
Female Ensemble Cast

7)  Deadlier Than the Male (1967)
Elke Sommer (Irma)

8)  Kill Bill 1 & 2  (2003, 2004)
Female Ensemble Cast: Uma Thurman (Beatrix), Lucy Lui (O-Ren), Darryl Hannah (Elle), Vivica Fox (Vernita) (all tough as nails and deadly!)

And many, many more...

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