Monday, January 15, 2018

The old films and strong roles for women

I continue to buy the classic old films of my parents’ generation, i.e., films from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. I am enjoying watching them, and I must say that the roles written for women in the 1940s and 1950s often had real substance. These roles showed women as owners of companies, business leaders and managers—in other words—career women—in short, that they could be married and have children, and be career women at the same time. They could also play hussies, whores, mean-spirited women, ruthless business women, but they did not have to take off their clothes to prove anything to anyone. Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Gene Tierney; Katherine Hepburn; these women were not taking off their clothes for the movies in which they starred. The explanation is likely that the Motion Picture Production Code at that time in society prohibited nudity, rape, gory violence, erotic sex scenes, etc. This Code was the set of industry moral guidelines that was applied to most United States motion pictures released by major studios from 1930 to 1968. Prior to that time, there were a fair amount of films made that tested the limits of decency. The Production Code, which was minimally enforced during the 1960s, was replaced by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) film rating system in 1968. I started to go to the movies in the 1970s when I was a teenager, and as I have written about before, there was not all that much censorship of nudity and violence in the films we could see at that time. Pretty much anything ‘went’. I remember the first time I saw nudity onscreen; it was in Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy (1972). I was sixteen at the time, old enough to get into the film without parental guidance. It was a bit shocking as I remember, and even years later, I find the film quite lurid. It is not one of the Hitchcock films that comes to mind when I think of the repertoire of excellent films that have made him famous.

But back to the films of the 1940s and 1950s; I have to say I find them refreshing for their lack of nudity and lack of graphic violence. The subject matter could be quite grim—murder, betrayal, illicit love affairs, psychopathy, mental illness, terminal illness, etc.—but it all seemed more stylized, not down and dirty. It may be that this is a false representation of such subject matter, but in some senses I prefer it because it allowed for more concentration on character development and the psychological aspects of the characters involved. I think of films like Dark Victory (1939), Now, Voyager (1942), Mr. Skeffington (1944), Laura (1944), Mildred Pierce (1945), Leave Her to Heaven (1945), The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), Adam’s Rib (1949), The Night of the Hunter (1955), and Lust for Life (1956), to name a few. Some of these are noir films, i.e., ‘stylish Hollywood crime dramas’, especially those that ‘emphasize cynical attitudes and sexual motivations’ (from Wikipedia). I prefer these kinds of films to the tawdry and explicit ones that came later. I guess I realize as I get older that I don’t want to see murder in all its gory details; it’s enough to see that someone shoots another person without all the blood and gore. Nowadays, there can be twenty shootings in a criminal drama and at some point you become inured to the blood and gore, which is not a good thing. I can recommend the above-mentioned films as excellent examples of film-making and cinematography. Many are also wonderful examples of films with strong solid roles for women, e.g. Mr. Skeffington (Bette Davis), Laura (Gene Tierney), Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford), Leave Her to Heaven (Gene Tierney), The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (Barbara Stanwyck), and Adam’s Rib (Katherine Hepburn). I’ve yet to see some of Barbara Stanwyck’s other films; the same is true for Katherine Hepburn and Joan Crawford. I’m looking forward to doing so.


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