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Moving Image Section--Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division



Motion Pictures
The Silent Era
The Studio Era
arrow graphicWomen on Screen

Women Behind the Camera
The Post-Studio Era
Readings, Lectures, and the Performing Arts
PATHFINDER: Barbara Jordan




The Studio Era: Women on Screen
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Not Wanted. Camera: Henry Freulich; Directors: Elmer Clifton and Ida Lupino (uncredited); Screenplay: Paul Jarrico and Ida Lupino; Cast: Sally Forrest, Keefe Brasselle, Leo Penn, Dorothy Adams; Lobby card, Emerald Productions, Inc. 1949. Lobby card collection (box C-11), Moving Image Section, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division.

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In the studio era, companies began producing some fifty feature films annually, with hundreds of major movies in release during any given year. These pictures covered a wide range of topics and touched on many issues relating to women, including the position of women in the workplace, the role of family, and the social expectations for women. Incidental comments about women and reflections of contemporary attitudes toward them can be found throughout the products of the filmmaking industry. It was also true, however, then as now, that filmmakers frequently dealt with matters directly related to women in certain types of productions.

During the classical Hollywood era, the prolific quantity of motion pictures became organized into specific genres whose basic content could be recognized by audiences, exhibitors, and producers in a relatively predictable way. Each genre was defined by certain types of subject matter different from those of the other genres. Another factor forcing films into formulaic patterns was the strengthening of the Production Code, which regulated the content of Hollywood scripts. The code had the effect of minimizing or eliminating from films potentially controversial issues relating to women and their position in society—including divorce, premarital sex, or out-of-wedlock births.

The Woman's Film

Genres constructed specifically to appeal to female audiences included a class of pictures known as the “woman's film,” addressing issues supposedly of concern primarily to female viewers. These encompassed the melodrama, family, and romance formulas. Known colloquially as “tearjerkers” or “weepies,” these films often concentrated on a female character and her tribulations. Self-sacrifice, self-abnegation, and choices relating to career, family, or romantic partner were often key plot elements.

The “maternal melodrama” centers on a mother who, because of the dictates of society, gives up her child in order to ensure him or her a better life. In Stella Dallas (1937) [catalog record], a girl from the lower classes, Stella, marries a rising businessman, Stephen Dallas. They have a daughter, but soon their class differences cause Stephen to leave. Stella raises their daughter Laurel until she discovers that her vulgar behavior embarrasses Laurel. Pretending her daughter is a burden, Stella sends Laurel to live with Stephen's new family. Some years later, as Laurel is marrying a prominent young man, Stella stands on a sidewalk, satisfied to be watching the ceremony through a window. Other films in this vein are Blonde Venus (1932) [catalog record], To Each His Own (1946, FCA 3590-3592), and A Child Is Born (1940) [catalog record].

The “fallen woman” melodrama often features a sympathetic woman who commits adultery or engages in premarital sex and must pay the consequences either by dying or suffering nobly to prove her essential goodness. Set in a variety of times and locales, fallen woman films include Camille (1937) [catalog record], Waterloo Bridge (1940, DAA 2443), Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) [catalog record], and The Rains of Ranchipur (1955) [catalog record]. Other films involve the choice a woman must make between social conventions and independence. For example, in Jezebel (1938) [catalog record], headstrong Julie Morris (Bette Davis) will not submit to her socially proper fiancé and so loses him to another woman. In Woman of the Year (1942) [catalog record], renowned foreign correspondent Tess Harding (Katharine Hepburn) believes she must play down her career and learn how to cook if she wants to keep her new husband. All That Heaven Allows (1955) [catalog record] attacks the stifling conformity of suburban life in the story of Cary Scott (Jane Wyman), who is pressured to give up the younger man she loves.

B Films

The Mertz and Zouary Collections provide myriad examples of the low-budget films produced by Poverty Row studios that were a prolific part of the movie-going experience of the 1930s to the 1950s but are little remembered today. Alongside the mythic goddesses of the silver screen, researchers at the Library can find similar formulas in films with lesser-known players, such as Aileen Pringle starring in Love Past Thirty (Monarch Productions, 1934) [catalog record], Martha Tilton in Swing Hostess (PRC Pictures, 1944, FCB 3290-3291), Elyse Knox in Forgotten Women (Monogram, 1949) [catalog record], and Penny Edwards in Missing Women (Republic, 1951, FBC 6142-6143).


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“International Newsreel: The Art of ‘Dolling Up’ Taught to Working Girls.” Frame enlargements. Hearst. 192-?. Moving Image Section, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division. From Unidentified Cromwell No. 5: Newsclips (FEA 8062)

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Newsreels—works containing a variety of news footage, ranging in content from lifestyles to international events—began to be released theatrically in the United States in 1911, with the last newsreels appearing in the 1960s. The Library has scattered collections of newsreel footage from the silent era received through gift and deposit, including the coverage of suffrage parades and prominent women. Stories intended for a female audience often centered on fashion and beauty, in “What a Fashion Decrees—Newest of Spring Styles in Milady's Dainty Headgear,” International News, vol. 2, no. 4 (1919, FAA 1315) and “The Art of ‘Dolling Up’ Taught to Working Girls,” Unidentified Cromwell, no. 5: Newsclips (192-?, FEA 8062).

The division's largest collection of newsreels was received through copyright deposit. Beginning in 1942, the Library selected various issues of Movietone News, News of the Day, Paramount News, and Universal Newsreel for inclusion in the archive. These holdings are listed in a card file by title of newsreel, volume, and issue number. There is no subject access to the content of these newsreels through the division's catalogs. It is generally necessary to know the date of an event, and then to search by date through the copyright descriptions or trade magazines to pinpoint a particular newsreel by volume and issue number.

Also received through copyright were films that re-edited earlier newsreel footage and added new commentary, such as Almanac Newsreel and The Greatest Headlines of the Century. Subject access to these films is available through the Dictionary Catalog and entries marked “[from old catalog]” in the Library's online catalog. Among these series is footage of the major women newsmakers of the day, such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Ethel Rosenberg; aviators Amelia Earhart, Helen Richey, and Jacqueline Cochran; and sports champions Helen Wills, Babe Didrikson Zaharias, and Maureen Connelly. A very incomplete run of The March of Time can be found in the Film and Television Catalog. One of the issues, White-Collar Girls (1948, FGD 3646), investigates the problems besetting the career girl in her search for success.

Short Subjects

Repeating the example of the earliest movies, experimental sound films featured variety performers to demonstrate the new technology. De-Forest Phonofilms and Vitaphone shorts are among the division's holdings of early sound shorts covering a wide range of popular performers of the day. Opera star Rosa Raisa, nightclub hostess Texas Guinan, impressionist Venita Gould, vaudevillian and former soubrette Fannie Ward, and Ziegfeld beauty and singer Miss Bobby Folsom can all be seen in these short films.

Female animated characters from the sound era run the gamut from the genteel representations of the dainty Minnie Mouse and the even mousier Olive Oyl to the suggestive renderings of the naughty Betty Boop and the blatantly sexual beings in the cartoons of Tex Avery, as in Red Hot Riding Hood (1943) and Swing Shift Cinderella (1945). In addition to scattered holdings of Disney and Popeye cartoons, the division has the compilations The Compleat Tex Avery [catalog record] and Betty Boop (VAF 2503-2510).

The Harry Wright Collection (1,245 films) has a wealth of short-subject material related to women. In Mother Melodies (193?, FAB 8373), popular tunes are given highly sentimental renderings. “My Mother's Rosary,” for instance, shows a mother counting her baby's fingers and toes. One of the curiosities uncovered in Walter Futters' Curiosities 2 (1930, FAB 8186) is the introduction of a diaper service in New York City. Popular Science Excerpt: Kitchen Gadgets (1936, FAB 9026) demonstrates new items for the housewife in making breakfast, including a device to keep bacon from wrinkling as it cooks. Feminine Fitness (1929, FAB 8642) shows the “fair collegians” of Wellesley College participating in various sports for class credits. In Red Republic (1934, FAB 9186), famed photographer Margaret Bourke-White is shown traveling through Russia. Front Line Women (1941, FAB 8177), made shortly before Pearl Harbor, describes the role of women in war. Cartoons range from Ub Iwerks's Mary's Little Lamb (1935, FAB 8740), based on the popular nursery song, to Gags and Gals (1936, FBC 6583), which animates Jefferson Machamer's infamous drawings of well-endowed young women, often in the midst of being chased by their bosses.

Educational and Promotional Films

Films made to instruct and inform can quickly become obsolete for their originally intended purpose. A film such as All My Babies, a Midwife's Own Story (1953, FBA 0042-0044), which was made to train African American midwives in rural Georgia, is dated as a teaching tool but remains timeless as a record of childbirth and the living conditions of the people involved.

Other outdated educational films are valuable to historians as a reflection of the accepted social attitudes, values, and mores of their time, often revealing sexual biases and stereotypes presented by teachers and other professionals. For example, Psychology I: How Men and Women Differ (1957, FCA 3857) features Dr. Edwin G. Boring of Harvard University giving a now unintentionally humorous explanation of the psychological differences between the sexes. Molested (1965, FBA 5518) advises teenage girls that carelessness in dress, dancing, and other activities can imperil their safety.

The division holds To New Horizons: Ephemeral Films, 1931-1945 and You Can't Get There from Here: Ephemeral Films, 1946-1960 (VAB 0085-0086), video compilations of a host of promotional and educational films that have taken on new meanings. Relax (1937) shows how to improve “her efficiency in the office”; Are You Popular? (1947) “warns that nice girls don't”; and The Relaxed Wife (1957) promotes the use of tranquilizers.

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