She’s coming! The Anti-Damsel Blogathon August 15 & 16, 2015. Hosted by Movies Silently and The Last Drive in…
This post is a collaboration between Fritzi of Movies Silently and me, Joey, here on the Last Drive In.
We offer you a spirited sampling of totally empowered, take-the-reigns film characters who were anything but damsels in distress!
1. Helen (Miriam Nesbitt) in The Ambassador’s Daughter (1913): This short film from Thomas Edison’s motion picture studio features espionage and a quick-thinking heroine. She tracks down spies at the embassy, follows her suspect and manages to steal back the documents that he purloined from her father. Not at all bad for a film made seven years before the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified.
2. Helen (Helen Holmes) in A Lass of the Lumberlands (1916): Helen Holmes was an action star who specialized in train-related stunts and adventure. In this 1916 serial, she saves the day on numerous occasions and even saves her love interest from peril on the train tracks. (It should be mentioned that the Victorian “woman tied to the train tracks” cliche was incredibly rare and usually treated with ridicule in silent films.) This is another movie that is missing and presumed lost.
3. Diana Monti (Musidora) in Judex (1916): Not all the empowered women in classic film were heroines. In the case of Musidora, her most famous roles were as criminals. She was the deadly thief/hit-woman Irma Vep in Les Vampires and then took on the titular caped crusader in Judex. Smart, stealthy and likely to slip a stiletto between the ribs… in short, a woman not to be trifled with.
4. Ossi (Ossi Oswalda) in The Doll (1919): Ernst Lubitsch featured another feisty heroine in this surreal comedy. Our hero wishes to dodge marriage but cannot gain his inheritance without a bride. A plan! He will buy a lifelike doll from a famous toymaker and marry that. What he doesn’t know is that the doll was broken, the toymaker’s daughter has taken its place and she means to teach the reluctant bridegroom a lesson. Oswalda’s mischievous antics are a delight.
5. Lulu (Lois Wilson) in Miss Lulu Bett (1921): Independent women weren’t always given to violence and thievery. In the case of Lulu, she is a single woman trapped in two Victorian social conventions: spinster and poor relation. During the course of the film, she rejects both titles, learns her own self-worth and empowers herself to enter into a healthy relationship with the local schoolmaster. Tasty feminism!
6. Rischka (Pola Negri) in The Wildcat (1921): Ernst Lubitsch’s hyperactive Dr. Seussian comedy is worth seeing for the sets alone but the best part is Pola Negri’s Rischka, a young bandit queen who is terrorizing the mountains. She meets the local Lothario during a robbery and by the end of the scene she has stolen his heart. And his pants.
7. The Countess (Pola Negri) in A Woman of the World (1925): Anyone who thought going to Hollywood would tame Pola Negri’s wild side had another thing coming. In this film, she plays a countess whose skull tattoo causes an uproar in Anytown, USA. The film also features a romance between Negri and the stuffy local prosecutor, who soon finds himself on the receiving end of her bullwhip. Not a metaphor.
8. Catherine the Great (Louise Dresser) in The Eagle (1925): Rudolph Valentino specialized in aggressive wooing but he finds the shoe on the other foot in this Russian romance. Louise Dresser is a kick as the assertive czarina who knows what she likes and goes for it.
9. Cornelia Van Gorder (Emily Fitzroy) in The Bat (1926): It’s a dark and stormy night and a murderous costumed villain means to recover stolen loot in an isolated mansion. What is an elderly woman to do? Take up her trusty pistol and investigate, of course! She also wields a dry wit and keeps cool under pressure. The Bat doesn’t stand a chance.
10. Eve (Leatrice Joy) in Eve’s Leaves (1926): Another gender reversal comedy, Eve’s Leaves features twenties fashion icon Leatrice Joy as a tomboy sailor who finds the perfect man while ashore on business. She ends up saving the day– and her favorite dude in distress– through quick thinking, a knowledge of knots and a mean right hook.
11. Molly (Mary Pickford) in Sparrows (1926): Mary Pickford was America’s Sweetheart during the silent era and audiences adored her fearless heroines. Molly is one of her boldest. She’s an orphan raised in a Southern swamp who must rescue a kidnapped infant. The epic final race across the swamps– complete with alligators– is still harrowing to behold.
12. Zaida (Bebe Daniels) in She’s a Sheik (1927): Silent movie audiences enjoyed reversals of gender tropes. The Rudolph Valentino vehicle The Sheik (1921) had been a smash hit and had spawned many rip-offs and parodies. (kidnapping + love = box office success!) In this case, a warrior princess falls for a French officer and decides the most sensible course of action is to abduct him for the purpose of marriage. Sadly, this comedy seems to be one of many silent films that is missing and presumed lost.
13. Gilda Carson/Erickson (Dorothy Mackaill) Safe in Hell (1931): Gilda is a complex cigarette smoking call girl who is laid back about her status as a working girl. When a friend calls her up to meet a guy whose wife is out of town she tells her “Okay, I’ll go right into my dance.” When Gilda is accused of murdering the man who rapes her, she flees New Orleans and seeks refuge in the Caribbean. But even there she is surrounded and must fend off criminals and sleaze balls especially the local police chief who threatens her freedom. On and off the screen actress Dorothy Mackaill pushed against the boundaries of virtue and stirred up a lot of social-incorrectness.
“Who has the good times, the swell clothes, the excitements… We do! And not because we’re portrayed as nice girls, no! because we’re smoking, drinking, dancing and being made love to.”
14. The Bride (Elsa Lanchester) Bride of Frankenstein (1935): The Bride might be one of the first screen woman to rabidly defy an arranged/deranged marriage. She’s iconic, memorable and filled with glorious hiss!.. because The Bride may have come into this world in an unorthodox way, but she’ll be damned if any man is going to tell her who to love! Elsa Lanchester manifested The Bride with a keen sense of fearsome independence. No matter whether the Monster demands a Mate, The Bride isn’t ready and willing. Lanchester always took daring roles that were larger than life because she had a way of dancing around the edges of Hollywood convention. Charming, hilarious and downright adorable even with the wicked lightning struck hair and stitches and deathly pale skin!
15. Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) in His Gal Friday (1940): Hildy is a hard-bitten reporter for New York City’s The Morning Post. She’s just gotten back from Reno to a get a divorce from her louse of a husband who happens to also be her boss Walter Burns (Cary Grant). Hildy’s anxious to break ties with her manipulative ex-husband who just isn’t ready to let her leave the job or their marriage so she can marry straight-laced Bruce (Ralph Bellamy)… and he’ll do so by any means. But she’s nobody’s fool… and if she stays it’s because she’s made up her mind to embrace Walter’s crazy antics…
Hildy [to Walter]: “Now, get this, you double-crossing chimpanzee: There ain’t going to be any interview and there ain’t going to be any story. And that certified check of yours is leaving with me in twenty minutes. I wouldn’t cover the burning of Rome for you if they were just lighting it up. If I ever lay my two eyes on you again, I’m gonna walk right up to you and hammer on that monkeyed skull of yours ’til it rings like a Chinese gong!”
16. Charlie (Teresa Wright), in Shadow of a Doubt (1943): Charlie is tired of small-town life with her parents and annoying younger sister. She’s a longing for something exciting to happen, & overwhelmed with joy when her beloved Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotton) decides to pay the family a visit. But something isn’t quite right with her idol, he begins to exhibit a strange sort of underlying hostility and troubling secret nature… Her mother’s younger brother is actually a sadistic serial killer who preys on rich widows by marrying them, then strangling them! But young Charlie begins to see through his facade. She may be a girl who indulges in romantic fantasy she’s got a strong resource for self preservation and since no one else in the family believes her suspicions that he’s The Merry Widow killer. And she might just have to wind up killing him in self-defense…
“Go away, I’m warning you. Go away or I’ll kill you myself. See… that’s the way I feel about you.”
17. Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) Double Indemnity (1944): set fire to the screen as one of the most seductive femme fatales— a dame who made sunglasses and ankle bracelets a provocative weapon. She had murder on her mind and was just brazen enough to concoct an insurance scam that will pay off on her husbands murder in Double Indemnity (1944). Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is the insurance guy who comes around and winds up falling under her dangerous spell…
Walter: “You’ll be here too?”
Phyllis: “ I guess so, I usually am.”
Walter: “Same chair, same perfume, same ankle?”
Phyllis: “I wonder if I know what you mean?”
Walter: “I wonder if you wonder?”
18. Constance Porter (Tallulah Bankhead) in Lifeboat (1944): It’s WWII and Connie is a smart-talking international journalist who’s stranded in the middle of the Atlantic ocean with an ensemble of paranoid and desperate survivors. Eventually her fur coat comes off, her diamond bracelet and expensive camera gets tossed in the sea. But she doesn’t give a damn, she can take the punishment and still attract the hunky and shirtless (yum) John Kodiak… survival’s just a state of mind… and she does it with vigor and class and a cool calm!
“Dying together’s even more personal than living together.”
19. Margo Channing (Bette Davis) All About Eve (1950): In all Bette Davis’ films like (Jezebel (1938) Dark Victory (1939) The Letter (1940) Now, Voyager (1942)), she shattered the stereotypes of the helpless female woman in peril. Davis had an unwavering strength, fearlessly taking on the Hollywood system and embracing fully the moody roles that weren’t always ‘attractive.’ Davis made her comeback in 1950, perhaps melding a bit of her own story as an aging star in All About Eve. Margo must fend off a predatory aspiring actress (Anne Baxter as Eve Harrington) who insinuates herself into Margo’s territory. Davis’ manifests the persona of ambition and betrayal which have become epic…
“Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”
20. Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) in Night of the Hunter (1955): There are certain images that will remain with you long after seeing masterpieces like Night of the Hunter. Aside from the frightening portrayal of an opportunistic sociopath, the film is like a childhood fairy tale. It’s a cautionary tale about the boogeyman but it’s also a story about the resilient spirit and far reaching imagination of children, and those who are their guardian angels of the world. One of the most calming and fortifying images is that of Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) protecting the children from harm, holding a rifle and keeping watch like a wonderful fairy god mother elected to guard those little ones with her powerful brand of love… There’s just something about Gish’s graceful power that emanates from the righteous Rachel Cooper….
“It’s a hard world for little things.”
21. Serafina Delle Rose (Anna Magnani) in The Rose Tattoo (1955) As the tagline states ‘Seething with realism and frankness!” Magnani’s her passionate soul is up front, on her face, and in her movements. Like a wild animal she moves so freely as Serafina, who is perpetual grieving widow filled with fire. Serafina, a seamstress in a small New Orleans town, still mourns her dead husband Rosario Delle Rose (who had a rose tattoo on his chest) as if he were a saint, even after he was killed by police for smuggling drugs for the mafia. Burt Lancaster’s bigger-than-life presence comes her way bringing about lighthearted romance.
Serafina honors an older world of ancient feminine magic and empowerment), so the local Strega (or witch) with her wandering goat, and the town full of wives and gossips who stare and judge, cackling with unkind insults, forces Serafina to fight for every last bit of dignity. Once she learns her dead husband was having an affair, the spell that imprisoned her with mourning breaks and she awakens to celebrate life once again. She is stubborn, passionate, and she has a strength that commands the birds out of the trees.
Serafina: “We are Sicilians. We don’t leave girls with the boys they’re not engaged to!”
Jack: “Mrs Delle Rose this is the United States.”
Serafina “But we are Sicilians, and we are not cold-blooded!”
22. Anna Lucasta (Eartha Kitt) in Anna Lucasta (1958): Young Anna is rejected by her sanctimonious father Joe played to the hilt by Rex Ingram. While the rest of the family wants Anna to come home, her self-righteous father can’t resist demonizing his daughter, with an underlying incestuous desire that he is battling. Anna takes the cliched road of the fallen woman and becomes a good time gal who meets Danny (Sammy Davis Jr.) a cab driving sailor who is as smooth as silk and as fiery as molten lead. Though there is an underlying sadness because of the estrangement with her father, Anna possesses a strong sense of self, and exudes a fiery passion that cannot be denied… She isn’t a bad girl, she had to find her own way and again, it often leads to taking control of who you love and how you love. She and Sammy have a smoking hot chemistry on screen, and Kitt is a powerful woman who made that road her own…
Danny: “Tell her who Papa is” (Papa is a little carved wooden Haitian idol)
Lester: “That’s the model of Agwé the Haitian god of the sea. Seems he’s good to sailors.”
Anna: “Looks like Papa and me’s got something in common…”
23. Kelly (Constance Towers) in The Naked Kiss (1964): The opening of the film is one of the most audacious entrances in early exploitation cinema as Kelly confronts her pimp who has shaved off her hair and stolen her money. She brutally pummels the rat with her handbag. Stripped of her hair, looking like a mannequin (signifying her as an ‘object’), ahe is introduced to us as a fighter. She manages to fit in to her quaint new town of Granville until the perverse secret about the Granville’s benefactor is exposed. Kelly stumbles onto Grant’s (Michael Dante) dark secret that ultimately explodes in scandal.
Kelly is persecuted by local cop Griff (Anthony Eisley), who assumes she’s still a prostitute. Griff tells Kelly that it’s a “clean town” and he doesn’t want her operating there, although he isn’t adverse to taking Kelly to bed himself or frequenting Madame Candy’s (Virginia Gray) high class “cat house’ acting like he’s above reproach. But Kelly wants out of the business. She takes a job at a children’s hospital and brings joy and a special brand of love. Grant woos her, but before they reach their wedding day, Kelly stumbles onto Griff’s deviant secret and winds up accused of his murder. The story is a mine field of social criticisms and hypocrisy. Kelly initially starts out as the ‘whore’ of the story; as the one who needs redemption. But it’s the town that must be redeemed of it is jaundiced complacency. Kelly is a powerful protagonist, because she kicks down hypocrisy and judgement, shattering the limitations that are placed on women. In the end she no longer is labeled or objectified or persecuted. She is embraced as a savior, a heroine who becomes the catalyst for cleansing the ‘white middle-class’ town of it’s hypocrisy…
“I washed my face clean the morning I woke up in your bedroom!”
24. Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) in Rosemary’s Baby (1968): Rosemary has a fearless defiance in an ordinary world that becomes an unsafe space of paranoia. Aside from guarding her body and motherhood against intruders, Rosemary has an open mind, a delicate brand of kindness although troubled by a catholic upbringing that haunts her, she is still ‘too good’ and too independent to taint. She winds up taking life and the life of her baby on her own terms. Mia Farrow’s Rosemary Woodhouse is an indomitable image of striking resiliency. A heroine who takes on an entire secretive cult of devil worshipers entrenched in the high society of NYC. That takes a lot of guts, people!… And Ruth Gordon is a meddling old New York busybody who just happens to be a modern day witch. As Minnie Castavets she does what she wants. She is empowered with her quirky style and her beliefs, as wicked as they may be…And her wardrobe is bold, kitschy, and fabulous!
“Pain, begone, I will have no more of thee!”
25. Julie Kohler (Jeanne Moreau) in The Bride Wore Black (1968): Julie Kohler is on a mission of revenge for the men who accidentally shot her husband on their wedding day outside the church. Julie has a maniacal almost macabre sort of presentation to her theater of revenge, she moves through the film with the ease of a scorpion. But there’s dark humor and irony running through, like a good mystery thriller. Julie is a captivating figure of sadness and passion put out at the height of it’s flame. Once passion for her late husband, and now passion for revenge. It’s playful and sexy and Moreau is utterly brilliant as the resourceful Julie Kolher. She creates a satirically dire and elaborate, and slightly Grande Guignol adventure of a vengeful woman on a crusade to exact poetic justice where the system has failed.
Coral: “Permit me to make an impossible wish?”
Julie: “Why impossible?”
Coral: “Because I’m a rather pessimist.”
Julie: “I’ve heard it said: There are no optimists or pessimists. There are only happy idiots or unhappy ones.”
Here’s to those Empowered Women of Silent & Classic Film! — Your Ever-Lovin’ Joey