- Click to share on Twitter (Opens in new window)
- Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)
- Click to share on Pinterest (Opens in new window)
- Click to share on Pocket (Opens in new window)
- Click to share on Tumblr (Opens in new window)
- Click to print (Opens in new window)
- Click to email this to a friend (Opens in new window)
A simple and wholesome beginning… Agnes Robertson Moorehead was born on December 6th, 1900 in Clinton, Massachusetts. Her mother was a mezzo-soprano and her father was a Presbyterian minister whose work eventually moved the family to St. Louis, Missouri. She started her acting career on stage at the age of 3, and by the time she was 12 she was active in the St. Louis Municipal Opera as a dancer and singer. She went to college for biology at Muskingum College in Ohio, but remained active in acting. After college she moved to Wisconsin (her family was now in Reedsburg, Wisconsin), taught drama and English at local schools. She earned a Masters in English at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Agnes eventually would earn a doctorate from Bradley University.
My partner Wendy and I happened to have lived in Madison for a wonderful 8 years while she was in grad school at the University of Wisconsin. I wrote my favorite album Fools & Orphans while living on Starkweather Creek on the East side of town. So Agnes’ presence there is all the more sweet to me…
To earn the money she would need, not only to eat but to build toward her dream of heading to New York City and acting school, she taught English, Speech and Ancient History at Centralized High School in Soldiers Grove. Teaching was something she maintained a strong affection for.
When she eventually saved enough money to get to New York City she audition for the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in the summer of 1926- she was accepted. I’m reading Charles Tranberg’s wonderful book, she talks about starving herself, being grateful for enough loose change to buy a buttered roll from the Automat …
Afterward she moved to New York City and enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Agnes studied with Charles Jehlinger at The (AADA) American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where he taught people ‘imagination’ is the key!
Not making it on Broadway during the 30s, she used her marvelous voice to make a name for herself in the media of radio. She began performing as many as six shows each day. During her radio performances she met Orson Welles, and Joseph Cotton and the three formed the famous Mercury Players Theatre. Agnes made her film debut in 1941 in Orson Welles’ ‘Citizen Kane’. She went on to play vital, high-spirited saucy & strong female roles in film and television eventually landing the iconic role as “Endora” on the popular & timelessly beloved television show “Bewitched” (1964-1972). She was married twice but eventually lived alone, enjoying solitude. She died quietly away from friends and the public, from lung cancer that had spread from her Uterus, she succumbed in 1974 in Rochester Minnesota. With Agnes’ work ethic she had maintained a busy schedule though drained and tired from the illness, performing hours on the stage and doing television appearances until she could no longer manage.
IMDb tidbit- Agnes’ death from cancer is often linked to other actors and crew members who worked on The Conqueror (1956). Including Susan Hayward, John Wayne and director Dick Powell, to name a few. The conspiracy theory behind the strong beliefs are that they were exposed while on location at the site which received heavy fallout from nuclear testing at the (then) Nevada Proving Grounds.
Fiercely private. Considered not beautiful because of her ‘hawk like’ face. I would boldly beg to disagree. Agnes Moorehead has a beauty that transcends the quaint and lovely upturned nose. She has a regal beauty as if royalty run in her veins, with a sage otherworldlyness and a voice like a chameleon that can change it’s tone and tenor to fit her myriad characterizations. I wish she and hope she knew that although she was THE consummate character actress for the ages, she too was as beautiful as any other leading star with a deep & fiery magnetism that draws you in ~
Agnes had that spark in her, since she was a very little Agnes, embodying, manifesting & emoting like the characters from the books she read and from theater. Her adoring father or mother would find her re-enacting scenes in her room!
Here’s a beautifully written snapshot of Agnes Moorehead by The Red List– data base by Romuald Leblond & Jessica Vaillat
“Wanting to become a comedian from a young age – her mother had become accustomed to discovering her daughter in her imaginary world and often asked her: ‘Who are you today, Agnes?’ – Agnes Moorehead appeared regularly on Broadway stages during the late 1920s. She rapidly became a celebrated radio actress and joined Orson Welles’s Mercury Theater on the Air from 1940. In 1941, Orson Welles offered the ‘Fabulous Redhead’ her first film role in Citizen Kane as the cruel and bitter mother of the lead role. The part soon shaped the other roles Agnes Moorehead would be offered while they privileged heartless authoritarian or neurotic women such as the menacing aunt of Johnny Belinda, in 1948. In 1943, on the radio, the American comedian delivered one of her most legendary performances in Sorry, Wrong Number for which she created an exhausting and dynamic presentation – ‘radiant and terrifying’. In 1964, she was cast as Samantha Steven’s sarcastic and buoyant mother, in Bewitched and, although she disliked the rapid pace of television series, the show helped install the actress in the pantheon of American pop culture icons. Quite an irony for a woman who didn’t ‘particularly want to be identified as a witch.”
Agnes Moorehead went on from her imaginative childhood musings to play some of the most colorful characters on stage, radio, film and television- perhaps her persona had been ‘shaped by Citizen Kane’ but Agnes obviously had a range of emotions and archetypes she could readily tap into as she is a natural, authentic artist… making her a cultural icon recognized by so many people & a even a new generation of avid fans!
Agnes -[commenting on the “Method” school of acting] “The Method school thinks the emotion is the art. It isn’t. All emotion isn’t sublime. The theater isn’t reality. If you want reality, go to the morgue. The theater is human behavior that is effective and interesting.” –from Charles Tranberg’s book I Love the Illusion: The Life and Career of Agnes Moorehead
Tranberg’s book is a wonderful read, he discusses from the beginning, the wealth of material he found at the historical society at the University of Wisconsin’s Historical Society. It’ is a marvelous place with marble floors warn down by years and the warm & musty smell of by-gone years, the building holds the archives to so many historical documents and films. For Agnes Moorehead, 159 boxes of material to be precise. He was not just a fan of Endora but her performances on old time radio in which she really shined. His book hints that her fire and brimstone Rev. John Moorehead with his sermons had a bit of the frustrated actor in the man, and why Aggie felt drawn to theater in the first place. He also read Shakespeare to the children. Her mother Molly was the boisterous outgoing flamboyant one who lived to be 106 and died in 1990… always saying what was on her mind, unless it was a strictly personal subject… sound familiar?
He also writes about Agnes’ spirituality and religious devoutness. That is ‘wasn’t a gimmick or publicity stunt’ she really was a devoted Christian. It might cause heads to tilt, how such a fundamentalist woman would pick a career where she would be surrounded by creative types, often gay people that would become her friends. And though she was not thrilled with the idea of playing a witch, she certainly conjured the most iconic embodiment of the vexing & colorful Endora.
“Lavender is just pink trying to be purple” she paraphrased Proust… by Quint Benedetti from his book- (My Travels with) Agnes Moorehead: The Lavender Lady: (more BEWITCHING than Endora)– he goes onto to say, “And now I can see all the hues of her personality in that statement: the royalty, the naivete, the selfhishness, the piercing intuition and sometimes the astonishing lack of it (her two marriages), the phoniness and the irrepressible humanity it contained, the coldness and the longing to be warm and sometimes the warmth, the insecurity and the yearning to be loved, the human simplicity touching greatness. Agnes Moorehead in a way did what so many actor and actresses never did. She left her mark on society both as an actress and as a person.” Benedetti knew Agnes Moorehead for ten years and was her personal assistant for five of those years.
In her long & unforgettable career – Agnes Moorehead’s film debut as Charles Foster Kane’s picture of stoic motherhood, the bitter and icy cold Mary Kane.
She went on to play the emotionally tortured Aunt Fanny in what Charles Transberg rightly refers to Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons as ‘a mangled masterpiece’ I would give anything to see the footage that RKO hacked to pieces… and the ending that should have been, where Fanny is playing cards in the boarding house with the other old maids. The more nihilistic coda that RKO feared would turn the public off in the midst of WWII.
Agnes Moorehead as the heartless & cruel Mrs. Reed who sends young Jane away to Thornfield in Jane Eyre-aside from mothers, aunts spinsters & old maids, Moorehead performs her first evil character! in director Robert Stevenson’s adaptation of Jane Eyre (1943)
Stage: Agnes began touring in George Bernard Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell (1951) & revival 1973, Gigi 1973 co-starring with Alfred Drake.
Selected Radio:– Mercury Theater founded with Orson Welles- Mysteries in Paris, The Gumps, The New Penny, The March of Time (1967-38), The Shadow (1937-39), The Mercury Theater of the Air (ensemble) The Campbell Playhouse, The Cavalcade of America (1938-41), Mayor of the Town
(1942-49), Suspense (1942-1960.) And of course in 1945 she played the women-in-peril-(in bed) Mrs. Stevenson in the CBS radio mystery program Suspense- Sorry,Wrong Number, which became “radio’s most famous play.”
According to Charles Tranberg, Agnes was offered a supportive role in the film version starring Barbara Stanwyck, saying that she wisely turned it down, coming to understand that she would always be considered a ‘character actress’ and not a leading lady. This would influence her decision to focus more on the stage, beginning with her affiliation with the acclaimed Don Juan in Hell and later her very popular one-woman show.
On December 10, 2008 Celebrating Moorehead’s 108th anniversary on Turner Classic Movies- Moira Finnie writing for Movie Morlocks published a wonderful interview with Tranberg when asked if Agnes enjoyed both the mediums of radio and stage, he answered “I think she liked the challenges offered by all he mediums she worked on. The stage because it’s proximity in front of an audience. Radio because she had to create a complex characterization without being seen and could use her voice in many different ways. Film because it offered her the opportunity to visualize a characterization. Television because of its intimacy.”
Moira Finnie’s piece is wonderfully insightful and witty. While watching David O Selznick’s Since You Went Away (1945) “It struck me for the hundredth time that the presence of Agnes Moorehead in many classic and not so classic films was often what gave a movie a spine.”
“She proved her versatility throughout her career. She arranged her aquiline features accordingly to convey a believable briskness, sometimes comforting, sometimes disapproving. She most often appeared as a pragmatic presence in many films that have etched themselves on our collective memory.”
Moira Finnie aptly says it perfectly, honing in on the essence of what truly makes Agnes Moorehead such a powerful performer, “The actress could shift her characterizations easily from vinegary disapproval to warmly compassionate to richly detailed portraits of good and evil women.”
Selected Films– Citizen Kane 1941 (Mary Kane), The Magnificent Ambersons 1942 (Fanny), The Big Street 1942 (Violet Shumberg), Journey into Fear 1943 (Mrs. Mathews), Jane Eyre 1944 (Mrs.Reed), Since You Went Away 1944 (Mrs. Emily Hawkins), Dragon Seed 1944 (Third Cousin’s Wife), The Seventh Cross 1944 (Mme. Morelli), Mrs Parkington 1944 (Baroness Aspasia Conti), Our Vines Have Tender Grapes 1945 (Bruna Jacobson) Dark Passage 1947 (Madge Rapf) The Lost Moment 1947 (Juliana Borderau), Summer Holiday 1948 (Cousin Lily), The Woman in White 1948 (Countess Fosco), Johnny Belinda 1948 (Aggie MacDonald-nominated best supporting actress) The Great Sinner 1949 (Emma Getzel), Caged 1950 (Ruth Benton progressive Prison Warden), Captain Blackjack 1950 (Mrs. Emily Birk), Fourteen Hours 1951 (Christine Hill Cosick) , Showboat 1951 (Parthy Hawks), Magnificent Obsession 1954 (Nancy Ashford), All That Heaven Allows 1955 (Sara Warren), The Left Hand of God 1955 (Beryl Sigman), The Revolt of Mamie Stover 1956 (Bertha Parchman), Jeanne Eagels 1957 (Nellie Neilson), Raintree County 1957 (Ellen Shawnessy), The Story of Mankind 1957 (Queen Elizabeth I), Night of the Quarter Moon 1959 (Cornelia Nelson), The Bat 1959 (Cornelia van Gorder) Pollyanna 1960 (Mrs. Snow), Twenty Plus Two 1961 (Mrs. Eleanor Delaney) How the West Was Won 1962-(Rebecca Prescott), Who’s Minding the Store? 1963 (Mrs. Phoebe Tuttle), The Singing Nun 1966 (Sister Cluny)
Nominated four times for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Mrs. Parkington (1944), Johnny Belinda (1948) and of course as Velma in director Robert Aldrich’s Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)
It is the vitriolic, cantankerous yet loyal & righteous companion Velma to Bette Davis’ tragic southern Gothic has- been belle Charlotte that won my heart. Moorehead brought to life a raw and rugged plain quality of humanness that touched me so deeply, as did Davis’ incredible performance.
How impressed I was with her pantomime in The Invaders credited as ‘The Woman’ in Rod Serling’s sociological anthology fantasy series Twilight Zone… Moorehead had no dialogue in the episode yet she demonstrated so much art and emotion from her ‘primal woman’s’ body language.
She did win a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress -Laurel Award 2nd place for Top Supporting Performance for Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte 1964.
For many people she will be remembered as Endora, Samantha and Darrin Steven’s (the fabulous-Dick York) caustic ill-provoking mother-in-law from the netherworld? who hands down the legacy of being Bewitched… from 1964-1972. Initially Moorehead had turned down the role of Endora, and it wasn’t until Elizabeth Montgomery herself asked the actress to join the cast, never expecting it to last more than one season!
Moorehead did her string of horror films in the 70s that featured many fine actresses who had played fine ladies in their day, only to find Grand Dame Guignol roles waiting for them on the other side of fabulous fame…
What’s The Matter With Helen 1971 Curtis Harrington’s wonderful horror of personality psycho-drama where Aggie plays a Aimee Semple McPherson type character called Sister Alma co-starring with friend Debbie Reynolds and the incomparable Shelley Winters!
And then there’s always the campy & gruesome Dear Dead Delilah 1972 she plays Delilah Charles, appeared in Night of Terror 1972 a tv movie of the week… & Frankenstein: The True Story 1973.
Some very special clips of the immortal Aggie!
The much talked about ‘boiler scene’ Agnes as Aunt Fanny from The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
Mary Kane the picture of stoic motherhood in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941)
Agnes as Baroness Conti in Mrs. Parkington (1944)
Agnes as Aggie MacDonald in Johnny Belinda (1948)
Agnes as Warden Bond with poor Eleanor Parker in prison noir classic Caged (1950)
Agnes as mystery writer Cornelia Van Gorder in The Bat (1959)
Agnes as Madame Bertha Parchman in The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956)
Agnes as Mme. Morelli in The Seventh Cross (1944)
Agnes as the indomitable Velma Cruthers in Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)
Agnes as The Primal ‘Woman’ in a short clip -The Invaders ep. of The Twilight Zone 1961
Agnes as the vexing but always colorful Endora in television’s popular series Bewitched
With all my love & admiration, Agnes Moorhead… You are one of a kind! -Love, Joey
THE SILENT YEARS: When we started not giving a damn on screen!
In celebration of our upcoming Anti Damsel Blogathon on August 15 & 16, I had this idea to provide a list of bold, brilliant and beautiful women!
There was to be no indecent exposure of the ankles and no SCHWOOSHING! Not in this Blogathon baby!
From the heyday of Silent film and the advent of talking pictures, to the late ‘20s to 1934 Pre-Code Hollywood, films were rife with provocative and suggestive images, where women were kicking up a storm on screen… The end of the code during the early 60s dared to offer social commentary about race, class, gender and sexuality! That’s our party!
In particular, these bold women and the screen roles they adopted have become legendary. They sparked catchy dialogue, inspired fashion trends, or just plain inspired us… All together there are 111 of SOME of the most determined, empowered and uniquely fortified femmes of classic film…!
First of course I consulted the maven of all things splendid, shimmery and SILENT for her take on silent film actresses and the parts that made them come alive on the immortal screen…. Fritzi at Movies Silently has summoned up these fabulous femmes….
Now to unleash the gust of gals from my tornadic mind filled with favorite actresses and the characters that have retained an undying sacred vow to heroine worship… In their private lives, their public persona and the mythological stardom that has & still captivates generations of fans, the roles they brought to life and the lasting influence that refuses to go away…!
Because they have their own unique rhythm to the way they moved through the world… a certain kind of mesmerizing allure, and/or they just didn’t give a hoot, a damn… nor a flying fig!
“The most courageous act is still to think for yourself. Aloud”-Coco Chanel
Stars like Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck , Joan Crawford and Ida Lupino managed to keep re-inventing themselves. They became spirited women with an inner reserve of strength and a passion for following their desires!
The following actresses and their immortal characters are in no particular order…!
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