A Salute to Womanhood: What We Owe to Prominent Ladies of the 1930s

A Salute to Womanhood: What We Owe to Prominent Ladies of the 1930s

A publicity photo of Jean Harlow for the film "The Girl From Missouri" (1934).

Jackie Jerkins, Literary Editor

It’s that time of year again—Academy Award nominations are in, and I spy with my scrutinizing eye four incredibly worthy leading actresses up for the little statue Bette Davis one day so fatefully baptized “Oscar.” (I say four because I am weakly versed in the career of Glenn Close, who is up for an award for her role in “Albert Nobbs.”)

The other “Actress in a Leading Role” noms are as follows: the fabulous Viola Davis (“The Help”), the breathtaking Rooney Mara (“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”), the effervescent Michelle Williams (“My Week with Marilyn”), and the timeless favorite Meryl Streep (“The Iron Lady”).

These are actresses who take you by the shoulders and shake you with their performances. They are adored, admired, loved—but, most importantly, they are respected.

Thus, I would like to pay tribute to the distance we have come as women—in film and otherwise—by bringing a focus to some of the actresses of old whose mere existences propelled the “fairer” sex into a societal metamorphosis.

Beginning in the 1930s, representations of women in motion pictures turned over an entirely new leaf. Where actresses of the 1920s were mostly waifish, demure, weepy, and demanded protection, the Golden Age women were opinionated, outspoken, intelligent, and resolute. Portrayed by actresses among the likes of Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, Barbara Stanwyck, Myrna Loy, Carole Lombard, Claudette Colbert, Constance Bennett, Miriam Hopkins, Loretta Young, Ruth Chatterton, and Bette Davis, these new leading ladies could more than hold their own in a despotic, male-dominated culture of film.

Norma Shearer’s roles in The Divorcee from 1930 and A Free Soul from 1931 depict her as a forthright, self-reliant woman who resists the asphyxiation of a variety of oppressive, power-mad chauvinists and who establishes identity and prerogative. Norma was the culmination of unbridled restraint, heightened sense of self, and the absence of guilt for sin, all set against glittering Golden Era glamour. Such an image was inspiring to women of the time who felt repressed by the male-dominated society—or, better yet, to those who didn’t even know they were repressed.

Jean Harlow, the “original blonde bombshell,” brought to the medium of film the image of what is referred to as the “laughing vamp.” She portrayed characters that were witty, fiery, cunning, seductive, impulsive, shameless, and entirely unafraid of confrontation. Though remarkably young (she died at age twenty-six from renal failure, having already accomplished a ten-year career comprised of over thirty films), Jean Harlow coaxed a schema of women who could be spirited, hot-tempered, impetuous, and all the while remain dignified and feminine. For the young women of America, Jean Harlow embodied the ultimate state of liberty.

All ladies considered, the title of my personal favorite lies in the lap of Joan Crawford. In Joan one finds the ultimate star—blessed with great beauty, extraordinary magnetism, homegrown skill, and a superhuman devotion to the craft.

But one also finds what was doubtless one of the strongest leading ladies of the 1930s. Joan herself was born into rags, parentless and destitute. She worked her way up through the actor’s trade with tremendous strain and effort, eventually becoming a jewel in the MGM Studios crown.  It is literally impossible to articulate Joan’s dedication to her profession in a way that could ever do her justice—but just for good measure, let it be known that she has always been considered the hardest working actress that ever walked through MGM gates. It was said of the studio that “Norma Shearer got the productions, Greta Garbo supplied the art, and Joan Crawford made the money to pay for both.”

Joan’s allure in the 1930s was primarily due to films that paralleled her own life story: rags to riches. She glorified the working woman, the simple small-town girl that escaped with the evening breeze to finally make something of herself. When Joan flickered on celluloid film, what the people saw was bone-rattlingly fierce, devastatingly exquisite, rapturous, intelligent, lionhearted, ambitious, and unashamed beyond anything audiences could even wrap their heads around. She was indestructible.

Films of Joan’s like Sadie McKee from 1934, Dance, Fools, Dance, from 1931, Dancing Lady from 1933, Possessed from 1931, Forsaking All Others from 1934, and Rain from 1932, among others, saw Joan relate to the Depression-stricken public like no other actress. Women looked up to her, worshiped her, strove to be like her. On screen and off, Joan was a beacon of strength in a dilapidated world that only allotted women weakness.

Such was the influence of these women that Hollywood in the 1930s rarely paid any attention to leading men—it’s difficult for even film buffs to name prominent leading men of the period that aren’t Clark Gable or Cary Grant. The women, who were mobbed with mass fan bases far exceeding any studio executive’s expectations, controlled the industry in a near gender monopoly until the onset of World War II prompted a masculine grunt from the studios. But, for a brief moment in time, the world of film left misogynistic stereotypes out of focus.

Be it Shearer, Harlow, Lombard, Stanwyck, or Crawford, I and all other women owe a great deal to these leading ladies. It is with great thanks to them that the idea of independent, opinionated women of personality took root in modern American society at all. They made smart, strong, motivated women a thing of glory and exaltation. Without them, I would be writing this from a circus tent of petticoats—for that alone I am forever in their debt.