When I wrote about what Classic Hollywood films taught me, I included a section of women from that era who inspire me and made a difference even though they were usually hindered and exploited by men and a sexist, hostile culture. The same is still true in Hollywood today of course. There were thirty women on that list and I still felt like I had limited myself. It’s my opinion that classic actresses are too often neglected and taken for granted. I want to praise these women every chance I get.
TCM has the same idea. For the second year, they aired their Trailblazing Women in Film series. In 2015, the series was devoted to filmmakers, many of them little known or unacknowledged for their achievements behind the camera. This year, the series focused on actresses. Throughout the month of October, host Illeana Douglas was joined by a female guest to introduce the films and the women who starred in them.
There were eight themes which highlighted the strides made by certain actresses. I was unable to watch every film (and some I had already seen), so this post will only include three of those themes and five actresses. The website listed above is an indispensable source. I got to learn about contributions the actresses made that I had no prior knowledge of.
The Business of Film and TV
Controlling Their Own Destiny
Fighting the Blacklist
Politics and Government Service
What a variety of topics! A robust set of achievements that prove women lead vivid and multifaceted lives. All these actresses were not merely beautiful faces and sex symbols, or even celluloid queens. They used their voices and influence to make a real, sustainable difference, to challenge studio bosses and the status quo, to fight racism and sexism, and to live as women in a world that would rather they made little fuss and noise. But they were loud. And that’s all the permission I need.
The Business of Film and TV
Lucille Ball – Yours, Mine, and Ours (1968)
Lucille Ball was never a major A list star in Hollywood, but television afforded her that honor. It’s easy to take I Love Lucy for granted. It’s still a beloved sitcom today. She and Dezi Arnaz were the first interracial couple on TV, even though CBS hesitated over their pairing. The two also purchased RKO studios and dubbed it Desilu. In 1960, she assumed control of the production company. So it’s important to remember how shrewd of a businesswoman she was. And this, while she captured hearts as a scatterbrained housewife!
Ball was 47 when she starred in Yours, Mine, and Ours. There’s that unspoken rule in Hollywood that women can’t have meaningful roles when they reach a certain age. She plays a widowed mother of eight who falls in love with Henry Fonda’s widower with ten children. It’s an enormous challenge trying to connect these two families, but what I found really impressive is that Ball was still as funny and unforgettable. And she was still young and beautiful.
Josephine Baker – Princesse Tam Tam (1935)
Josephine Baker was a skilled dancer and singer, captivating audiences with her bold movements. During WWII, she performed for the troops, and made even more significant contributions to the war effort. She helped the French Resistance by delivering secret messages and even served as a sub-lieutenant in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. She found great success in France but later returned to the United States to fight racism and segregation. The NAACP even named May 20th Josephine Baker Day. Baker also adopted twelve children from around the world, calling them her Rainbow Tribe. She was a tremendous talent even if racist backlash forced her from the United States.
Princesse Tam Tam is forward thinking for its treatment of interracial romance, a subject considered taboo in America at the time. It still suffers from portraying Baker as the exotic other, but she’s so arresting. I’m always wondering how women of color, particularly black women, had to fight to be recognized in the entertainment world. There’s no excuse for denying Josephine Baker more chances to shine. I was struck by her voice, beauty, and energy.
Fighting the Blacklist
Marsha Hunt – Raw Deal (1948)
Dear, darling Marsha. Gorgeous, dignified, and versatile. She celebrated her 99th birthday last month, and there’s a documentary chronicling her fascinating life. Marsha Hunt could play a variety of roles; sweet, kind, vulnerable, cold and cruel. (I love her in Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman). She was blacklisted in the 1950s as the hunt for communists intensified, and though she was never a member of the communist party, her protests against HUAC branded her one and she was denied work. Nevertheless, Ms. Hunt became an activist, championing a number of causes, including homelessness, mental health, and global poverty. She was active in the United Nations for years. In a 2010 interview with NPR, she expressed worry that the blacklist would overshadow her film work. I wish I could tell her that it doesn’t! Because in addition to admiring her tireless activism and humanitarian work, she is one of my favorite actresses and seeing her in a film is always rewarding.
In Raw Deal, Marsha plays an innocent girl who is forced to aid a criminal (Dennis O’Keefe) when he escapes prison. It’s her goodness that is actually used against her. This is an excellent noir, one I’m not sure I can adequately describe, but I recommend this article. It is essential viewing for fans of the genre and one of the most important in Marsha Hunt’s filmography.
Anna May Wong – Piccadilly (1929)
Widely recognized as the first Chinese American movie star, although her gains were few. Like Josephine Baker, Anna May Wong was embraced by European audiences. Back in the states, film roles were degrading and unable to capture the full scope of her talent and potential. What I find really frustrating about her history, and what I’m sure she did as well, was the way she was characterized as “too” Chinese or “too” American. She was even shunned by the Chinese because of the demeaning roles she was forced to play. I recommend this article as a primer on Wong’s Hollywood career.
Piccadilly isn’t all that enjoyable, but Wong’s appeal is undeniable. She’s so magnetic and alluring, and sympathetic too. She is neither the subservient or dragon lady stereotype.
Rita Moreno – West Side Story (1961)
Rita Moreno was a co-host, and can I just say, there’s no way she’s 84!
Ms. Moreno spoke candidly about the adversity she faced working in Hollywood. She even described her dismay in being cast as a Thai girl in The King and I, over an actual Asian actress. She was the first Latina woman to win an Oscar for her role as Anita in West Side Story and one of a handful of performers to win all major awards for acting. In addition to her Oscar, she has an Emmy, a Grammy, and a Tony.
I’m glad I finally got to see West Side Story. It’s such a vibrant musical with potent social commentary that is as relevant as ever. Moreno’s portrayal of Anita is so spirited and vigorous. She injects even more energy into this film. It’s already so rich with music, dance, and personality; Rita Moreno elevates it even more.
I’ve been wondering what TCM’s next installment of this series will focus on. And I’m definitely looking forward to it.