Menage A Trois and Anti-Nazi Resistance Fighters: Meet the Incredible Female Characters of the 1930s and 40s

We’ve always loved movies in my family. After spending most of 2020 in different countries, I couldn't wait to slip under the blanket with my mum and sister to watch some of our old favourites. Perhaps surprisingly, most of these movies are from the 1930s and 40s. 

I didn’t realise it back then, but I think that my sister and I liked these films when we were kids because, unlike a lot of the movies that came out in the 90s and early 2000s, they feature strong, interesting, and incredibly funny women who dominate the screen in a way that I didn’t see in the movies from my time.  

Take Ernst Lubitsch's comedies, such as the 1942 black comedy To Be or not To Be, where Carole Lombard plays an actress in Warsaw right before the Nazi occupation. Carole Lombard is intelligent, flirty (with a handsome young pilot who is not her husband) and a key member of the Polish resistance. In Design for Living, another Lubitsch movie from 1933, the female protagonist can’t decide between her two suitors, so at the end of the movie the three of them decide to live together happily ever after. Yes, the movie ends with what is pretty much a menage a trois, and yes, this is a movie from the 1930s. And although now we know that the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, was a creep who molested and harassed his actresses, I still can’t watch Notorious (filmed in 1946) without marvelling at the strength and complexity of Ingrid Bergman’s character - a recovering alcoholic who marries a Nazi sympathiser in order to pass information to the American government.

Let’s compare these movies to some of the ones that came out in the early 2000s, when I was around 10 years old. IMDB’s highest rated movies from the early 2000s include Gladiator, which barely features any women (and definitely not any empowered or independent ones), the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which has three female characters who barely speak and The Dark Knight, which features even fewer women. A Beautiful Mind (the Best Picture winner of 2002) has one female character, whose role is to be completely subservient to her genius husband. In the movie, John Nash’s wife Alicia is remarkably intelligent (she is one of the very few female students in her husband’s university class), but we never get to hear about her hopes and dreams - it’s just not important to the storytelling. I enjoyed all of these movies when they came out, but they didn’t inspire me the same way old movies did. I couldn’t see myself represented in them.

It’s no coincidence that the movie that inspired me to become a journalist is a comedy from 1940. In His Girl Friday, Rosalind Russell plays Hildy Johnson, a smart, fearless, and brilliant journalist. When a murderer who is due to be hanged the following morning escapes from prison, she runs out of the newsroom in search of the scoop - and she’s the one who gets it. She is respected by her fellow journalists (all men), who recognise what a talented writer she is. Although she tries to convince herself that she wants to live a more traditional life with her sweet and boring fiancée from Albany, she ultimately decides to stay in the newsroom where she belongs. I remember watching this movie at age 12 and immediately falling in love with the protagonist, wanting to be her when I grew up.

There is a reason why many of the female protagonists from the 1930s and 40s were empowered in ways the female characters from my childhood weren’t. During World War I, women went to the workplace on an unprecedented scale to take over the jobs the men had left behind. This led to more choices and financial independence for women, which, in turn, led to more interesting female characters on the screen. In movies from the 1930s, such as 42nd street or Gold Diggers of 1933 (don’t let the title deceive you, this movie about four struggling friends is brilliant), unmarried women live on their own or with friends. Male suitors follow them to their room before the screen tactfully fades to black, and, like the protagonist in 42nd street, they leave their parents’ houses and uneventful hometowns to pursue their dreams in a big city. 

This all changed after World War Two, as the American government sought to get the men back into work and the women back into the house. In the 1950s, American society valued women who stayed at home and put the needs of their family first, and Hollywood followed suit. I find movies from the 1950s much more boring than the ones that came before, as many of the female characters are either complacent housewives or damsels in distress. The movie industry didn’t write interesting female characters again for decades. There are some exceptions of course. Sarah Connor, Hermione Granger, and Princess Leia come to mind (although the three original Star Wars movies actually fail the Bechdel Test on whether two women speak about any other topic that is not men). It’s not only that women were uninteresting: as The Pudding showed in this data analysis of 2,000 screenplays back in 2016, they also spoke considerably less than men, even in Disney’s princess films.


I’m not saying the 30s and 40s were a golden age for women. The female characters in all the movies I’ve mentioned are all white, and the vast majority are middle or upper class. The 1930s was an incredibly sexist and racist decade (the extremely racist depiction of the American south in Gone with the Wind is just one example), and these movies are, after all, the product of their time. But the women in these movies were interesting, and, without realising it, that’s all I wanted to see as a kid. I didn’t want to see beautiful supporting characters with barely any lines or personality, I wanted interesting women. I didn’t care if they were good or evil, I just wanted them to be something. The movies from the 30s and 40s gave me a chance to see that and to reflect on the kind of woman I wanted to be when I grew up, and for that I will always love them.

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