From what I can tell from their trailers, this year’s summer movies are either fast or furious, or both, with minimal interest in female protagonists.
It is true that Thor has enlisted the services of Natalie Portman, but she is subservient to the new adventure hero played by a relatively unknown actor, Chris Hemsworth, who had a small role in the last Star Trek movie. She joined the cast because Kenneth Brannagh was directing and that sounded dignified enough — for a summer blockbuster.
Is there anyone today to compare with Joan Crawford, Lana Turner, Barbara Stanwyck or Bette Davis?
I haven’t seen Thor or any of the other superhero movies yet. I’m still recovering from Hop and Rio. Instead, I decided to review some of the blockbuster movies of the past that feature strong women characters. I was thinking of those superheroines from the middle of the last century, the 1940s, who could kill with a serpent gaze, smite with a sharp face-slap, or scheme with the ingenuity of legendary wizards and witches.
These gals were not pretty, but they had what was once called “sex appeal,” and although most of them were over the hill (that meant in their forties), they still managed to bring customers to the theaters.
Joan Crawford. So I took a look at Joan Crawford (known to a later generation as “Mommie Dearest”) in Flamingo Road (1949). Well, I need to make clear that I am not recommending that movie for anyone who isn’t a died-in-the-wool film buff. I remembered it as a sharp study in the conflict between a never-say-die waitress from a passing circus and a wily old fat-guy sheriff Titus Semple (played by Sidney Greenstreet). Actually, Greenstreet is the best thing in the movie. All Crawford does is to square her jaw, swing her well padded and independent shoulders, and try not to cry in crises. Don’t go there if you can’t stand melodrama.
But Crawford still exists in the public imagination as one of America’s great filmic superheroines. I thought about her partly because HBO has been running a remake of one of her signature roles, that of Mildred Pierce. Looking at Kate Winslett’s pale and needy version of that James M. Cain heroine, I thought that Crawford gave her a little spine, after all, in her version of Cain’s novel (1945).
Lana Turner. And then there are Crawford’s rivals. Among the other great films noir with superheroines in the 1940s, there was Lana Turner in Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), though Turner traded her vixen character in for the glamour girl status of the peroxide blond beauty in the rest of her movies. She was a better actress than that, but she got stuck within her own image.
Barbara Stanwyck. Barbara Stanwyck is a more worthy rival to Crawford. She starred in Cain’s third Hollywood hit, Double Indemnity(1944), a terrific film noir. Since Stanwyck was a better actress than Turner, I’d suggest viewing Double Indemnity first. A little more of the tough, but still a lot of the melodrama.
Bette Davis. Joan Crawford’s biggest nemesis among the Super-heroines of Hollywood in the 1940s was Bette Davis. She was tiny, though hard-bitten, with a clipped, aristocratic voice and a famous way with a cigarette (Bulletin: Kids, they used to smoke in movies! Don’t try it at home!) And Davis was a terrifying heroine in films like Jezebel (1938), The Little Foxes (1944), and the evil twin in A Stolen Life (1946).
Davis’ ultimate triumph as Margo Channing in All About Eve (1950) presented a wonderful mixture of the superheroine and the vulnerable has-been. As Margo proclaims at the beginning of that wonderful movie, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.” Davis gave a wickedly commanding performance in that, her last great movie.
Hollywood paid tribute to Davis’ talent, and Crawford’s, in 1962 when it brought them together for the second-rate horror film, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? I’ve only gotten short glimpses of that awful send-up of these powerful movie stars on TV reruns. I hate having my superheroines travestied.
You can see all these films on late-night TV or from Netflix, and they deliver far cheaper thrills than the local theater presentations of the likes of Fast and Furious 5 or Thor in 3-D. Conflict, suspense, revenge, terror and a tear or two — but no explosions.