One of the more prevalent subjects in the Women’s Pictures of the thirties, forties, and fifties is female friendships. Often it is relegated to subtext or incidental material, but every once in a while it takes center stage, as in the 1943 film Old Acquaintance, directed by Vincent Sherman. It is an uneven—but enjoyable—film that deals with the life-long friendship between Kit Marlowe (Bette Davis) and Millie Drake (Miriam Hopkins). Through various ups and downs, the two women experience a friendship that survives self-centeredness, romantic intrigue, and the vagaries of the human heart.
While not what we typically think of as a “Woman’s Picture,” I Married a Monster from Outer Space is an interesting exploration of women’s fears about marriage in 1950s America. It’s a 1958 horror/science fiction movie directed by Gene Fowler Jr., and is a great example of how a B movie can transcend low-budget origins. It’s got ruthless aliens, hapless damsels in distress, cheesy-but-fun special effects, and a space-age soap opera plot. It’s also very well paced, with engaging actors and a good script. On the surface, the story is a stereotypical alien invasion tale, but underneath that, darker messages about women’s roles in marriage and society lay. It’s a surprisingly good film where scares are derived less from the aliens and more from the powerlessness of its central character.
Heterosexual romance often takes center stage in movies targeted to the ladies, but can also take a back seat to a more central female relationship. Portrayals of friendship are an important part of the women’s picture, but so are depictions of rivalry and duplicity. Add the complicated relationships of sisters, and you have a mix of love and jealousy that can tear apart even the closest siblings. In The Hard Way, sisters Helen (Ida Lupino) and Katie (Joan Leslie) love each other dearly, but cannot help destroying each other in their quest for a better life.
With the passing of Whitney Houston, I thought we could journey back to 1995 and discuss a more modern women’s film, Waiting to Exhale. I tend to focus on women’s pictures of earlier decades simply because the films marketed towards women during the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s were generally more interesting and complex than the tepid romantic comedies that are made now. Released almost twenty years ago, Waiting to Exhale is notable not only for being about women, but for its mostly black cast, including a pre-trainwreck Houston. For our younger readers, there was a time when Whitney was not a reality television joke; she used to be considered a pretty classy lady. I was too punk rock at the time to listen to her music, but I could respect the artist. I could respect the DIVA.
A year before he directed All About Eve, Joseph L. Mankiewicz made A Letter to Three Wives, which landed him the Oscar for best director and best screenplay. It unabashedly falls within the category of Woman’s Picture, as it deals with the nature of female rivalries and how they can affect marriage. Three women—Deborah Bishop, Lora Mae Hollingsway, and Rita Phipps—constantly compare themselves to Addie Ross, a longtime friend and rival. By doing so, the women cause the weaknesses in their marriages to grow until the possibility of failure seems likely.
I’ve been a big fan of women’s pictures of the thirties, forties, and fifties since the first moment I saw The Women (1939) by George Cukor when I was a kid. Films about the lives of women appealed to me, not just because I would be one someday, but because their stories revolved around different subject matter than movies targeted to men. Family, romance, social rules, scandal, and drama were all open for analysis. I love the heroic gestures of a good western, but I also love the more down-to-earth subject matter of a good weepy drama. Not only do these films give us great stories, but they provide glimpses into what it means to be a woman, the rules we are supposed follow, and the punishments life metes out if we don’t.