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American Women: Resources from the Moving Image Collections

Motion Pictures

[Stills of Billie Burke starring in motion picture, "Gloria's Romance", 1916: boxing with woman in gymnasium (198)]. c1916. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

The Library's motion picture holdings include films of countless actresses of every rank and caliber, including Lillian Gish, Marion Davies, Greta Garbo, Shirley Temple, Joan Crawford, Lupe Velez, Barbara Stanwyck, Thelma Ritter, Audrey Hepburn, Doris Day, Pam Grier, Jane Fonda, Alfre Woodard, Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Jennifer Lopez, Halle Berry, Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Rosario Dawson, and Tessa Thompson. For various generations, these names evoke the range of personas that have been the staples of motion picture genres throughout cinema history. These personas, however, often presented a double-edged sword. Many stars were trapped in the image created by the types of roles that made them popular and often limited their range of opportunities. An archetypal example is Mary Pickford, who found herself forever identified with an innocent-little-girl image that impeded her desire for more mature roles.

Actresses of color often found that stereotyping reduced them to stock characters—the African American maid, the Asian dragon lady, or the Latin spitfire. Although a few minority actresses managed to break out of the confines of supporting parts into starring roles, typecasting severely limited their options.

Carl Van Vechten, photographer. [Portrait of Anna May Wong]. 1932. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

The Mexican actress Dolores Del Rio (1905-1983) achieved stardom when she appeared in films such as What Price Glory? (1926) and The Bad One (1930, FEB 1551-1558), but by 1942 her career in Hollywood was in decline. She returned to Mexico, where she became one of her country's leading box-office attractions.

Anna May Wong (1905-1961), the first Asian American female star in Hollywood, often found herself in small “atmospheric” character parts, as in The Thief of Bagdad (1924). Although Wong received occasional lead parts, notably in Daughter of Shanghai (1937), she usually played a supporting role while major Chinese characters were played by white actresses, such as Myrna Loy or Luise Rainer.

Dorothy Dandridge (1923-1965) built on the success enjoyed by earlier African American leading ladies—such as Nina Mae McKinney and Lena Horne—to become the first black performer to receive an Academy Award nomination in a leading role for her work in Carmen Jones (1954). She continued to appear in such films as Island in the Sun (1957, FGA 5578-5591) and Porgy and Bess (1959). In the early 1960s, however, she found Hollywood unwilling “to construct star vehicles, fearful that audiences would not pay to see a black leading lady.” 1

Motion Pictures Referenced

The following materials listed below link to fuller bibliographic information about each item in the Library of Congress Online Catalog:


  1. Donald Bogle, "Blacks in American Films and Television: An Encyclopedia" (New York: Garland Publishers, 1988; PN1995.9.N4 B58 1988), 377. Back to text