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American Women: Resources from the Moving Image Collections

The Studio Era

[Susan Baptist, a projectionist, shows training films for the troops as well as more popular motion pictures]. 1940s, Visual Materials from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Records. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Today a moviegoer's ticket buys access to a feature film and a few promotional trailers. Before the 1960s, however, filmgoers were often treated to a double bill of feature films, including the main attraction and a “B” film, newsreels, and other short subjects. The Library's collections allow the researcher to study the whole of this cinematic experience, which reached its apotheosis in the studio era—a period from the 1920s to the 1950s when a handful of Hollywood companies dominated the production, distribution, and exhibition of American films.

In the studio era, companies began producing some fifty feature films annually, with hundreds of major movies in release during any given year. These pictures covered a wide range of topics and touched on many issues relating to women, including the position of women in the workplace, the role of family, and the social expectations for women. Incidental comments about women and reflections of contemporary attitudes toward them can be found throughout the output of the filmmaking industry. It was also true, however, then as now, that filmmakers frequently dealt with matters directly related to women in certain types of productions.

During the classical Hollywood era, the prolific quantity of motion pictures became organized into specific genres whose basic content could be recognized by audiences, exhibitors, and producers in a relatively predictable way. Each genre was defined by certain types of subject matter different from those of the other genres. Another factor forcing films into formulaic patterns was the strengthening of the Production Code, which regulated the content of Hollywood scripts. The code had the effect of minimizing or eliminating from films potentially controversial issues relating to women and their position in society—including divorce, premarital sex, or out-of-wedlock births.

As positions in the film industry became specialized and codified during the studio era, unions were formed, creative decisions were made by production heads, and the women who had flourished behind the camera were shut out of positions of power and prestige. Women remained in lesser capacities, for example as editors, but the ranks of women directors and producers were decimated. The days when a secretary could become a director overnight disappeared forever.

Motion pictures from the studio era are scattered throughout the division's collections. The largest holdings are found in the Copyright Collection and in gift collections from major studios. The collections of Columbia, Disney, Paramount, RKO, Universal, and Warner Bros. films include more than ten thousand features and shorts produced during that era. Reference copies are now available for many of these films and can be viewed in the Moving Image Research Center. In addition, the division has supplemented its Copyright and Studio Collections with purchases of 16mm television prints, videos, laser discs, and DVDs.

Women on the Screen

All that Heaven Allows. 1955. Motion picture poster for "All that Heaven Allows" showing Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman embracing. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Genres constructed specifically to appeal to female audiences included a class of pictures known as the “woman's film,” addressing issues supposedly of concern primarily to female viewers. These encompassed the melodrama, family, and romance formulas. Known colloquially as “tearjerkers” or “weepies,” these films often concentrated on a female character and her tribulations. Self-sacrifice, self-abnegation, and choices relating to career, family, or romantic partner were often key plot elements.

The “maternal melodrama” centers on a mother who, because of the dictates of society, gives up her child in order to ensure him or her a better life. In Stella Dallas (1937), a girl from the lower classes, Stella, marries a rising businessman, Stephen Dallas. They have a daughter, but soon their class differences cause Stephen to leave. Stella raises their daughter Laurel until she discovers that her vulgar behavior embarrasses Laurel. Pretending her daughter is a burden, Stella sends Laurel to live with Stephen's new family. Some years later, as Laurel is marrying a prominent young man, Stella stands on a sidewalk, satisfied to be watching the ceremony through a window. Other films in this vein are Blonde Venus (1932), To Each His Own (1946, FCA 3590-3592), and A Child Is Born (1940).

The “fallen woman” melodrama often features a sympathetic woman who commits adultery or engages in premarital sex and must pay the consequences either by dying or suffering nobly to prove her essential goodness. Set in a variety of times and locales, fallen woman films include Camille (1937), Waterloo Bridge (1940), Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), and The Rains of Ranchipur (1955). Other films involve the choice a woman must make between social conventions and independence. For example, in Jezebel (1938), headstrong Julie Morris (Bette Davis) will not submit to her socially proper fiancé and so loses him to another woman. In Woman of the Year (1942), renowned foreign correspondent Tess Harding (Katharine Hepburn) believes she must play down her career and learn how to cook if she wants to keep her new husband. All That Heaven Allows (1955) attacks the stifling conformity of suburban life in the story of Cary Scott (Jane Wyman), who is pressured to give up the younger man she loves.

Bain News Service. Aileen Pringle 1900. George Grantham Bain Collection. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

The Mertz and Zouary Collections provide myriad examples of the low-budget films produced by Poverty Row studios that were a prolific part of the movie-going experience of the 1930s to the 1950s but are little remembered today. Alongside the mythic goddesses of the silver screen, researchers at the Library can find similar formulas in films with lesser-known players, such as Aileen Pringle starring in Love Past Thirty (Monarch Productions, 1934), Martha Tilton in Swing Hostess (PRC Pictures, 1944, FCB 3290-3291), Elyse Knox in Forgotten Women (Monogram, 1949), and Penny Edwards in Missing Women (Republic, 1951, FBC 6142-6143).

International newsreel--The art of 'dolling up' taught to working girls. [between 1920 and 1929]. Library of Congress Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division.

Newsreels—works containing a variety of news footage, ranging in content from lifestyles to international events—began to be released theatrically in the United States in 1911, with the last newsreels appearing in the 1960s. The Library has scattered collections of newsreel footage from the silent era received through gift and deposit, including the coverage of suffrage parades and prominent women. Stories intended for a female audience often centered on fashion and beauty, in “What a Fashion Decrees—Newest of Spring Styles in Milady's Dainty Headgear,” International News, vol. 2, no. 4 (1919, FAA 1315) and “The Art of ‘Dolling Up’ Taught to Working Girls,” Unidentified Cromwell, no. 5: Newsclips (192-?, FEA 8062).

The division's largest collection of newsreels was received through copyright deposit. Beginning in 1942, the Library selected various issues of Movietone News, News of the Day, Paramount News, and Universal Newsreel for inclusion in the archive. These holdings are listed in a card file by title of newsreel, volume, and issue number. There is no subject access to the content of these newsreels through the division's catalogs. It is generally necessary to know the date of an event, and then to search by date through the copyright descriptions or trade magazines to pinpoint a particular newsreel by volume and issue number.

Also received through copyright were films that re-edited earlier newsreel footage and added new commentary, such as Almanac Newsreel and The Greatest Headlines of the Century. Among these series is footage of the major women newsmakers of the day, such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Ethel Rosenberg; aviators Amelia Earhart, Helen Richey, and Jacqueline Cochran; and sports champions Helen Wills, Babe Didrikson Zaharias, and Maureen Connelly. A very incomplete run of The March of Time can be found in the Library's catalogs. One of the issues, "White-Collar Girls" (1948, FGD 3646), investigates the problems besetting the career girl in her search for success.

Repeating the example of the earliest movies, experimental sound films featured variety performers to demonstrate the new technology. De-Forest Phonofilms and Vitaphone shorts are among the division's holdings of early sound shorts covering a wide range of popular performers of the day. Opera star Rosa Raisa, nightclub hostess Texas Guinan, impressionist Venita Gould, vaudevillian and former soubrette Fannie Ward, and Ziegfeld beauty and singer Miss Bobby Folsom can all be seen in these short films.

Female animated characters from the sound era run the gamut from the genteel representations of the dainty Minnie Mouse and the even mousier Olive Oyl to the suggestive renderings of the naughty Betty Boop and the blatantly sexual beings in the cartoons of Tex Avery, as in Red Hot Riding Hood (1943) and Swing Shift Cinderella (1945). In addition to scattered holdings of Disney and Popeye cartoons, the division has the compilations The Compleat Tex Avery and Betty Boop (VAF 2503-2510).

The Harry Wright Collection (1,245 films) has a wealth of short-subject material related to women. In Mother Melodies (193?, FAB 8373), popular tunes are given highly sentimental renderings. “My Mother's Rosary,” for instance, shows a mother counting her baby's fingers and toes. One of the curiosities uncovered in Walter Futters' Curiosities 2 (1930, FAB 8186) is the introduction of a diaper service in New York City. Popular Science Excerpt: Kitchen Gadgets (1936, FAB 9026) demonstrates new items for the housewife in making breakfast, including a device to keep bacon from wrinkling as it cooks. Feminine Fitness (1929, FAB 8642) shows the “fair collegians” of Wellesley College participating in various sports for class credits. In Red Republic (1934, FAB 9186), famed photographer Margaret Bourke-White is shown traveling through Russia. Front Line Women (1941, FAB 8177), made shortly before Pearl Harbor, describes the role of women in war. Cartoons range from Ub Iwerks's Mary's Little Lamb (1935, FAB 8740), based on the popular nursery song, to Gags and Gals (1936, FBC 6583), which animates Jefferson Machamer's infamous drawings of well-endowed young women, often in the midst of being chased by their bosses.

Films made to instruct and inform can quickly become obsolete for their originally intended purpose. A film such as All My Babies, a Midwife's Own Story (1953), which was made to train African American midwives in rural Georgia, is dated as a teaching tool but remains timeless as a record of childbirth and the living conditions of the people involved.

Other outdated educational films are valuable to historians as a reflection of the accepted social attitudes, values, and mores of their time, often revealing sexual biases and stereotypes presented by teachers and other professionals. For example, Psychology I: How Men and Women Differ (1957, FCA 3857) features Dr. Edwin G. Boring of Harvard University giving a now unintentionally humorous explanation of the psychological differences between the sexes. Molested (1965, FBA 5518) advises teenage girls that carelessness in dress, dancing, and other activities can imperil their safety.

The division holds To New Horizons: Ephemeral Films, 1931-1945 and You Can't Get There from Here: Ephemeral Films, 1946-1960, video compilations of a host of promotional and educational films that have taken on new meanings. Relax (1937) shows how to improve "her efficiency in the office"; Are You Popular? (1947) "warns that nice girls don't"; and The Relaxed Wife (1957) promotes the use of tranquilizers.

Women Behind the Camera

Irving Lippman, photographer. Dorothy Arzner, full-length portrait, seated, facing left in film studio. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Dorothy Arzner (1900-1979), Ida Lupino (1918-1995), and Virginia Van Upp (1902-1970) were among the handful of women in Hollywood who directed or produced during the decades of the thirties, forties, and fifties.

Beginning in 1919, Dorothy Arzner worked her way up the ranks from script department stenographer to script clerk to film cutter to film editor to screenwriter. She directed her first film, Fashions for Women, in 1927 and continued to direct until 1943. The best-known of her films held at the Library are Dance, Girl, Dance (1940, VBG 6839-6840) and Christopher Strong (1933, FEA 4461-4469).

Ida Lupino, an actress through the 1930s and 1940s, considered herself "the poor man's Bette Davis" and wanted to expand into other areas. Working as a producer for the first time in 1949 on the film Not Wanted (FBA 3577-3584), Lupino took over directing duties when the original director fell ill. She continued to produce and direct motion pictures and television programs thereafter. Lupino films found at the Library include The Hitch-Hiker (1953) and The Trouble with Angels (1966).

Virginia Van Upp began as a child actress in silent films and also rose through the ranks to become executive producer at Columbia Pictures in 1945. Films she produced include Cover Girl (1944, FCA 1986-1988), Together Again (1944, FCA 3600-3602), Gilda (1946), and Here Comes the Groom (1951, FGA 4954-4965).

A few American women filmmakers worked outside the Hollywood system.

  • Maya Deren (1917-1961), “the mother of underground film,” started making experimental shorts, such as Meshes of the Afternoon, At Land, and Meditation on Violence, in the 1940s, at a time when there were no channels of distribution and exhibition for avant-garde works. She advertised her work to universities, art schools, and museums and eventually found outlets in some public theaters. Establishing the Creative Film Foundation, Deren helped paved the way for other independent filmmakers.
  • Shirley Clarke (1919-1997), whose films include Skyscraper (1959, FEA 1343-1344) and The Cool World (1963), was one of the first recipients of a grant from Deren's foundation.

Deren and Clarke were in the forefront of independent filmmakers who challenged the restrictions placed on women directors and producers.

Margaret Mead
"[Dr. Margaret Mead, half-length portrait, facing right, reading book]," New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Women professionals from various fields used film in their work. The Margaret Mead Collection consists largely of field footage taken on expeditions in Bali and Papua New Guinea from 1936 to 1965 in which noted anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901-1978) participated. The collection also contains field footage in which Mead was not a participant, including work by Jane Belo, Zora Neale Hurston, and Maya Deren; footage of Mead and her family; footage of Mead lecturing; classroom films taken by Mead's students at Columbia University; and documentaries related to anthropology, some of which included Mead's participation.

The Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) material in the Mead Collection consists of several rolls of film footage. The earliest footage is material shot by Hurston in Florida in 1928 and 1929. There is also ethnographic footage filmed in South Carolina from a project headed by Jane Belo. Although Hurston did not act as cinematographer, she served as on-site project director and at times appears in the footage. There are also a few reels of Haitian footage shot by Maya Deren. These materials can be used in conjunction with the Margaret Mead Papers in the Manuscript Division.

Mary Marvin Breckinridge Patterson (1905-2002) was a photographer, documentary filmmaker, community activist, broadcast journalist, and wife of a career diplomat. The Mrs. Jefferson Patterson Collection of some 200 items comprises films made by Patterson, home movies, and miscellaneous works relating to the Patterson family. After serving as a volunteer courier for the Frontier Nursing Service (FNS) in Appalachian Kentucky in 1928, Patterson made a documentary promoting the work of the service. The Forgotten Frontier (1930)  addresses the problems of the people of Appalachia and highlights the self-reliant women of the nursing service. She went on to make the documentaries The Ruins of Zimbabwe, Rhodesia (1932, VBJ 4851) and A School for Natives, South Africa (1932, VBJ 6149). Patterson's Chichen-Itza, the Ancient Mayan Mecca of Yucatan (1930, VBJ 4850) is the first professional film of that archeological site and She Goes to Vassar (1931) depicts a student's arrival on campus.

The Division also holds footage from the careers of Osa and Martin Johnson in the Sherman Grinberg Collection. Osa Johnson and her husband Martin were adventurers, explorers, naturalists, photographers, authors, and documentary filmmakers who were active in the first half of the 20th Century. The couple shot footage of peoples, animals, and scenery in east and central Africa, the South Pacific Islands, and British North Borneo. After Martin's death in 1937 from injuries sustained in a plane crash, Osa continued to travel to lecture and show their films. A finding aid of the Osa and Martin Johnson materials is available in the Using the Collections section of this Guide.