Working Girls on Film

Image: Kay Thompson walking towards her office in ‘Funny Face’

In December 1895, the Lumière brothers staged what is generally agreed to be the first public cinema show. Working women were visible right from the start: one of the seven short films showed large numbers of women leaving the Lumière factory in Lyon at the end of the day. So what happened next? How were working women were represented in feature films between 1895, when the FT-She women were building their careers, and 1970, when most of them had retired?

Named female characters are often seen at work in feature films in these first seven decades of cinema. They are working in factories (Sing as We Go) and department stores (Bachelor Mother, The Crowded Day) and operating lifts in office buildings (The Apartment). Films made during the war show them making munitions (Millions Like Us) and operating radios (A Matter of Life and Death).

Women are, however, seldom shown in professional roles, working alongside men as equals or running the show; but here are ten examples, many of them classics. What does that say, I wonder? Perhaps it reflects the reality for women forging their paths in a man’s world during this period: to make an impact, you really had to be brilliant. Settle back and enjoy.

1. His Girl Friday (1940)
What’s not to love about this film? In the original play and its first and third screen versions, the editor, Walter Burns and journalist, Hildy Johnson, are both men but director Howard Hawks decided to make Hildy a woman as well as Walter’s ex wife and the rest is history. With terrific on-screen chemistry between Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant, rapid fire dialogue and some great ad-libs, this is deservedly a screwball classic.

2. The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
In a leather goods shop in Budapest the newly-recruited saleswoman, (Margaret Sullavan) clashes with her boss (James Stewart) and their work relationship quickly gets tetchy. They are unaware that they have already been revealing their private selves in letters, their identities hidden behind personal column mailbox numbers but soon the truth is revealed. If the plot sounds familiar that’s because this gem was re-made as ‘You’ve Got Mail’ with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks in 1998. The 1940 version is better.

3. Woman of the Year (1942)
Katharine Hepburn plays Tess, an international affairs journalist who meets and marries sports journalist Sam Craig (Spencer Tracy). But what will her ambition do to their relationship? This film marked both a professional and personal turning point for Hepburn. Despite her previous roles in films now considered classics, like ‘Bringing up Baby’ and ‘The Philadelphia Story’, it was this performance that persuaded MGM to put her under contract; and it was the start a legendary on- and-off screen partnership with Tracy.

4. Mildred Pierce (1945)
In this classic melodrama Joan Crawford plays the titular character, a self-sacrificing mother who gets divorced and takes a job as a waitress so she can support her daughters. She builds up a successful restaurant chain but her second marriage to a wealthy businessman does not work out so well… Crawford won an Oscar for this film, which also produced two best supporting actress nominations. It was re-made as a TV series in 2011, directed by Todd Haynes with Kate Winslet in the title role.

5. When the Bough Breaks (1947)
Patricia Roc stars as another woman left as a single parent, this time because she discovers her husband is a bigamist. The struggle of keeping her job in a department store and raising her son is too much for her but what starts off as foster care turns into a more permanent arrangement. Eight years later she has built a successful career but faces a legal battle to get her son back. The team behind this British release included Muriel and Betty Box, prolific film-makers whose role in British film was for many years forgotten.

6. Maytime in Mayfair (1949)
In this frothy British musical Anna Neagle plays the manager of an haute couture fashion house inherited by Michael Wilding, who wants to sell it. Neagle and Wilding had a hugely successful screen partnership and this the fourth of five films they made together. ‘It’s flimsy but it’s fun!’ was one headline and its musical numbers, glamorous clothes and vibrant Technicolor combined to make it a hit with British audiences still living with bomb damage and rationing.

7. Adam’s Rib (1949)
Hepburn and Tracy again, this time playing married lawyers fighting it out in court as Hepburn defends a woman on trial for shooting her philandering husband and challenges gender biases. The film was scripted by another wife and husband team, Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin (they also wrote ‘Bachelor Mother’ – see above) who were Oscar-nominated.

8. Lucy Gallant (1955)
The first Mrs Ronald Reagan, Jane Wyman, stars as a stylish woman who gets waylaid in a Texas town on her way to Mexico and decides to cash in on the oil wealth by running a dress shop from the local brothel. Courted by Charlton Heston she chooses her business over marriage but, as a pithy review in The Sketch put it, ‘learns in the end that beef is best.’

9. High Society (1956)
Celeste Holm has a fine supporting role in this musical re-make of ‘The Philadelphia Story’. She plays Liz Imbrie, a magazine photographer sent to cover Grace Kelly’s wedding with her journalist boyfriend, played by Frank Sinatra. She keeps her cool while he is losing his head over Grace Kelly and even gets to sing ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’

10. Funny Face (1957)
Five decades before Miranda Priestly there was Maggie Prescott…. Kay Thompson plays the magazine editor who wrenches a young girl away from her job running a philosophy bookshop and tries to make her into the Next Big Thing on the runway. Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire are the leads, but Kay gets plenty of screen time and with its dance numbers, Gershwin tunes and Paris locations, this film’s wonderful and marvellous.

All these films were made after 1934, when the Hays Code became compulsory in Hollywood. In the pre-code 1930s there were number of films where women starred as working women who broke with all the gender norms. Barbara Stanwyck sleeps her way to the top in ‘Baby Face’ (1933); Kay Francis’s magazine editor starts a relationship with her male secretary when both are already in relationships in ‘Man Wanted’ (1932); In Female (1933) Ruth Chatterton plays an automobile executive who repeatedly has affairs with her male secretaries. The portrayal of women on the Hollywood screen during the pre-code era is now a hot topic, (see below) and one thing is for sure: I can’t think of another feature film portraying a female executive with a male assistant until Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds did it in ‘The Proposal’ more than seven decades later. If you have an earlier example, drop me a line.

Thanks to Kate, Robin and Chris for their help with this piece of research.

A programme of films, ‘Pre-code Hollywood: Rules are Made to be Broken’, toured the UK this summer, curated by Pamela Hutchinson and Christina Newland. There was also a TV documentary made on the subject in 2003, ‘Complicated Women‘.

Further reading:
A Series of Splices: The Liberated Women of Pre-Code Cinema’ by Susan P. Etherbridge
Ladies First‘ by Elena Nicolaou
‘Sex and Sexier’: the Hays Code wasn’t all bad’ by David Denby

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