At first I wasn’t too excited about the ‘Ghostbusters’ reboot because…why can’t Hollywood make original films any more? It’s always a remake or a reboot these days! But when they announced it would be an all-female cast, I was intrigued. The original pair of films is a childhood relic for me. I remember drinking Hi-C Ecto-cooler, having a proton pack toy, and of course, the cartoon series. We don’t see enough strong female characters these days and female ensembles are even more rare. In celebration of this new film, I give you a list of some other great female ensemble films from Hollywood’s golden era.
The Women (1939, Dir. George Cukor)
You can’t have a list of women’s ensembles without the grand daddy (ahem, grand mommy?) of them all, The Women. An all-star, all-female cast led by Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, and Rosalind Russell turn Clare Boothe Luce’s hit Broadway play into a film classic. The film explores the lives of catty and chatty high society women who are all interconnected. The three leads are as ruthless and perfect as ever but the ensemble of Mary Boland, Paulette Goddard, Joan Fontaine, Phyllis Povah and others turn this into the bitchiest comedy/drama of all time.
All About Eve (1950, Dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, Celeste Holm, Thelma Ritter, Marilyn Monroe.
WHAT. A. CAST.
All About Eve is a film that is worthy of all its hype and at times, it doesn’t seem like the praise is enough. The script is so unbelievably smart and witty that it never feels like you’re watching the actors act, it feels like you’re right there in the wings of NY’s theater circuit watching all the drama unfold. Bette Davis is unforgettable as Margo Channing. Make no mistake Margo isn’t some bitchy character, Davis brings a nuance to the role that shows a strong woman, a veteran stage actress who is used to the spotlight but is entering the end of her career quickly as the new ingenue Eve Harrington begins to take over the spotlight. One of my favorite characters is Birdie, Eve’s wise-cracking right hand woman and confidante played by Thelma Ritter. It’s a shame films like this are considered ‘bitch films’ because they feature complicated women when in reality there’s more to these characters than meets the eye. I’d argue that the biggest bitch of them all isn’t even a woman, it’s Addison Dewitt played by George Sanders.
So Proudly We Hail! (1943, Dir. Mark Sandrich)
So Proudly We Hail! follows a group of female Army nurses on enemy lines in the Philippines. The women are originally sent to Hawaii for their tour but the attack on Pearl Harbor changes their destination and life as they know it. The cast is led by the ensemble of Claudette Colbert, Paulette Goddard, and Veronica Lake, three Paramount heavyweights and three very different actresses. As big as each of the stars were at the time, it’s Lake who steals the show in what may be her finest hour on screen as the troubled and quiet woman of the group. While it was made in 1943, the film shows some horrific and gut-wrenching sequences for a war film at the time. What I appreciate most is its effort to tell the story of the courage and strength the women of the war had rather than a tale of the woman waiting for their husbands at home (although that’s also important and women were doing great things on the homefront). The glamour of these three popular women is stripped away to give thanks to the heroic nurses who are far too often overlooked.
Desk Set (1957, Dir. Walter Lang)
Desk Set is known as a Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn vehicle but it’s the women in it who make the film memorable. The film stars Hepburn as the head of a research library at a television network. Tracy is a computer expert who wants to bring in technology to replace Hepburn’s staff. Hepburn and her staff of autonomous women aren’t down for that and are out to prove their worth. It’s 1957 and we see women portraying whip-smart, talented ladies who not only have jobs but love them too! Not only that, they’re also funny and well-rounded. Hepburn’s Bunny is confident about her abilities, Joan Blondell is the unapologetic flirt of the bunch, and Dina Merrill is the one who makes sure everything is in order with some sarcastic quips along the way. Although the thought of a computer as new technology seems dated, everything else in this film seems like it could be made today.
How to Marry a Millionaire (1953, Jean Nugelesco)
How to Marry a Millionaire may be a gold digging comedy on the surface but there’s so much more to this film than meets its enticing poster. It’s a charming 20th Century Fox confection with Betty Grable, Marilyn Monroe, and Lauren Bacall who will stop at nothing to get rich husbands but during the course of the film, we see our three leads grow and realize money isn’t what leads to real happiness. It may not be a feminist film, it’s quite possibly the complete opposite depending on who you talk to but the chemistry between our three leads is what makes it a fun ride. Not all films have to have a strong message, especially the films of Betty Grable, but they are there to entertain and How to Marry a Millionaire does a great job of achieving the latter.
Stage Door (1937, Dir. Gregory LaCava)
Complex women. Yes! Even more complex relationships? Yes! A young Lucille Ball. Here for it! Stage Door is the story of a group of aspiring young actresses who live in a boarding house. The cast is made up of Ginger Rogers, Katharine Hepburn, Gail Patrick, Constance Collier, and a young Lucille Ball. Look out for Ann Miller and Eve Arden in smaller roles as well. The film explores the rivalries and bonds between women and while that may seem like an overdone trope, Stage Door never feels like it’s feeding into the ‘women don’t root for other women’ stereotype, it’s actually quite the opposite. While the women of Stage Door compete with each other, we learn that they always have each other’s backs. It’s complicated.