1. Clara Bow in It (1927).
This department-store salesgirl who falls in love with her boss is sexy as all get out yet principled and compassionate. She represents the sexual frankness of the 1920s along with the sentimentality that decade inherited from the Victorian past. I want her hair. And her face. And her body. And most of all her appetite for life.
2. Irene Dunne in Theodora Goes Wild (1936).
No one in Theodora Goes Wild is desperately poor yet the film still manages to sum up the upheaval of the Great Depression. Dunne’s Theodora is a country-mouse novelist who turns the tables on a city fox big time (and of course looks great while doing so). She spreads mischief yet never loses her core values.
3. Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz (1939).
With the globe on the brink of conflict the nation embraced fantasy—but fantasy with a message. Garland’s plucky Dorothy brings the pragmatism of Kansas to Oz and the exuberance of Oz to Kansas. She can handle adversity in color OR black and white. And heaven knows she can sing.
4. Greta Garbo in Ninotchka (1939).
In the late 1930s the whole world needed light-hearted fun. “Garbo Laughs!” shrieked the ads for this film, celebrating the foray into comedy of one of Hollywood’s dramatic icons. Like the star who portrayed her, the supremely competent Soviet bureaucrat Ninotchka develops a sense of humor as the film progresses—and learns to embrace frivolous hats, capitalism, and Melvyn Douglas.
5. Greer Garson in Pride and Prejudice (1940) or in pretty much anything.
As we grew closer to world war, Greer Garson emerged as an ideal movie heroine. Her Elizabeth Bennet is poised and earnest, but she has a merry heart. She is also smart, passionate, and elegant. No wonder Laurence Olivier falls for her.
6. Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire (1941).
Stanwyck’s nightclub entertainer Sugarpuss O’Shea may be a semi-criminal, but in the course of the film she begins to repent of her ties to organized crime—just as the movie industry turned away from its infatuation with gangsters in the 1940s. Sugarpuss has class, wit, and stuffed-shirt linguistics professor Gary Cooper (yum yum!). And she is an accomplished practitioner of the American vernacular of the period.
8. Claudette Colbert in Since You Went Away (1944).
While her husband is off fighting in World War II Colbert’s composed matron Anne Hilton embodies the efforts of women on the home front. She guides her two daughters (Jennifer Jones and Shirley Temple), entertains soldiers, takes in a boarder to finance her mortgage, works in a factory, learns about people from different backgrounds, and never loses her gallant smile. Anne is a calm port in a stormy world yet she has the wisdom to leave her comfort zone and grow as a human being.
9. Katharine Hepburn in Adam’s Rib (1949).
In the late 1940s the nation was welcoming servicemen back into stateside employment and discouraging women from working. No one could keep most of Katharine Hepburn’s characters out of the workplace, however. Her Amanda Bonner, an attorney, opposes husband Adam (also an attorney, played by Spencer Tracy) in court using gender equality as a defense. The two almost part over the case, but their affection and equilibrium win the day in the end. Amanda is brilliant, articulate, and fierce—and is cherished by Adam for those very qualities. Everyone should look as good (and have as much fun) as Amanda while espousing feminism. And everyone should have a relationship like that of Amanda and Adam.
10. Bette Davis in All About Eve (1950).
Some occasions call for evening gowns; others, for battle gear. Every once in a while a woman needs to combine the two. In the 1950s strong female stars of the 1930s often ended up playing dark characters. Never one to ignore a challenge, Bette Davis lit up the screen as slightly-over-the-hill actress Margo Channing. Margo is brittle, talented, and gloriously bitchy as she fights to defend her crown as the Queen of Broadway from ambitious young upstart Eve Harrington. In the end, Margo shows that actresses (and people in general) can learn from experience. And she knows how to spit out a line, on and off the stage.
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