During the thirties and forties, women made up a large proportion of movie audiences. To take advantage, studios developed a genre that came to be known as women’s pictures. These movies varied widely, from serious drama to romance to musical to biopic, with one common feature: they all told stories about women for women. A popular theme in the genre was the changing role of women, involving the proprieties of sexuality, women in the workplace, and the choice between love, career, and home. Though sometimes derided by (often male) critics as overly melodramatic, sentimental, and dependent on preposterous turns of plot, the genre was also wildly popular, with movies starring the likes of Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, and Kay Francis. Indeed, many women’s pictures were once hailed as masterpieces.
Kay Francis often played a woman who worked in a predominantly male field, such as the title role in Mary Stevens, M. D. (1933). Mary experiences sexism firsthand when
she is snubbed by female patients because she is a woman. When she sets her sights on a male doctor, a friend tells her that she has no chance with men: because Mary works in a male field, “you have no sex appeal.” Like many such films, Mary Stevens, M. D. sends a conflicting message. On the one hand, Francis’s character is a strong female role model. Confident in her medical skills, Mary saves a baby from choking by using one of her own hairpins. But romance only ruins this strong female doctor. She becomes pregnant out of wedlock and is forced to give birth aboard a ship as she flees to Europe in order to have her baby secretly. Her child dies, and feeling at fault Mary decides to give up her career. It was this type of role that made Kay Francis an enormously popular star, adored by women who tried to emulate her on-screen courage and fashion sensibility.
A popular sub-genre of the women’s picture was the maternal melodrama. In these movies, women have children out of wedlock and are forced to give them up so that the children can be reared with privileges the mother cannot offer. When mother and children
are somehow reunited years later, the children do not recognize her. Though these women suffer terribly for others, they also offered female audiences a role model of heroic, courageous women, rather than one who needs to be saved. Other maternal melodramas include Back Street (1932), I Found Stella Parish (1935), and Madame X (1937).
Women’s pictures often allowed audiences a glimpse at alternate choices that women could make if only society allowed. One such movie was Edmund Goulding’s The Great Lie (1941), starring Mary Astor and Bette Davis, notable not for its convoluted and melodramatic plot but for showing a woman who is much more concerned with her career than her role as a mother. Astor’s character is consumed with the desire to be a great concert pianist and shockingly uninterested in motherhood. Though such movies often seemed to undercut themselves with endings that forced the nontradi-tional woman to suffer, they also tantalized female audiences with alternate models of women who refused to play by the rules of society.
In the forties, as many women entered the workforce to take the place of men serving in World War II, women’s pictures remained highly popular. The movies often featured sociopathic women, women with over-the-top desires (especially sexual) who presented dangers to both society and themselves. This type of role in women’s pictures coincides with the rise of the femme fatale in film noir of the late forties and fifties. A superb example of mid-forties psychotic beauty is Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven (1945). Tierney plays a jealous and murderous woman who is so intent on being the only person in her husband’s life that she murders his wheelchair-bound brother. She is cruel, utterly beautiful, and without a heart.
All these films allowed female audiences an opportunity to vicariously experience excessive love, romance, and sexuality, to judge such behavior, and to consider society’s sexual double standards and women’s changing roles in American culture. The genre continued to be popular in the 1950s but survives today in only pale form as “chick flicks,” focusing especially on teenage girls and young unmarried women for whom romance is paramount.