Thursday, March 21, 2019

7 Films from the 1940s Every Feminist Should See

Like all ideologies, feminism alters over the course of time. A feminist who lived in 1870 advocated a feminism that had relatively little to do, in its specifics, with the feminisms of 1915, or 1968, or 2019. Because of this, it is not particularly fruitful to be concerned with classifying whether a film, book, or other work of art is feminist or not. A Sisyphean labor, such classification also yields little except the dubious comfort of interacting with nothing that might feel uncomfortable or challenging. However, if we concern ourselves less with yes-or-no questions and more with analytical questions, then feminist analysis can yield something more than a classification.

One can analyze any film through a feminist lens, but some films are more interesting in conversation with feminism than others. The 1940s is not typically seen as a significant decade in feminist history, but no matter, here are seven films, all of them rich with material that will prove of interest to feminists. I've chosen to omit the '40s films that are most often cited by feminists - like Katharine Hepburn's Adam's Rib and Woman of the Year, or screwball comedy His Girl Friday - not because they aren't great, but because they're already so ubiquitously discussed.

Chains ('49)
In the Anglophone world, Italian cinema in the 1940s is synonymous with neorealism, but Raffaello Matarazzo's melodramas, even if they share certain aesthetic traits with neorealist films, are not so hopelessly focused on male characters. In Chains (Catene), buxom Yvonne Sanson, looking like a cross between Joan Crawford and Anita Ekberg, plays a Neapolitan housewife whose life is torn apart when a sleazy ex-boyfriend (Aldo Nicodemi) arouses the suspicions of her mechanic husband (Amedeo Nazzari). Perfect domestic bliss topples at the mere breath of a rumor of a woman's misbehavior and even the strictest morality is no shield against the disasters that follow.

Cluny Brown ('46)
Lubitsch's oddball romantic comedy with a touch of melancholia and a tinge of bizarre pragmatism stars Jennifer Jones as the titular character, a Cinderella sent off to be a servant at a grand estate, whose great ambition, passion, and pursuit happens to be... plumbing. Lubitsch's magic touch permits him both to mercilessly lampoon the English class system and the pretensions of each class and to create a warm nest of sympathy for his very strange heroine. Charles Boyer, still debonair, and Peter Lawford, more rakish, and thus more delicious than usual, end up grousing over a different woman neither of them is terribly interested in, while Jones enjoys the attentions of a stuffed-shirt pharmacist. A weird, unclassifiable treat.

June Night ('40)
Ingrid Bergman stars in this tense Swedish drama, the last film she would make before coming to the United States. Bergman plays a young woman who attempts to break up with her boyfriend, a thuggish sailor, who shoots her. Although she survives, the ensuing trial and its attendant publicity harm her even more than the gunshot wound: slapped with a reputation as a cheap floozy, she flees to Stockholm, but finds that once men know anything of her past, she's little more than fresh prey. Though Bergman made some startlingly conservative films in Sweden, like the anti-abortion film Walpurgis Night, June Night castigates the violent sexual prerogatives that men use to justify harassment with simmering fury.

Madonna of the Seven Moons ('45)
As I explained at greater length in my review of this film, this Gainsborough melodrama escapes simplistic Madonna/whore dichotomies by actually splitting Phyllis Calvert's character into two personalities, one a delicate, saintly wife and mother and the other a fiery, sexually avaricious jewel thief. This psychological chasm is the result of sexual violence, but remarkably, the film reserves its judgment for the perpetrators, rather than the victims, of this violence. Though there might be little scientific validity in the character's illness, the film succeeds as a parable: if women are so easily divided into Madonnas and whores, it is the result of the shattering violence they face from men.

The Pirate ('48)
This splashy Technicolor musical stars Judy Garland as a daydreamy girl infatuated with her fantasized image of the ruthless pirate Macoco; she catches the eye of Gene Kelly as a scheming acrobat who isn't above impersonating said ruthless pirate. There are several fascinating scenes that will spark feminist interest. In an extraordinary ballet sequence, Manuela sinks into a masturbatory dream about the man she believes is the pirate she fell in love with from afar; the obviously sexual nature of the climactic dancing implies a female sexual interiority almost totally absent from mainstream filmmaking, especially of the '40s. The other scene is the one in which Manuela discovers the acrobat's deception and proves that he doesn't have a monopoly on ruthlessness.

Ritual in Transfigured Time ('46)
Maya Deren's first film, Meshes of the Afternoon, is often cited as a feminist touchstone in avant-garde cinema. This short, her fourth, is less concerned with individual psychology than it is with the ritual nature of social interaction. With virtuosic camera and editing techniques, Deren renders an otherwise altogether normal party as a dance of disconnection and metamorphosis. Novelist and writer of erotica Ana├»s Nin makes an appearance.

The Wicked Lady ('45)
Another Gainsborough melodrama, this film stars Margaret Lockwood as a scheming aristocrat whose material successes fail to satisfy her, driving her to seek forbidden thrills as a masked highwayman. This film faced problems with censorship, in part due to Lockwood's low-cut bodices, but also for the frank way in which Lady Skelton expresses romantic and sexual interest and pursues the lovers she wants - one of them James Mason at his most smoldering. By the end, the increasingly ludicrous plot hangs by a tenuous thread, but The Wicked Lady is a deliciously naughty romp that threatens to leap past the boundaries that both patriarchal and feminist moralities draw around the vicious Lady Skelton.

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