Resisting the American Cliché—Women in Golden Age Movie Musicals

A Different Kind of American Dream.
By  · Published on July 6th, 2017

A Different Kind of American Dream.

To celebrate America, we’re taking this entire week to look at how cinema has explored The American Dream. For more, click here.

The port city is inexorably linked to the American experience. From the Boston Tea Party to Ellis Island, the American Dream begins where ships weigh anchor. The port city’s hallmark was liberty. Microcosms of the world, New York City, and Los Angeles acted as safe havens for independent women. While independent women could be found across the United States, they could pursue their dreams to the greatest extent in densely populated port cities. Due to the diversity and freedom found in these cities, the classical American Dream—the suburban house and white picket fence—was not the goal for everyone. For many women in port cities, their American Dream was simply human agency.

During the Golden Age of Hollywood, studios used the port city as a backdrop for their movie musicals. However, the characterization of women in the port city is not completely accurate. This was due to the idealization present in American cinema during this period. In addition to the inaccurate representation of women in general, audiences almost never hear specifically from women of color—not to mention women from the LGBT community.

There are multiple issues with female representation in these films. However, in many musicals from the period the port city influences plot and characters. These films seem to conform to the stilted, monolithic American Dream. Nonetheless, both female independence and sexual liberty can be glimpsed in many of the films of the period.

MGM released On the Town in 1949 to rave reviews. The story of three sailors on 24-hour leave in New York City tapped into the post-war American zeitgeist. Through their day in New York City, the three sailors meet three women: an anthropologist, a cab driver, and an aspiring actress. Each of these women represents a different type of independent woman found in a port city such as New York. The anthropologist—Claire—represents the burgeoning demographic of highly educated women in post-war America. The fact that she is found living in Manhattan shows the professional opportunity for women in port cities.

The female cab driver—Brunhilde—represents the class of women that filled jobs that would have traditionally belonged to men in landlocked cities. Additionally, much of the male population was away during World War II. Because of this, women found new independence when filling occupations traditionally held by men. To punctuate the fact that Brunhilde is in a traditionally male occupation, she takes on the traditionally male role in the relationship that she strikes up with one of the sailors. The screenwriter wrote the gender role reversal for comedic effect at the time. However, it actually is the most progressive relationship in the film.

The third woman depicted in the film is a struggling actress—Ivy. To make money while she is studying theater, she dances at a burlesque show on Coney Island. The film communicates to the viewer that burlesque shows are normal in port cities. Although the character is ashamed of her occupation, the depiction of burlesque in blockbuster musical shows a realistic portrayal of independent women striving to achieve their goals.

The 1945 film Anchors Aweigh has all the charm of On the Town without allowing the unique setting of a port city to influence the characters or plot. Unlike On the Town, Anchors Aweigh reduces the role of women to accessories for men to pine after. The only leading lady in this film—Susan—is helpless in her career as an actress. It takes one of the male sailors’ schemes to kick-start her career. While career-minded women were seen as the norm in port cities, the film depicts the character as a fish out of water. Susan does not have complete human agency.

Moving away from films about sailors on leave, the 1955 box office smash, Guys and Dolls, exhibits an incredibly accurate portrayal of a port city woman—Miss Adelaide, a burlesque dancer. Like Ivy in On the Town, Adelaide represents the increased sexual liberty found in a port city. Unlike Ivy, she is not ashamed of her occupation. However, Adelaide’s main goal is to marry. This complex character’s objective is to maintain her independence while still living a traditional married life.

In 1962 West Side Story won ten Oscars. Maria—the Juliet to Tony’s Romeo—only wants to define her future for herself. This want manifests itself in her love for Tony. When Bernardo forbids their love, Maria fights back by marrying Tony. However, a Judge does not proceed over their marriage. The marriage is simply an agreement between Tony and herself. This is a drastic act of human agency. Further, the film depicts the consummation of their marriage. It is a sacred act in the eyes of the couple. Under United States law it is sex outside of wedlock. This complex depiction of sex added to the realistic depiction of women in port cities.

While women still are not afforded the same agency as men, the port city has been a place of freedom for women since the birth of the United States. Movie musicals produced during the Golden Age of Hollywood largely failed to capture the vibrant culture of independent women in New York and Los Angeles. Recently movie musicals have begun revising women’s role in musical narratives. Though La La Land has been criticized as a halfhearted attempt at a modern, female-driven musical, its success hopefully will spawn many more female driven musicals. Just as the American Dream is not a monolith, neither is the female experience. Only with the proliferation of female driven and helmed musicals will the film world have a more nuanced understanding of female agency within this genre.

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