|Movie still from The Great McGinty|
This change has been both rapid and recent, as well into the 20th Century women were barely present in politics, at least on the front lines as elected leaders. And while women have been a growing presence in the House of Representatives since 1917, Hollywood was less than progressive in its depiction of women serving in political offices. Politics in films made in the ’40s and ’50s was strictly a man’s world, with the men taking charge as both the heroes and the villains, the bosses of the corrupt political machines and the up-and-comers either succumbing to them or fighting back against them. But these films were not devoid of women, but those women had their own roles to play.
Female characters in these political films found a niche into which they could be fit, a trope on which sufficient variations could be introduced that it ended up showing up multiple times over the decades. When considering this type of character the phrase “Behind every great man is a great woman” comes to mind. That is where the women in these movies stood: behind the man, attempting to push him toward greatness, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. These Great Women did not achieve anything on their own, or draw attention to themselves, but were behind-the-scenes players using the power they had over the protagonist in pursuit of their goals.
The most generic and straightforward example of this type of character appears in the 1940 film The Great McGinty, the directorial debut of Preston Sturges. As blunt a political satire as they come, the film tells the story of a bum who walks the crooked path to political stardom. Dan McGinty (Brian Donlevy) is hired by a political boss to help rig elections, and ends up so impressing his superiors that they keep on promoting him. McGinty is convinced to run for office, and arranges a marriage of convenience with his secretary, Catherine (Muriel Angelus) as a way to make himself more appealing to voters.
But Catherine, who is a widow with a child, does more than just help McGinty’s political status. She begins to exert her influence on him, eventually convincing him to stop his illegal methods. This does not end well for McGinty, who ends up abandoned by his bosses in prison before he manages to escape to the Caribbean. But at least we know that he escaped with his soul, thanks to the conscience instilled in him by his wife.
While the major female character in The Great McGinty is extremely one-dimensional, other films were able to find more interesting ways to explore this type of role. The year before, in 1939, Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was released in theaters. While the traditional Great Woman represents the film’s moral compass, Mr. Smith goes in the opposite direction in developing its story. Jefferson Smith is a bright-eyed idealist from the midwest who is chosen to be a United States Senator by a corrupt Governor who assumes Jeff will toe the line. But Jeff has ideas of his own and quickly gets in trouble with the political machine built on bribery and graft.
|James Stewart and Jean Arthur in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington|
When Jeff’s idealism clashes with his fellow senators’ cruelty and perfidy, it is Saunders, her faith in democracy restored, who stands up for him and helps him take on the political machine. Several scenes feature Saunders standing in the balcony of the senate chamber, shouting and waving to give Jeff advice on what his next move should be. Of course it is Jeff whose valiant stand and day-long filibuster are able to overthrow the corrupt politicians and save the day, but Saunders is extremely active behind helping and supporting him every step of the way.
Perhaps the most complex and powerful take on the Great Woman character is in the 1956 film A Face in the Crowd, which was directed by Elia Kazan. Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) is a young Arkansas journalist who finds alcoholic bum Larry Rhodes (Andy Griffith) to perform on her radio show. After she nicknames him “Lonesome Rhodes” he becomes a local sensation, with his folksy charm, homespun wisdom, and disregard for authority making him a star.
As Lonesome becomes more and more popular his ego inflates drastically, and Marcia watches on as he succumbs to his lust and alcoholism. At the same time she sees how he is blatantly manipulating his audience and using his popularity to become a powerful political figure. Despite realizing that he has become a pedagogue who uses everyone around him, including her, Marcia is too willing to indulge Lonesome because she is in love with him. When he is feeling weak and relies on her for comfort she takes him in repeatedly, against her better judgment.
Lonesome becomes a major political figure thanks to his national television show, and becomes the advisor to a presidential candidate, helping shape his image to seem less elitist and more “of the people.” Marcia realizes how dangerous Lonesome has become, and when he reneges on his proposal to her by having a quickie wedding with an eighteen year-old he meets while judging a pageant, she accepts that she has a responsibility to knock him off his pedestal. During a live taping of his show Marcia turns the speakers on while Lonesome is mocking his audience, destroying his reputation and his political career. As a Great Woman Marcia was unable to turn around the man who had fallen from greatness, and so she had to destroy him, or rather, set him up to destroy himself.
What do these three women have in common, other than that they stay in the background while the men in their lives do great or terrible things? All three women have a power over these men that no other characters in the film have. In The Great McGinty and A Face in the Crowd it is an emotional power; Catherine uses hers to convince McGinty to do the right thing, and Lonesome frequently admits to Marcia that he relies on her, although she is unable to save him from his hubris and instead helps bring about his downfall. In Mr. Smith Saunders becomes the only character that Jeff can trust, and her knowledge and guidance leads him to victory.
|Movie still from A Face in the Crowd|
There is even a motherly quality to all three women, each guiding and protecting the men in their lives in a distinctly maternal manner. Even though all three relationships have a romantic undertone, these women’s interactions with the protagonists have a protective, loving yet chiding and slightly condescending quality that is reminiscent of how a mother might treat a child. In Mr. Smith Saunders at one point describes her pride in seeing Jeff take the Senate floor by storm as being like a mother watching a son’s impressive feat. That motherly pride is one of the defining traits of the Great Woman, as a way to differentiate her from the harlots who might try to lead the protagonist away from the right path.
As the ’60s progressed women began taking roles of greater prominence, still often acting behind the scenes, though, exerting their influence outside the public eye. Characters such as The Manchurian Candidate‘s Eleanor Iselin (Angela Lansbury) showed how roles were evolving for women in political films, and would lay the seeds for characters in films from G.I. Jane to Legally Blonde 2, which include female politicians who still pulled strings in the background. But there are still female characters whose roots can be seen in films like The Great McGinty, Mr. Smith Goes to Washingon, and A Face in The Crowd. So every time you are watching a political film and the most important female character is a wife or a secretary or a journalist (think State of Play or The Ides of March), remember the influence of these early films and cringe at how far we haven’t come.