Women in Politics Week: Politics Is a Man’s Game: The Trope of the Great Woman in Early Hollywood Narratives

This is a guest post by Tom Houseman.
Movie still from The Great McGinty
Since the 1990s the sight of female politicians, both in real life and in films and television shows, has become more and more common. Women are making great strides in the American political landscape—when new congressional representatives are sworn in in January there will be a record number of candidates in the House—and the film and TV industries have done their best to keep up with that trend, if not necessarily pave the way. Dramas from The Contender to Commander in Chief and comedies including Veep and even Political Animals show the unique struggles that women face when they rise to positions of power, some more insightfully than others.

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
Saunders (Jean Arthur) is Jeff’s secretary, bitter and jaded, announcing at the very beginning of the film her intention to quit. She sees Jeff as a rube and a bumpkin who has no business in politics, and when he comes up with an idea for a bill to turn a stretch of land in the midwest into a Boys’ Camp (using the exact land that his corrupt bosses want to use for a dam) Saunders attempts to put him in his place by explaining to him how difficult getting anything done in Washington is, but she ends up fueling his passion by giving him the knowledge to accomplish his goals.

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
None of these three women is overtly sexual, at least compared to the other women we see in the film. Catherine is seen as chaste and pure and even when she and McGinty fall in love there is no hint of lust in their relationship. Saunders intentionally de-sexes herself around her co-workers, none of whom even know her first name, and she deeply resents Susan, the daughter of a corrupt senator who uses her feminine wiles to distract Jeff from the shady dealings going on around him. And while Marcia does have sex with Lonesome (coming out in the ’50s gave the film the leeway to imply, if not show, extramarital sex), the film clearly gives her the moral high-ground over the other floozies with whom he has sex, as well as the very young woman he marries instead of Marcia.

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.

Tom Houseman was born white, straight, male, cis, and rich. He has done a lot of work unpacking and understanding his many forms of privilege. He is far from perfect, but he is learning. He writes film reviews and analysis for BoxOfficeProphets.com. If you want to officially like him, you can do so at Facebook.com/tomhousemanwriting.