In the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, women held their own as top-tier movie stars, with their names over the titles of their own films and equal billing when they co-starred with their male counterparts.
And their movies were among each year’s biggest hits — all over the world.
Where the biggest films land in the top 10 for many of those earliest years vary from source to source (including websites Box Office Mojo and The Numbers, as well as show-biz trade papers Variety and the Hollywood Reporter). But the same titles tend to crop up, and many of them star women.
Greta Garbo sat atop the cinematic world in the 1930s, with a string of top-10 movies: “Anna Christie” and “Romance” in 1930, “Mata Hari” and “Susan Lenox” in 1931; “Grand Hotel,” “Emma” and “As You Desire Me” in 1932; “Queen Christina” in 1933; “Anna Karenina” in 1935; “Camille” in 1936,” and “Ninotchka” in 1939.
That’s a remarkable run by any standard — but she wasn’t alone. Other women who starred in top-10 movies during the ’30s, and were often billed above their leading men, include Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, Miriam Hopkins, Jean Harlow, Katharine Hepburn, Claudette Colbert, Myrna Loy, Bette Davis, Jeanette MacDonald, Barbara Stanwyck and child actress Shirley Temple, among others.
If that’s not enough, the decade was capped by “Gone With the Wind,” which, by ticket count, remains the biggest box office hit of all time. Sure, Clark Gable was a big draw for that one, but there’s no question that Vivien Leigh had the lead as Scarlett O’Hara, and it earned her a well-deserved Oscar.
Some of the 1940s’ biggest hits starred the same women, along with Joan Crawford, Joan Fontaine, Ginger Rogers, Lauren Bacall, Greer Garson, Jennifer Jones, Gene Tierney, Betty Grable and Ingrid Bergman, while the 1950s saw the rise of Audrey Hepburn, Doris Day, Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor — and all of this only scratches the surface.
So when did movie studios decide that women can’t “open” a picture, or, in other words, bring in an audience?
Haven’t they seen anything with Sandra Bullock or Meryl Streep or Scarlett Johansson or Jennifer Lawrence? Are they unaware of the box office earnings of the four Hunger Games movies? Or the Pitch Perfect franchise? Or “Mad Max: Fury Road,” which actually starred, not Max, but Furiosa (vividly portrayed by Charlize Theron). Or last year’s No. 1 box-office hit, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” in which Felicity Jones had the lead role?
They may have been oblivious to those films being led by women, but no studio will be able to turn a blind eye to “Beauty and the Beast,” starring Emma Watson, or Gal Gadot as “Wonder Woman,” which are firmly entrenched in the respective No. 1 and No. 2 spots on this year’s box office hit list.
And their earnings are far enough ahead of the pack to keep them there — at least until “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” opens on Dec. 15 — and which, if it follows the pattern set by “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” will also have a female protagonist, Daisy Ridley reprising her lead role as Rey, the heir apparent to the Force.
“Beauty and the Beast” (which actually opened well before summer) and “Wonder Woman” are big enough blockbusters that Hollywood movers and shakers will have to take notice and, hopefully, might feel compelled to greenlight more female-centric pictures.
As for the rest of the 2017 box office list (so far), the usual suspects fill out slots three through 10 — “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2,” “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” “Despicable Me 3,” “Logan,” “The Fate of the Furious,” “The Lego Batman movie,” “Get Out” and “The Boss Baby.”
The only anomaly is “Get Out,” a low-budget horror film and one of the summer’s few real surprises. Maybe “Beauty and the Beast” qualifies too — not the first live-action Disney adaptation of one of its own animated classics, but certainly the most successful.
The rest are the same old superheroes, sequels, cartoons — and sometimes amalgams of all three (“Lego Batman,” anyone?).
So, that’s the domestic list, with box office earnings by theaters in North America.
And the top 10 worldwide list isn’t all that different: “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Fate of the Furious,” “Despicable Me 3,” “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” “Wonder Woman,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales,” “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” “Logan,” “Transformers: The Last Knight” and “Kong: Skull Island.”
All of this is, of course, a major sea change from films of old. Back in the 1930s to 1950s — and well beyond — movies were not all about fantasy.
Yes, I know, “The Wizard of Oz” was a big hit in 1939, but superheroes and horror and space operas and animation were only a part of the movie ephemera for decades. They didn’t dominate every screen in town.
Movies used to be about people, the human condition and situations with which we could readily identify.
But I digress. That’s a subject for another column.