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If Darwin Went to the Movies

April 2009

BACK IN THE late ‘40s and into the ‘50s, there was a ubiquitous cigarette ad aimed at women. Some may remember the slogan: “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby”. The message was blatant — cigarette smoking marked a new and grander evolutionary stage for the American female. Now any film buff could have told you this had been forecast in movies some time before, along with a number of other gender characteristics that, by that process of natural and unnatural selection practiced by Hollywood, would benefit Nature. We might even speak, if you will, of a kind of cinematic Origin of the Species for there is a Darwin-like scale of female ascension to the movie woman — a mutation here, a mutation there, some a step forward, a few slips back, but still inexorably forward. Curiously, and Darwin would have certainly been interested in this, a parallel evolutionary course is not followed by the movie male. Men, costume and coiffed differently, to be sure, remain pretty much the same today as they did in early film.

The turn of the last century defined for the movies the earliest, first developmental stage of the good American woman. This was the primitive level of the all-American girl tightly packaged before the post-war importing of foreign actresses could introduce their immoral ways. At this point, they didn’t smoke, not having biologically adapted to what was then viewed as a behavioral trait of jaded, depraved sophistication. The good movie woman, like Blanche Sweet, Mary Pickford, Linda Arvidson and Fanny Ward represented the most natural girl/woman ideal: pre-adolescent, wholesome, plucky, lots of get-up-and-go, generally without bosoms, and none too bright, bordering on the ditzy and moronic. The films of Chaplain and Keaton take advantage of this genetic defect.

But there was a dark side hidden in the movie female’s DNA that would be revealed by Fox Studio in an important mutational leap. This took the form of Theda Bara, nee Theodosia Goodman, a nice, unknowing girl from Cincinnati. Bara became the Vamp, a seductress who sexually lured men to their doom. While Bara’s career was brief, 1915 to 1918, this trace of lusty female danger was too good to be abandoned. Was it not Zeus, who in creating Pandora, called her a ‘beautiful disaster’?

Whether vamp or virgin, the ladies of that period were remarkably small, and if you wished to be mean about it, most were slightly on the dumpy side as well as bosomy challenged — biologically speaking. Even Greta Garbo, in her Swedish film days, was plump. Geraldine Farrar, a popular actress from 1915 to 1920, was fleshy from top to bottom. The American Girl look to put it plainly, was short and sturdy.

The waywardness of the evolutionary drive would make another jump ahead in the ‘20s. Given now that the majority of post-war movie-goers were women, awakening perhaps to their own genetic impulses, Hollywood went all out to please them with a steady dose of romantic love stories and, forcing natural selection a tad, a new cast of taller and slimmed-down actresses. For Pola Negri, Norma Talmadge, Garbo and Gloria Swanson, the studios created male stars as romantic complement — Rudolph Valentino, Ronald Coleman, John Gilbert. The women of these emotionally-charged love dramas bore, if not the appearance, still most of the homey virtues of the older stars — innocence, purity, and fully clothed. Opposing them were the actresses who inherited the suspect vamp gene and who became the iconic representation of the Jazz Age, a startling mutation that was destined to last. Colen Moore in the 1923 “Flaming Youth” was the first of the flapper girls, Clara Bow tagged as the IT girl of the era. Louise Brooks and Laura la Plante popularized the flapper’s signature short hair and bangs. The flappers brought in a different kind of woman — a dash of eroticism, aggressive, no longer the simple country girl, but urbanized and while their movies were silent you knew they were smart and sassy. Most of them now smoked and drank and they would set the scene for the actresses that would evolve out of the ‘30s Great Depression.

The American studio system was in full swing by the ‘30s, a marvel of efficiency and control, a biological wonder in itself, each studio holding a roster of contract stars, bringing in the best script and dialogue writers in the business who could artfully side-step the censorship restrictions on the 1930 Production Code. Out of this emerged the new and improved American woman — Rosalind Russell, Myrna Loy, Carol Lombard, Ann Sheridan (the Oomph girl), Claudette Colbert, Katherine Hepburn — these paired off with male counterparts — Gable, Tracey, Grant. Here were the women to be reckoned with, no swooning, timid, virginal girls but grown-up, fast-talking, wise-cracking, emancipated and tough. The dramatic features were shored up by Bette Davis’ cigarette puffing, excitable mannerisms and Joan Crawford’s amorous sufferings. The studios wrote scripts for their individual personae, provided them with clever lines.

The 1940s opened on another war and women’s evolution paused, slid back a bit as actresses found their roles patriotically shifting to war brides, the-girl-back-home, swell girls doing their best in factories and USOs. Colbert goes to war in “So Proudly We Hail” and “Since You Went Away”; Loy, patient mother and wife in “Best Years of Our Lives”. Hepburn largely ignored the changeover continuing in grand style with “Woman of the Year” and “Adam’s Rib”. But the ‘30s gang would never be the same again.

Most of the emancipated movie ladies would go on into the ‘50s but were up against some evolutionary shifts. Post-war prosperity converted the former, ‘she-who-waits’ woman to ‘she-who-is-a-happy-homemaker’. Television sit-coms pumped out a stock woman character, the aproned mother/housekeeper in shows like “Ozzie and Harriet”, “Leave It to Beaver”, and “Father Knows Best”. Some of this would seep into film threatening to halt the evolutionary march of movie women if it was not for a fortuitous mutation that proved the Darwinian observation that at certain moments a physical trait, long suppressed, might suddenly appear. Jayne Mansfield, Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth, and Jane Russell bowed in as the ‘50s sex symbols. Some, like Hayworth, served as the voluptuous girl from-across-the-tracks, Monroe the dumb blonde, Mansfield even dumber, Russell, referred to as the primal female, was not shy at sneeringly parodying the sexual movie persona. All were exceedingly well built.

In a classic genetic merger, an adaptation of opposite behavioral traits in a single genus that would bring joy to any student of Darwin, Hollywood engineered a Doris Day — pert and perky, forever chaste yet hinting at sexual promise. Everyone’s dream girl, Day’s innocent sex comedies were enormously popular in the ‘50s and ‘60s — and safe. Her movie genes would pass on to today’s Jennifer Aniston and Meg Ryan.

By the end of the ‘60s, the Hollywood studio machine was broken. The evolutionary effect on movie genders was much like that of the dinosaurs caught up in a devastating cataclysm. For actors, the business became complex, uncertain, the need now for personal agents and publicists. To be typecast like the older stars could be fatal to a career, no one was writing scripts to showcase their special talents. To evolve meant that versatility must trump uniqueness — protective coloration, chameleon changes, all needed for survival. And accompanying this, as it inevitably must, comes a creeping sameness. Film actors, male and female, evolve, eerily, to resemble one another, movie women looking increasingly like the models in commercial advertising. Kate Winslet and Cate Blanchett might be near sisters, so too of Angelina Jolie, Penelope Cruz, and Salma Hayek — these in turn looking like the cast of TV’s Desperate Housewives.

Movie evolution has left no clearly described categories of movie actresses other than, perhaps, blonde and brunette. Now and then a mutant pops up who works her way through independent films — Catherine Keener, Parker Posey, Hope Davis, but these are few and there is little evidence their kind will continue. Recently, however, there has occurred an evolutionary ripple that film Darwinians are keeping a sharp eye on — the strange case of Gwyneth Paltrow, a movie woman much like the others, going unblushingly from “Shakespeare in Love” to “Shallow Hal” and who now presents herself as a New Age proselyte. Is this an errant mutation, doomed to quick extinction or the next great evolutionary leap for movie women? Will later female stars also be writing cook books, offering home advice on parenting, marriage, and heaven knows what else? Will a fresh crop of genes turn our movie women into clones of Martha Stewart? We can only wait.