The Female-Driven Blockbuster Isn’t New—It’s Old - Pacific Standard

The Female-Driven Blockbuster Isn’t New—It’s Old

Ghostbusters and Ocean’s Eight don’t mark a turning point for Hollywood so much as a return: From the 1920s to the ’50s, women drove box-office revenue—in drama, comedy, and ensemble films.
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In 1939, The Women, featuring 135 actresses and zero actors, earned $6.76 million at the box office — the equivalent of $115 million today.

In 1939, The Women, featuring 135 actresses and zero actors, earned $6.76 million at the box office — the equivalent of $115 million today.

Principal photography hasn’t even begun on Ocean’s Eight, Warner Bros.’ upcoming, all-female-starring Ocean’s franchise spinoff—and yet when the studio announced the movie’s lead actresses last week, pundits were already dooming the film to failure. The evidence convincing some to sound the early death knell? The box office performance of a single movie released this summer: Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters.

Hollywood executives and movie heads, Jezebel reported, “are already picking apart the women-led Ocean’s Eleven reboot, hoping it won’t suffer the same fate as Ghostbusters.” Journalists are too: Another all-female spinoff of a fan-favorite franchise is a “risky move, given that a similar all-female spinoff of Sony’s Ghostbusters failed to ignite at the box office in a way that justified the film’s $150 million budget,” Tatiana Siegel wrote at The Hollywood Reporter on Wednesday. On Twitter, misogynist trolls predictably derided the film’s casting announcement under the trending hashtag #FeministaMovie, which made several mentions of Feig’s comedy, comedian-starring, $144 million-budgeted, and altogether entirely different release.

It’s hardly the first time that Hollywood’s industry pundits have cited distinct box-office failures of yesteryear to argue that films starring women don’t work. In 2015, one leaked Sony email showed Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter calling female-superhero movies like Supergirl, Catwoman, and Elektra a “disaster” to Sony executive Michael Lynton, apparently in order to explain why his studio did not invest in female superhero movies. Television show runner Shonda Rhimes (Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy) has said that a successful female-driven project is often called a “fluke”—even though such box-office hits such as Lara Croft: Tomb Raider ($252 million worldwide) and Mad Max: Fury Road ($375 million worldwide), and years with more female-driven films doing better at the box office, suggest otherwise.

But show business commentators aren’t just ignoring recent female-driven successes when they cast doubt on Ocean’s Eight—they forget a 30-year history of female-driven films dominating Hollywood too. Along with this summer’s Ghostbusters, the upcoming Ocean’s spinoff isn’t so much a departure from the norm as a return to the gender parity that existed onscreen in Hollywood’s Golden Age. From the 1920s until the ’50s, female stars held immense box office power—in dramas and comedies and ensemble films.

Though Hollywood may look like a white boys’ club now, in its early years, actresses ruled the silver screen. Stars like Greta Garbo and Pola Negri were the headliners and box-office draws for mainstream American films, and major actresses reportedly earned larger salaries than their male counterparts in the 1930s. In fact, the number of recognizable women stars regularly outnumbered men by two to one, according to Picture-Play journalist Helen Klumph. “Since the earliest days of motion pictures, the industry has recognized that women stars are more popular than men,” Klumph observed in her 1926 article “Which Make Better Actors, Men or Women?” (she settled, perhaps unsurprisingly, on the latter.)

Ironic as it may seem today, Hollywood critics throughout the 1930s and early ’40s bemoaned the dearth of good roles for men.

Ironic as it may seem today, Hollywood critics throughout the 1930s and early ’40s bemoaned 

the

dearth

of good roles for men. “‘For years the wail has been that box-office male personalities are scarcer than natural eyelashes,”

Picture-Play

’s Richard Griffith

wrote in 1937

. “The story goes, that somehow audiences do not take to stellar actors.” The story was confirmed, he wrote, “by the unquestioned fact that there are only a few men who can support stardom in their own right” — including masculine movie idols Clark Gable, Robert Taylor, and Gary Cooper.

Samuel Goldwyn, the executive producer and co-founder of Goldwyn Pictures, wasn’t just talking about Hollywood’s ubiquitous female stars when he exclaimed “Women rule Hollywood!” in a 1935 New Movie magazine article. Goldwyn acknowledged that female audiences, who he claimed comprised over 70 percent of filmgoers at the time, kept the industry alive. “Without the steady patronage of women, theaters and studios could not survive,” he wrote. His studio, among others, accordingly opted for “love stories” and “stress emotionalism” over “grimness and cruelty,” he said, because women dictated the market. (Goldwyn, indeed, could have taught today’s box-office analysts a thing or two: In 2014, the Motion Picture Association of America found that a slightly larger percentage of women went to one or more film a year than men.)

Perhaps in part because they proved to be lucrative as actresses and viewers, Hollywood welcomed women behind the camera too. Frances Marion, who won the 1930 Academy Award in Screenwriting for Big House, was the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood, male or female, from 1917 until the mid-1930s. And she wasn’t alone: During the first decades of the industry, Hollywood historian Cari Beauchamp wrote in her book Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood, “almost one quarter of the screenwriters in Hollywood were women. Half of all the films copyrighted between 1911 and 1925 were written by women.” Beauchamp further contends that women during this time time had ample opportunity to make it as directors, producers, and editors too.

Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride in Ma and Pa Kettle. 

Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride in Ma and Pa Kettle. 

In Classical Hollywood, it was never in question that female-driven comedies — the precedents for movies like Bridesmaids and Ghostbusters — could make money. Nor were women given one film as a tryout run (Feig has said women in Hollywood today endure perpetual “litmus tests”) that would determine future opportunities. The list of female comedians who enjoyed long and lucrative careers at this time is impressive by today’s standards: “Madcap” Mabel Normand, who made over 100 films in her short career; Carole Lombard, who starred in hugely popular “screwball” comedies of the 1930s and ’40s; and the iconic redhead Lucille Ball, who enjoyed a 40-year career spanning film and TV.

Oftentimes, even the most successful male comedians had a female “wingman” to help them to sustain comedic and caper franchises. William Powell and Myrna Loy made 14 films together, including six Thin Man crime capers between 1934 and 1947. Bing Crosby and Bob Hope collaborated with Dorothy Lamour in seven “Road to…” movies in the 1940s, and the Ma and Pa Kettle duo of Percy Kilbride and Marjorie Main of the ’40s and ’50s spawned nine hit films that saved Universal from bankruptcy.

It would not have been extraordinary, moreover, for one of these female-driven blockbusters to have eight lead actresses, as Ocean’s Eight will. In 1939, one of Hollywood’s most extraordinary years, several legendary blockbusters including The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind werefemale-led and female-audience driven. That same year, Loew’s Inc. distributed The Women, an all-female comedy featuring an astounding 135 actresses including some of Hollywood’s top-grossing stars —such as Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Joan Fontaine, Butterfly McQueen, and Paulette Goddard. The comedy, in which no men appear (not even as extras) earned over $6.76 million at the box office—approximately $115 million today.

When did studios change their minds about the box-office potential in female-driven films? At the beginning of Word War II, women stars and subjects dominated the Hollywood box office—but as the war went on, male headliners such as Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, and Ronald Reagan, and the muscular film genres they starred in, caught up. During and after the war, westerns, detective films, war movies, and action films became reliable moneymakers; John Wayne cemented his reputation as a lucrative symbol of American patriotism. Men moved into the previously female-dominated genre of drama as the advent of “Method” acting offered actors like Montgomery Clift, James Dean, and Marlon Brando complex, dramatic roles previously only afforded to actresses.

Powerful and glamorous screen goddesses all but vanished as two new female archetypes emerged: the Sex Object (such as Marilyn Monroe and Jane Mansfield) and the Virgin (including the likes of Sandra Dee and Doris Day). Nevertheless, smart female-driven comedies and ensemble movies continued to succeed when they were green-lit. Even as second wave feminism fizzled during the early years of Reagan’s presidency, 1980’s Private Benjamin, starring Goldie Hawn, became the year’s third highest-grossing wide release; also in 1980, the feminist comedy 9 to 5 raked in over $100 million at the box office. In 1996, The First Wives Club made even more, and in 2001, Bridget Jones’s Diary brought in over twice that—$254 million.

In 2015, the combined global earnings of four female-led studio comedies (Pitch Perfect 2, Trainwreck, Spy, and Hot Pursuit) was over $715 million on combined budgets of $164 million—leading Entertainment Weekly to call it the “the summer of funny women.” Last year, too, seven of the 10 highest-grossing domestic films, from animated winners like Home and Inside Out to others like Pitch Perfect 2 and Mad Max: Fury Road, all featured women in starring roles. Again, this so-called “summer of women” is nothing new: Other summer-release female-driven comedies—from Mean Girls to Legally Blonde to Trainwreck—have also made back their budgets in opening weekend.

It can hardly hurt for journalists to be hyperbolic about the recent successes of female-driven films; it seems Hollywood could use an energetic reminder that, in the broader context of female-driven movies, Ghostbusters is something of an anomaly. But pundits’ short-term memory of box-office totals is concerning in one regard—it can only hurt the major studios’ bottom lines. Women have made blockbusters for a century now, and if the film medium is to survive and flourish in the 21st century, it’s worth re-visiting and reviving those successes. Representing half of the population on the silver screen is good for business: Executives in the early years, when the medium was new and all its possibilities were being explored, understood that.

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