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Feisty Female Protagonists In Old Hollywood Films

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Susqu chapter.

Wondering what movies to watch on your next girls’ night? These forgotten masterpieces feature female protagonists with gumption, intelligence, and sly senses of humor. These movies are perfect for a girls’ night in, or the more romantic ones, such as The Philadelphia Story (1940) are ideal for date night.

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Cary Grant GIF By Coolidge Corner Theatre

Tracy Lord (A Philadelphia Story)

This 1940 film is easily my favorite Katharine Hepburn movie due to the amount of screentime, sassy comebacks, and empowering storyline Hepburn gets. No spoilers, but there’s at least one scene where Hepburn’s character, heiress Tracy Lord, has a fun time drinking and another when she wears a swimsuit that would be fashionable today. Hepburn’s chemistry with both Carey Grant and James Stewart is dynamite, especially when she’s telling them off! This film is currently available to stream on HBO Max.

Cary Grant GIF by Coolidge Corner Theatre - Find & Share on GIPHY
Cary Grant GIF By Coolidge Corner Theatre

Margo Channing (All About Eve)

While this film has had several iterations as it was based on a short story, the 1950 version is by far the best. Bette Davis plays her most iconic role as Margo, a talented but proud Broadway star who is threatened by a younger woman whom she believes is trying to replace her. Not only is Davis’s performance empowering and legendary, but this film isn’t afraid to discuss difficult themes, such as our ageist, patriarchal society that routinely tosses women out the door.

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Classic Film Judging You GIF

Holly Golightly (Breakfast at Tiffany’s)

Yes, this 1961 film is iconic, but that’s entirely due to Audrey Hepburn’s incredible performance. She is entirely believable as the lovable but airheaded Holly Golightly, whom audiences cannot bear to hate no matter how many mistakes she makes. I’d argue that this film is problematic due to its offensive portrayal of the character, Mr. Yunioshi, yet this film also paved the way for female actresses like Hepburn to be taken seriously in the industry. This film is currently available to stream on Paramount Plus.

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Breakfast At Tiffanys Nobody Belongs To Us GIF

Betty Lou (It)

This may be an unconventional pick due to the 1927 film being silent, but trust me, you hardly notice. As someone who doesn’t love silent films, I couldn’t help but admire the way that the music and subtitles make the story so easy to understand. This was one of the earliest American films ever made, and yet it already features strong feminist themes. There’s one scene where the main character Betty Lou, played by Clara Bow, stands up for her roommate, a single mother, when her ability to be a suitable mother is questioned. When the social workers ask why Lou’s friend isn’t married, Lou responds with the line: “That is none of your business!” What a legend indeed. This film is currently available to stream on Vudu.

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Clara Bow Quotes GIF

Dorothy Shaw (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes)

Understandably all the attention in this 1953 film is on one of the female leads, Marilyn Monroe, but I’ve always related much more to her scene partner and equally talented actress, Jane Russell, who plays Dorothy Shaw. Both Monroe and Russell are playing beautiful and talented showgirls, but Russell’s performance stands out to me for her undeniable wit and sarcastic demeanor. You can tell that Russell must’ve been an inspiration for the sassy female protagonists we have in films today.

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Marilyn Monroe Eye Roll GIF

Bunny Watson (Desk Set)

If you’ve never heard of this 1957 Katharine Hepburn film, that’s understandable because it’s sort of a forgotten gem. However, I’d argue that it’s one of Hepburn’s best performances. It’s unusual for her to play a working woman who is focused more on her career than romance, but in this film she is. This film is a delightful take on how realistically women and men still interact in an office setting. I’d say that this film, unlike most others of its time, still feels relevant.

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Desk Set Drinking GIF

Hildy Johnson (His Girl Friday)

This 1940 film features arguably Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell’s best performances. Not only is their dynamic electrifying, but this is another film that features a working woman. You are rooting for Russell’s character, Hildy, throughout the film, and you cannot help but enjoy the co-workers-to-enemies-to-lovers plotline. Watching Russell’s performance just makes you feel alive in a way that most romcom heroines don’t. This is definitely a must-watch! This film is currently available on multiple streaming platforms.

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I'm part time yoga teacher and a full time reader. I never miss an opportunity to listen to audiobooks on a car ride, or to read ebooks during breaks in my classes. I'm a senior at Susquehanna University where my major is creative writing with a minor in women and gender studies.