Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Barbara, Bette, Joan, and Kate

In The Golden Age of Hollywood, there’s only so much room at the top, not just career-wise, but historically speaking. Memory is embarrassingly limited when it comes to the once-popular, and some of Hollywood’s most popular and beloved actresses have been relegated to bloggers’ fantasies or the occasional TCM “Star of the Month” tribute. Yes, we film buffs know and love them, but the majority of actresses aren't as well known and just don’t measure up to the four who remain the quintessential icons of their (and every subsequent) generation.When discussing the Golden Age, four actresses loom large above all others. Let’s call them The Big Four. Listing them by just their first name (though I've included their mugshots, too) is just one indication of their stature:





…and then there’s everyone else: I might as well include 1950s & 1960s actresses in this latter category, because no matter what their achievements, those women just don’t stack up to the four, first-name basis luminaries. When looking at The Big Four’s contemporaries, I find it hard to believe that these diversely talented Golden Age “heavyweights” haven’t enjoyed the same recognition as The Big Four. I will limit them to the 1930s-40s. The notable also-rans:

Ginger Rogers- Equally adept at light comedy and melodrama. She won an Academy Award over Bette and Kate in 1940. Oh, and she danced & sang a little in ten movies with Fred Astaire. Her solo career has been largely dismissed.

Irene Dunne- Another triple threat: hilarious in comedies, effective in dramas, and sang like an angel. In fact, Dunne really wanted to be an opera singer.

Carole Lombard- She’s known more nowadays for being Clark Gable’s wife than she is for being the greatest screwball comedienne ever. She was excellent at dramatic parts, and she died young. World events “upstaged” her untimely death.

Jean Harlow- Comedic brilliance and stylistic immortality; known more for the latter than the former. Too bad.

Myrna Loy- Surprisingly modern but pretty tame, Loy was the most popular female star in 1937; she was “Queen” to Gable’s “King” title. Maybe it was playing the ideal wife in so many movies that did her in, even though she began her career playing exotic vamps. In real life she was as gutsy as The Big Four in battling studio heads for pay befitting her status.

Claudette Colbert- This Oscar winner who could charm you (Midnight) or make you cry like a baby with her dramatics (Since You Went Away). Today, people are apt to think she’s Stephen Colbert’s grandmother.

Joan Fontaine- She and hated sister Olivia De Havilland were wildly popular Oscar winners and both had long-running careers. Now just a footnote, though both are still living. Probably because both are waiting for the other to die; hatred’s funny that way.

Rosalind Russell- Four-time Oscar nominee. Roz epitomized the strong, independent career woman. But her choice of roles did her in, as she only has four or five bona fide classics to her name.

Greer Garson- Always seemed to land all the melodramatic “women’s pictures” and was a perennial contender at Oscar time.

Greta Garbo- She quit making movies by 1941 and has been reduced to a punch line for shut-ins (“I vant to be alone...")

Marlene Dietrich- Best known for her sexually ambiguous attire and being a stylistic influence on pop star Madonna.

Honorable Mentions: Norma Shearer, Janet Gaynor. Their careers reach back to the Silent Era. That probably hurts them.

What made The Big Four so great? Why does the mainstream remember them over the rest? They certainly weren’t the most beautiful, and didn’t sing or dance with any great ability. Bette and Joan weren’t comedic actresses, at least not intentionally. Barbara and Kate excelled in the few they did. Bette and Joan were raconteurs of the highest order, so it would seem that comedy came naturally to them. Was it their longevity? All four were active for at least forty years. How about their twenty-nine combined Oscar nominations? Maybe it’s just the fact that no other actresses produced that high a quality of work for such a long period of time. Maybe it’s the public’s notorious short-term memory. Perhaps it’s because their off-screen lives were infinitely more interesting than anyone else’s. It was probably all of these things, and a hundred more variables I haven't thought of yet. Or, maybe there’s just only so much room at the top. I don’t think that there’s a definitive answer, but it’s a question worth asking, and a fun one to ponder.

And I apologize for having put Bette and Joan adjacent to one another, given their history...


  1. Actually, I was thought Katherine Hepburn was severely overrated, especially compared to Ginger who was a much better actress and outshone her easily in my opinion.

  2. A great list, to which I would add Jean Arthur and Margaret Sullavan. Why were these four so memorable? Maybe you answered your own question when you called them the BIG four. All of them were so much larger-than-life that their screen presence simply dwarfed the other contenders.

  3. "Now just a footnote, though both are still living. Probably because both are waiting for the other to die; hatred’s funny that way."

    OMG! That's my theory too!

  4. Oh, what a wonderful piece!

    I kinda think of it as the big three, though; leaving out Stanwyck. Even though I love her, I think a lot of people outside the classic film community aren't all that aware of her.

    Ginger Rogers, on the other hand, is a household name. But I agree she doesn't have that 'larger-than-life' quality, like Bette, Joan, and Kate.

    I also agree with you about de Havilland and Fontaine! How funny...I'm sure they've made a contest of who can live longest. ;)


    You're doing such a wonderful job here, Dex. :)

    I hope you're doing well in real life.


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