2018 Winner: Performing Resistance: Myrna Loy, Joan Crawford, and Barbara Stanwyck in Postwar Cinema

Project Information
Performing Resistance: Myrna Loy, Joan Crawford, and Barbara Stanwyck in Postwar Cinema
FIlm 195: Senior Thesis
This paper looks closely at the performances of three actresses in the immediate post World War II era: Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, and Myrna Loy. Through close analysis of their performances within films directed (though not always written) by men, I argue that these actresses shaped and subverted the dominant gender ideology of the postwar era. Barbara Stanwyck played formative femme fatales in Double Indemnity (1944) and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946). Critical literature, especially on Double Indemnity, has reduced her character, Phyllis Dietrichson, into an unknowable monster. Close attention to Stanwyck's performance in these films, though, finds line deliveries, facial expressions, and quiet gestures which construct a comprehensive presentation of sexual desire (and sometimes disinterest) at total odds with the unknowable evil seductress that her characters are reduced to in most criticism. While Stanwyck’s performances humanize women who are otherwise presented as evil, Joan Crawford heroizes the women she plays, women who are otherwise made by their films into pathetic victims. In this series of post war films Crawford made at Warner Bros, including Daisy Kenyon (1947), Possessed (1947), and Sudden Fear (1952), Crawford plays women who are cheated on, gaslit, and almost murdered by various men. In each of these films, she finds moments to perform heroic transformation, in which her face rewrites pain as impermeable strength. Unlike Stanwyck, in films like The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and Song of the Thin Man (1947), Myrna Loy plays normative women, and unlike Crawford, she was publicly viewed as one. At the same time, in these films Loy performed anxiety at the heart of housewives whose prime feature was supposed to be their unquestioned faith in normative American culture. In attending to the close details of performance, I aim to center female creative energy within these male-
directed films.
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  • Asher Guthertz (Porter)