Girlhood Revisited: A Chronological Look Back at Women’s Coming-of-Age Films (Part 1: The Early Year
Greta Gerwig’s LADY BIRD was released earlier this year to wide acclaim, and for good reasons: Few films have taken the trials and tribulations of teenage girls quite so seriously, and even fewer have managed to make their main character feel so wonderfully—and, at times, so frustratingly—relatable. If you’ve ever been a 17-year-old girl, you know what it’s like to screech at your mother in a blind rage (yikes), find out the person you’ve set your heart on isn’t what they seem, or try to change yourself to better fit in with the popular crowd (while pushing away the friends who really care about you).
As LADY BIRD so clearly illustrates, the best coming-of-age films are the ones that are incredibly personal—yet historically women have been quite underrepresented as writers and directors in the industry. This means our stories have often been told by men, or buried at the box office, or significantly altered, or centered around a male love interest, or not told at all. Which makes watching and celebrating the stories told for us, by us, all the more important. So starting with some important banner films from the silent era and moving all the way up through 2017, I present to you a curated canon of important entries from the genre.
Follow my full list of women’s coming-of-age films on Letterboxd, and stay tuned for the next installment, in which we’ll explore the period between 1945 and 1960.
I originally set out to start with films from the 1960s (think DAISIES onward), but as I began my research, I couldn’t help but notice some interesting patterns and developments in the industry’s earliest years that I’d probably forgotten about in the years that’ve passed since film school: chief among them, the incredibly fruitful artistic partnership between silent screen star Mary Pickford and screenwriter Frances Marion. Because in the 1910s and 1920s, Hollywood actually wasn’t just an old boys’ club—Marion was busy writing stories about girls and young women, Dorothy Arzner was directing some of the biggest films of the day, and Lois Weber was making films at her own movie studio. But by the time the industry transitioned from silent films to talkies, the ranks of female directors dwindled all the way down to just about zero. There’s also the full implementation of the Motion Picture Production Code in 1934 to take into account, which meant filmmakers were no longer able to broach the more sensitive subject matter most coming-of-age stories require. Onto the films…
THE POOR LITTLE RICH GIRL (1917): Frances Marion was a frequent collaborator with Hollywood It girl Mary Pickford, and it was their work on THE POOR LITTLE RICH GIRL that cemented Marion’s status as one of the decade’s most important (and highest paid) screenwriters. Here, Pickford—age 25—plays Gwendolyn, the neglected preteen daughter of two rich, self-absorbed parents who is for all intents and purposes a prisoner of her massive family home and a group of caretakers who don’t much care for her. In fact, it isn’t until she’s nearly killed by an overdose of sleeping pills that her parents realize the error of their neglectful ways. Marion’s script touches all sorts of prescient themes, from the sometimes competitive nature of female friendships to the rigidity of gender roles (young Gwendolyn at one point is forced to dress as a boy as a form of “punishment” and actually finds she enjoys wearing boys’ clothing and acting like a boy).
DIARY OF A LOST GIRL (1929): DIARY OF A LOST GIRL (co-written by Margarete Böhme) is clearly a film that would've been all but impossible to make once the Hays Code went into full effect. The movie—which marks actress Louise Brooks's second collaboration with director TK after the wildly successful PANDORA'S BOX—follows a young naive girl, Thymian, who falls pregnant after being taken advantage of by her father's business associate and is sent to a rigid reform school after she refuses to wed her assaulter. After her father and his new bride refuse to take Thymian back into their home, Thymian runs away and turns to prostitution to survive. Ultimately, though, our young heroine inherits her father's fortune and becomes the headmistress of the same reform school she once attended, where she's much kinder and more sympathetic to her charges than the staff ever was to her.
MÄDCHEN IN UNIFORM (1931): Austrian director Leontine Sagan collaborated with German-Hungarian playwright Christa Winsloe to bring Winsloe’s hit play, MÄDCHEN IN UNIFORM—a daring tale of the love that blossoms between a sensitive boarding school student, Manuela, and her teacher, Fräulein von Bernburg—to the silver screen in 1931. The film is notable not only for its sympathetic view of its queer characters and all-female cast but also for its criticism of the country's education system, which the filmmakers saw as incredibly harsh. Based off a true story, according to Winsloe (who attended the boarding school the film was shot in), the film doesn't exactly have a happy ending, but Manuela (who is quarantined for "emotionalism" aka coming out as a lesbian) is stopped from committing suicide after Fräulein von Bernburg is fired from her position at the school.
LITTLE WOMEN (1933): Filmed and released just pre-Code, George Cukor’s lavish filmic adaptation of LITTLE WOMEN (following the 1917 and 1918 versions that have since been lost) was co-written by Sarah Yeiser Mason and her husband (and frequent collaborator) Victor Heerman. The pair won an Academy Award for their script, which followed the adventures of the four March sisters as they pass from childhood to adulthood in New England. Katharine Hepburn is especially fantastic as Jo March, the tomboyish, independent second-oldest sister who rejects a marriage proposal in order to focus on her career as an author. The film was later remade in 1949 with contributions from Mason and Heerman, 1978 (featuring a script by Suzanne Clauser), and 1994 (directed by Gillian Armstrong from a script by Robin Swicord).
FINISHING SCHOOL (1934): Wanda Tuchock is one of only two women credited as directors on a feature film during the 1930s (the other being Arzner), and in the pre-Code FINISHING SCHOOL, she also served as co-writer. The film centers around Virginia Radcliffe (Frances Dee), a young girl sent to a snobby boarding school by her wealthy parents, where she's soon given more freedom than she knows what to do with (this is pre-Code Hollywood, after all). As it turns out, the school doesn't much care what its pupils get up to as long as they're discrete, and its high-society pupils are hardly models of propriety. The film handles subjects like date rape pretty frankly—at the hands of a school football player, no less—as well as young love, so of course it was widely condemned by religious groups at the time of its release.