Leslie W. Price
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Theatre director, writer, and arts educator.

Since the silent era, women have been shining brightly both on-screen and off and are steadily claiming their rightful, equal places alongside their male counterparts. Whether they're cracking wise or overcoming tragedy, female characters are fun to watch and are definitely inspiring. Read on for 21 of our favorite classic movies that feature strong women and great stories. 

1. The Thin Man

Year: 1934

Streaming on iTunes (rent for $2.99)

The first in the classic six-part series, “The Thin Man” stars Myrna Loy as Nora Charles opposite William Powell’s Nick Charles. Loy as Nora is wise-cracking and confident and is most definitely an equal partner to Nick. In an era when women were often relegated to playing mothers or ingenues, Nora is a happily-married, child-free woman, enjoying a thrilling life on her own terms.

2. Stage Door

Year: 1937

Streaming on Amazon Prime (rent for $2.99)

This RKO film adapted from the play of the same name features amazing performers including Katharine Hepburn, Lucille Ball, Ginger Rogers, and Anne Miller. Hepburn stars as Terry, a young actress in New York setting out for a career on the stage despite her father’s wishes. Set in The Footlights Club, a boarding house for actresses, “Stage Door” deftly addresses many of the challenges facing young performers then and now.

3. Gone With the Wind

Year: 1939

Streaming on Amazon Prime (rent for $3.99)

While Gone With the Wind is more than a little problematic, it’s hard to deny that this movie is packed with strong women. From the iconic Scarlett O’Hara doing everything she can to save her beloved Tara to Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar-winning turn as Mammy, Gone With the Wind is, at its heart, a story about powerful females taking charge and a persevering. 

4. His Girl Friday

Year: 1940

Streaming on Amazon Prime (incl. w/Prime or rent for $2.99)

Rosalind Russell plays smart, witty, take-charge Hildy Johnson opposite Cary Grant’s Walter Burns. This newspaper-room comedy features rapid-fire dialogue and a pretty thrilling mystery showcasing Russell’s sly energy wrapped up in a story about a woman who isn’t afraid to make her own choices. 

5. Kitty Foyle

Year: 1940

Streaming on Amazon Prime (rent for $2.99)

Ginger Rogers won a Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of the titular character in this beautiful film about dreams, choices, and challenges facing women in the 1940s. This 80 year-old film feels remarkably fresh, and Rogers’ performance is mesmerizing.

6. Mrs. Miniver

Year: 1942

Streaming on iTunes (rent for $2.99)

Set against the backdrop of World War II, Mrs. Miniver tells the story of a British family and the matriarch who holds everyone together as their lives are changed forever. Greer Garson deservedly won an Academy Award for her starring role.

7. Christmas in Connecticut

Year: 1945

Streaming on Amazon Prime (incl. w/Prime or rent for $2.99)

Choosing among Barbara Stanwyck’s filmography full of powerful female characters is almost impossible, but her performance as career woman Elizabeth Lane is fun, charming and deserving of attention. A departure from the film noir many fans love her for, Christmas in Connecticut shows Stanwyck scheming and dreaming in this delightful holiday classic.

8. Born Yesterday

Year: 1950

Streaming on Amazon Prime (rent for $3.99)

Brassy and brash Billie Dawn (played by the incredible Judy Holliday) is talked into marrying her corrupt sugar daddy so she can’t be forced to testify against him in court. When her husband becomes annoyed with her social faux pas, he hires journalist Paul Verral to tutor her. In the process, Billie discovers she’s smarter and stronger than anyone gave her credit for.

9. Johnny Belinda

Year: 1948

Streaming on iTunes (rent for $2.99)

Jane Wyman stars in this heartbreaking story about a young woman who is deaf and mute. Based on true events, Johnny Belinda is generally considered to be the first Hollywood movie that dealt with the trauma of rape, and Wyman’s thoughtful portrayal of Belinda MacDonald is multidimensional and compassionate.

10. All About Eve

Year: 1950

Streaming on Amazon Prime (rent for $3.99)

The only film in Oscar history to receive four female acting nominations, All About Eve is a classic tale of power, greed and loyalty. Bette Davis and Anne Baxter are incredible in this Hollywood classic that every film lover should watch.

11. The African Queen

Year: 1952

Streaming on Amazon Prime (rent for $0.99)

Katharine Hepburn stars opposite Humphrey Bogart in this thrilling adventure story. Hepburn’s Rose Sayer proves herself to be clever, cunning and just as brave as Bogart’s tough-as-nails Charlie Allnut. Shot partly on location in Africa, stories about the making of The African Queen”are almost as intriguing as the film itself.

12. Gidget

Year: 1957

Streaming on Amazon Prime (rent for $3.99)

This movie confection is ostensibly a teenybopper flick about dating and romance in the 1950s, but it’s worth a closer look. Sandra Dee’s Francie Lawrence is left behind when all of her bffs become more interested in boys than in friendship, so she turns to surfing to fill the void. When all of the local surfers initially scoff at the idea of a girl taking up the sport, Francie becomes even more determined to meet her goal. 

13. Imitation of Life

Year: 1959

Streaming on Amazon Prime (rent for $3.99)

Sandra Dee shows up for a much more dramatic role in this remake of the 1934 film of the same name. Also starring Lana Turner, Juanita Moore and Mahalia Jackson singing a powerful version of “Trouble of the World,” Imitation of Life grapples with race, class and gender in a film that stays with audiences long after the closing credits. 

14. To Kill a Mockingbird

Year: 1962

Streaming on Amazon Prime (rent for $3.99)

Told from the point of view of an adult Scout (narrated beautifully by Kim Stanley who is uncredited in the film) and featuring a powerfully honest performance by Mary Badham as young Scout, To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic. Although the plot centers around Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch, Scout holds the story’s frame, relaying it from the perspective of a young, impressionable girl and — ultimately — from the perspective of her older self. 

15. The Unsinkable Molly Brown

Year: 1964

Streaming on Amazon Prime (rent for $2.99)

This musical inspired by the real life of brash, social-climber and Titanic survivor Molly Brown features Debby Reynolds singing and dancing her way through Meredith Wilson’s rousing score.

16. Funny Girl

Year: 1968

Streaming on Amazon Prime (rent for $3.99)

Barbra Streisand’s film debut is loosely based on the life of vaudeville-, Broadway- and film-comedian Fannie Brice. Both hilarious and heartbreaking, Funny Girl features classic songs like “People” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” 

17. Alien

Year: 1979

Streaming for free on Crackle 

A list of films with powerful female leads wouldn’t be complete without this modern classic. Sigourney Weaver as the determined and fearless Ridley has influenced countless films since Alien premiered, and Weaver’s outstanding performance is an inspiration for aspiring badasses of all genders. 

18. The Color Purple

Year: 1982

Streaming on Netflix

Proving that the strength of women can overcome a multitude of obstacles, this adaptation of Alice Walker’s acclaimed novel tells the coming-of-age story of Celie and how, despite constantly being told otherwise, she manages to discover her self-worth with the help of other powerful women.

19. Out of Africa

Year: 1985

Included w/HBO Now; also streaming on iTunes (rent for $3.99)

Meryl Streep stars in this epic romance based on Isak Dinesen’s autobiography. The pace is a little slow, but the beautiful scenery and stunning performances are well worth a watch. Plus, Streep’s portrayal of Baroness Karen von Blixen (Dinesen’s real name) is fantastic. 

20. She’s Gotta Have It

Year: 1986

Streaming on Netflix

Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns) values her freedom over all else and isn’t particularly interested in settling down with one man. This film celebrates female sexuality and is a must-watch — especially for fans of the Netflix series based on the movie. 

21. Babette’s Feast

Year: 1987

Streaming on iTunes (rent for $3.99)

This heartwarming, Oscar-winning Danish film definitely passes the Bechdel Test and honors the value of friendship and loyalty among women. There are no wars or fight scenes. Nevertheless, women once again prove to lead the way in this story of survival and kindness. 

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Leslie W. Price is a theatre artist, educator and writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Find her on LinkedIn or visit her portfolio.

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