Dynamic Dames

50 Leading Ladies Who Made History


By Sloan De Forest

Foreword by Julie Newmar

By Turner Classic Movies

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Celebrate 50 of the most empowering and unforgettable female characters ever to grace the screen, as well as the artists who brought them to vibrant life!

From Scarlett O’Hara to Thelma and Louise to Wonder Woman, strong women have not only lit up the screen, they’ve inspired and fired our imaginations. Some dynamic women are naughty and some are nice, but all of them buck the narrow confines of their expected gender role — whether by taking small steps or revolutionary strides.

Through engaging profiles and more than 100 photographs, Dynamic Dames looks at fifty of the most inspiring female roles in film from the 1920s to today. The characters are discussed along with the exciting off-screen personalities and achievements of the actresses and, on occasion, female writers and directors, who brought them to life.

Among the stars profiled in their most revolutionary roles are Bette Davis, Mae West, Barbara Stanwyck, Josephine Baker, Greta Garbo, Audrey Hepburn, Natalie Wood, Barbra Streisand, Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, Joan Crawford, Vivien Leigh, Elizabeth Taylor, Dorothy Dandridge, Katharine Hepburn, Pam Grier, Jane Fonda, Gal Gadot, Emma Watson, Zhang Ziyi, Uma Thurman, Jennifer Lawrence, and many more.


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What makes the dames in this book so dynamic? Not their looks—though they certainly are easy on the eyes—nor their charismatic personalities, killer wardrobes, or crackling dialogue. Dynamic dames share an X-factor: they transcend the narrow confines of their gender role, whether by taking small steps or revolutionary strides. Each of these fifty women, in her unique way, is an architect of her own destiny. By taking charge of their lives, by refusing to be marginalized, these characters motivate us with their resilience, delight us with their high spirits, and thrill us with their audacity.

Our look at extraordinary screen sirens begins in the Jazz Age with the feisty Clara Bow, an untrained actress who redefined the feminine ideal and became, as F. Scott Fitzgerald observed, “the quintessence of what the term ‘flapper’ signifies.” Nearly a century after Clara caused a stir as hyper-flirtatious Alverna in Mantrap (1926), strong, sexy Gal Gadot embodied the modern superheroine archetype in Wonder Woman (2017), stopping bullets in their tracks and lassoing evildoers into submission. In the years between, a vast array of fascinating femmes have earned their place in these pages. Outspoken powerhouses like Bette Davis in Ex-Lady (1933) and Julia Roberts as Erin Brockovich (2001) mix and mingle with Melanie Griffith’s soft-spoken secretary Tess in Working Girl (1988) and Whoopi Goldberg’s long-suffering Celie in The Color Purple (1985). Celluloid icons such as Vivien Leigh in her immortal characterization of Scarlett O’Hara and Joan Crawford’s unforgettable Mildred Pierce are celebrated here, but so too are lesser-known ladies, like the effervescent Josephine Baker as Zouzou (1934) and groundbreaking B-movie babe Pam Grier as Coffy (1973). Some are as familiar as old friends, others may be surprising new discoveries, but all are women who reach just a little bit farther than expected to claim their strength and power.

Selecting only fifty of the most empowered heroines in film history is a daunting task when there are thousands of heroic, inspiring ladies to choose from. What about those who didn’t make the cut? Among others are Anna May Wong rising from dishwasher to dancing sensation in Piccadilly (1929); spunky Ginger Rogers cracking an egg over a lecherous stranger’s head in The Major and the Minor (1944); Olivia de Havilland transforming from naïve maiden to woman of steel in The Heiress (1949); Diane Keaton marching to her own drummer in Annie Hall (1977); six-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis steering her own life journey in Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012); and Emma Stone clobbering her male-chauvinist opponent as tennis champ Billie Jean King in Battle of the Sexes (2017). The list could go on and on. It is my hope that this book will function as a gateway to exploring these and more aspirational female characters, though not as a definitive list of the greatest women in cinema. That would require several volumes!

Pam Grier in Coffy

Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind

The fact is, powerful women have been a part of the movies from the very beginning, both on camera and behind the lens. One of the first filmmakers in history was a woman: France’s Alice Guy Blaché, who began directing in 1896. During and after World War I, Mary Pickford was not only the world’s most popular movie star, but also one of Hollywood’s wealthiest moguls as the head of her own production company and the cofounder of United Artists. Pickford’s partner in crime was Frances Marion, the industry’s top scenarist in the 1920s and early 1930s and the first screenwriter to win two Oscars.

On the screen, fictional females dominated the classic era of motion pictures. Indeed, the 1930s and early 1940s were a Golden Age of sorts for women. In 1935, producer Samuel Goldwyn estimated that 70 percent of movie audiences were female. Half of the major stars were female, too (Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Greta Garbo, and Mae West led the pack of powerful leading ladies), and over one-third of Hollywood films were written, cowritten, or based on stories written by women. A few, such as Dorothy Arzner (and, a little later, Ida Lupino), directed as well. After World War II, a gradual shift occurred. Movies with women in the lead role dwindled, and by the early 1970s, Hollywood’s target audience was mostly male, as were the top box-office stars.

Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman

Mae West in I’m No Angel

Right now, as I write this book, the motion-picture industry is on the cusp of a sea change. The pendulum has started to swing toward a healthier balance of power between male and female filmmakers, between strong leading men and equally strong leading ladies. It won’t happen overnight. But we can be inspired to move forward by looking back at the amazing characters in this book, brought to vibrant life by amazing women—the actresses who played them, and, in many cases, female writers, producers, and directors, too.

As actress and gender-equity advocate Geena Davis once observed, “Identifying with a character is one of the best parts of seeing a movie, but as women, we’ve had to train ourselves to experience the male journey.” Here’s to all the beautiful, assertive, entertaining, and dynamic dames who have served as tour guides for the female journey. Just as important, here’s to all the dynamic female characters yet to be created.

—Sloan De Forest,

September 30, 2018

Clara Bow as Alverna in Mantrap

Clara Bow


mantrap (1926)

In 1932, Clara Bow caused a stir in the risqué cult classic Call Her Savage, her pre-Code comeback about a scandalous Texas heiress who resorts to prostitution, among other eyebrow-raising exploits. But Bow had risen to stardom in silent films. In the Roaring Twenties, before the movies learned to talk, she had pulled herself out of the Brooklyn slums to become the patron saint of uninhibited young flappers everywhere. Of the fifty-plus films she made before retiring from Hollywood at age twenty-eight, her personal favorite was Victor Fleming’s 1926 comedy Mantrap. When you watch the movie, it’s easy to see why. Though not technically pre-Code, this late-era silent gives Bow a starring role that predicts the dynamic ladies of the pre-Code era.

From the moment she steps on the scene as Alverna, a bubbly, spit-curled Kewpie doll of a manicurist with a severe flirting addiction, Clara “just walks away with the picture,” to quote Variety. “Every minute she’s in it,” the critic wrote, “she steals it.” For some reason, the lovely Alverna falls for the ungainly Joe (Ernest Torrence), a simple backwoodsman who makes her his bride and snatches her away to his cabin in the rustic Canadian town of Mantrap. Take Alverna’s boredom and flirting problem, add in Ralph (Percy Marmont), a New York divorce lawyer running away from loose city women, and you have more than a love triangle; you have two fellas caught in the ultimate mantrap.

Aided by master cinematographer James Wong Howe and screenwriters Adelaide Heilbron and Ethel Doherty (adapting the novel by Sinclair Lewis), Clara Bow really shines. Heilbron and Doherty took significant liberties with Lewis’s story, making Alverna more likable and heroic. The role encapsulates everything the public loved about Clara: Alverna was good-hearted, fun-loving, and just a little bit naughty. Back when screen women were sharply divided into two categories—virgin or vamp—Clara managed to carve out her own distinctive niche right in the middle.

In the scene where she feeds Joe and Ralph chocolates and bops around to a jazz record, Clara displays her trademark manic energy. According to Paramount chief Adolph Zukor, “She danced even when her feet were not moving. Some part of her was in motion in all her waking moments—if only her great rolling eyes.” Clara was animator Max Fleischer’s inspiration for Betty Boop, and, in Mantrap, her resemblance to the famous cartoon character is remarkable. But there’s a tough, independent streak beneath the adorable exterior. When Joe and Ralph join forces against her on a camping trip, Alverna tells them off, hijacks their only boat, and ditches them both. Joe shouts after her, “Remember, you still bear my name,” to which she retorts, “So does your old man!” Giggling, she sails off into the sunset, leaving the two men stranded in the wilderness. This is Alverna’s big moment—funny, sassy, and triumphant. At the end of the picture, she returns to Joe, but it’s clear that he will have to accept her as she is. Flirting, for her, is as natural as breathing.

Ernest Torrence, Percy Marmont, Clara Bow, Victor Fleming, and James Wong Howe on the set

“May I interrupt your funny act just long enough to say that I’m my own boss—from now on?”


The success of Mantrap led Clara to her most iconic role in It (1927), the movie that would make her known everywhere as “The It Girl.” She was on top of the world—until sound replaced silents. Early sound technology often required actors to stand still and speak into hidden microphones (see Singin’ in the Rain [1952] for a comical take on the talkie revolution), which deflated the magical spontaneity of stars like Clara Bow. Her career took a nosedive, and she left the movies at age twenty-five.

But Clara had the final word. She returned to the screen in grand style when Fox offered her a quarter-million-dollar deal that included creative control of her films. She starred in Call Her Savage and the carnival romance Hoopla (1933), her celluloid swan song. After that, she retired, had children with her husband (cowboy star Rex Bell), and quietly became a legend—an unforgettable symbol of everything that was fun and untamed about the Jazz Age.

Did You Know?

Clara Bow wanted her Alverna to be as naughty as the adulterous character in the Sinclair Lewis novel. She once told a reporter, “She was bad in the book, but—darn it!—of course, they couldn’t make her that way in the picture. So I played her as a flirt.”

Clara Bow and Percy Marmont on location near San Bernardino, California

Norma Shearer with the Academy Award she received for The Divorcée

Norma Shearer


The Divorcée (1930)

Think Sharon Stone caused a sensation by uncrossing her legs in Basic Instinct (1992)? That’s nothing compared to the furor Norma Shearer unleashed when she played a wife who has an affair with her husband’s best friend in The Divorcée. A woman cheating on her husband was nothing new, even in 1930. What made Shearer’s Jerry Martin different was the absolution of sin. This was no dime-store floozy. This was an educated, virtuous lady who convinced the audience that her adultery was perfectly justified. As a woman hell-bent on sexual equality with men, Shearer lit a fuse that set Hollywood on fire and incinerated any lingering traces of Victorian oppression. She shocked the movie-going public, ignited the pre-Code sexual revolution, and even altered society’s definition of “that kind of woman.”

Jerry is an ultra-modern female who wears slinky gowns without underwear and warns her fiancé, Ted (Chester Morris), that she won’t wait long to marry him because she’s “human.” Ted compliments Jerry on her “man’s point of view” and agrees to an equal marriage. That is, until he cheats on her and she “balances their accounts” by sleeping with Ted’s pal, the eternally inebriated but gorgeous Don (Robert Montgomery). When Ted finds out, suddenly he’s not so cool with equality; the union ends in divorce, and Jerry embarks on an international spree of romantic liaisons with attractive males across the globe. Its star made headlines for her daring depiction of a lady liberated by divorce.

“Norma Shearer has crusaded for women,” reporter Gladys Hall declared in a 1932 article in Motion Picture magazine. By starring in The Divorcée and its equally provocative follow-up, A Free Soul (1931), Shearer, Hall wrote, “has killed our grandmothers. I mean, she has killed what they stood for.… She has cremated the myth that men will never marry ‘that kind of woman.’” What Hall was saying is that, in a time when “good” women were expected to be virgins, Shearer made it acceptable for women to have premarital sex and affairs, just as men do. She evened the playing field.

Stricken with remorse (or maybe just exhausted from her many amorous escapades), Jerry reunites with Ted at the close of the picture. But she’s not begging for forgiveness because she has done wrong; instead, she’s realized that a dozen men can’t replace the one she truly loves. So it’s a win-win for Jerry: she gets even with Ted’s fling, leaves him to enjoy the company of who-knows-how-many lovers, then is allowed to return to her beloved ex-husband in the end. She has an extraordinary amount of personal freedom, rarely matched on the screen since.

Ex-Wife, the source novel for The Divorcée, was so scandalous that it was initially published anonymously. Its author, Ursula Parrott (born Katherine Ursula Towle), is sadly forgotten today, though she penned four screenplays, fifty short stories, and twenty-two novels. Boasting friends and colleagues like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, and Zane Grey, with whom she collaborated on The Woman Accused (1933), Parrott lived as large as one of her heroines, marrying four different men and raking in royalties from her popular fiction yarns.

Shearer, too, is unjustly overlooked these days, despite her enormous fame in the 1930s. Ever ambitious, Edith Norma Shearer scrapped her way to stardom in silent pictures, overcoming a lazy right eye, a slightly pudgy figure, and a disastrous first screen test the actress herself described as “hideous.” But Norma had a few aces up her sleeve: luminous alabaster skin, a mane of bobbed brunette waves that could be boyishly sleek when pushed behind her ears or wild when tousled and tumbling over one eye, and a smooth, cultured speaking voice that helped propel her to the big leagues when sound came along. Her 1927 marriage to MGM’s production manager Irving Thalberg didn’t hurt either.

Norma Shearer and Chester Morris

The famous George Hurrell photograph that won Shearer the role

Robert Montgomery, Norma Shearer, and Chester Morris in The Divorcée

“I’m glad I discovered there’s more than one man in the world while I’m young and they want me.… From now on, you’re the only man in the world that my door is closed to!”


Thalberg purchased the rights to Ex-Wife with plans to cast Joan Crawford in the lead, doubtful that his wife was sexy enough to pull it off. Waging a no-holds-barred campaign for the role, Norma sat for a seductive portrait with glamour photographer George Hurrell to prove she had the right stuff. She not only nabbed the to-die-for part, but also took home the Academy Award for Best Actress, inspiring the industry to follow her example and produce a wave of earthy movies about boundary-pushing broads. You go, Norma.

Did You Know?

When Nick Grindé, John Meehan, and Zelda Sears adapted Parrott’s novel for the screen, they changed the heroine’s name from Patricia to Jerry, a more masculine-sounding moniker. This served as a cue to the audience that this woman was on equal footing with men.

Bette Davis as Helen Bauer in Ex-Lady

Bette Davis


Ex-Lady (1933)

“I don’t want to be like my mother, the yes-woman for some man. I want to be a person of my own,” declares modern young career gal Helen to her fiancé, Don, played by the hunky blond Gene Raymond. Though Don begs—and though her parents are outraged at their living arrangement—she refuses to marry him, preferring instead to live together in an equal partnership. She just knows that the instant they make it legal she’ll be demoted from lover to subservient spouse. She’ll be expected to give up her job as an in-demand magazine illustrator to stay at home and take care of Don. In short, he will have the right to tell her what to do. “No one,” she warns Don, “has any rights about me except me.”

Ex-Lady was a racy pre-Code gem from Warner Bros. that gave the incomparable Bette Davis her first top-billed role. While the title suggests that Bette has a tarnished reputation, the movie takes her side. No accusations, no judgments. Her character is allowed to be as bad as she wants to be. And, as ads for Beyond the Forest (1949) would assert years later, “Nobody’s as good as Bette when she’s bad.” Davis would cement her image as a force to be reckoned with as she matured. By the time she costarred with Joan Crawford in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) at age fifty-four, Bette was a legend in her own time. Her reported feud with Crawford was legendary as well and would later be fictionalized in the 2017 miniseries Feud: Bette and Joan.

Even in her early days, Bette earned a reputation as a bold babe with no fear of speaking her mind or bucking the system. Ruth Elizabeth Davis was on the cusp of twenty-five when she starred as Helen Bauer, and was three years away from her first Best Actress Academy Award, for Dangerous in 1936. That was the same year she played hooky from Warner Bros., first breaching her contract, then accusing the studio of “slavery” by forcing her into “mediocre pictures.” Bette lost the court case, but she won Warners’ eventual respect and meatier roles. In 1939, she would score a second Oscar for donning a scandalously sexy red dress as the town trollop in Jezebel.

With smart, stylish direction by B-movie maestro Robert Florey, Ex-Lady is a highly polished remake of the 1931 film Illicit, starring Barbara Stanwyck. Both movies were based on a 1930 play by Edith Fitzgerald and her then boyfriend Robert Riskin, an unmarried couple writing a taboo-shattering comparison of wedded versus unwedded bliss.

“When I’m forty, I’ll think of babies. In the meantime, there are twenty years in which I want to be the baby, play with my toys, and have a good time playing with them.… I don’t want to be a wife!”


Marriage, Helen says, would make her boring before her time. “It’s dull!” she wails. As embodied by a lissome, platinum-blonde Bette in gowns by Orry-Kelly, Helen is an elegantly dressed firecracker. She wants to be with Don exclusively, but they argue over the double standards applied to women in marriage. Finally, Helen turns the tables and proposes to Don. Following a sultry Havana honeymoon, just as she predicted, the couple settles into a dull routine; before long, they grow restless. Don and Helen both indulge in short-lived affairs with others. But after a trial separation, they realize they’re better together than apart. The union of marriage “may not be perfect,” Helen admits, “but this way it hurts less.”

In the end, she agrees to remain Don’s wife, but it’s her choice. She commits to the arrangement because they love each other and want to be together, and the only socially acceptable way to accomplish that is with wedding rings. But being a Mrs. doesn’t define her; she gets to keep her career and her man. And her headstrong personality suggests that she’ll never be completely tamed. Helen Bauer, like Bette Davis, was a forward-thinking lady in a movie decades ahead of its time.

Did You Know?

Ex-Lady was a little too sensationalistic for Bette Davis. She later called the film “a piece of junk” and “an ecstasy of poor taste.”

Gene Raymond, Bette Davis, and Robert Florey.

Bette Davis and Monroe Owsley

Barbara Stanwyck as Lily Powers in Baby Face

Barbara Stanwyck


Baby Face (1933)

Though she took up less space in the gossip columns, Barbara Stanwyck did just as much to define twentieth-century American womanhood as her contemporaries Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. Over the course of a career spanning nearly sixty years, Babs played women who were very good, women who were very bad, and every shade of gray in between—and she played the hell out of them. In her pre-Code days, she embodied the Depression-hardened dame, the kind of broad who was just as likely to slug a guy in the jaw as kiss him.

One of Stanwyck’s most remarkable roles is in Baby Face, a movie so outrageously risqué that it was censored even in 1933, when the atmosphere was as loose as the ladies on the screen. Censors and critics alike lambasted the film for its “gaudiness” and, as the Los Angeles Times


  • "Sometimes a book comes into your life that you didn't know you needed until you start reading. And when you do things start to fall into place. That's Dynamic Dames for me. Film historian and author Sloan De Forest delivers with this captivating feminist manifesto.... The writing is engaging and the narrative voice is whip smart and clever."—-Raquel Stecher, Out of the Past Blog
  • "This gift-worthy volume selects famous leading ladies from the 1920s "pre-code" films, where rebellious behaviors were on display from Clara Bow and Josephine Baker, until the present day... The result is a very satisfying and notably diverse group of talented professionals that have created some of the most memorable moments in film."—- Booklist, starred review

On Sale
Jul 2, 2019
Page Count
248 pages
Running Press

Sloan De Forest

About the Author

Sloan De Forest is an actress, film historian, and the author of Turner Classic Movies: Must-See Sci-fi and Dynamic Dames. She lives in Hollywood, CA.

Turner Classic Movies is the definitive resource for the greatest movies of all time. We entertain and enlighten to show how the entire spectrum of classic movies, movie history, and movie-making touches us all and influences how we think and live today.

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