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Moving Image Section--Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division



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The Silent Era
The Studio Era
The Post-Studio Era
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Motion Pictures

The Library's motion picture holdings include films of countless actresses of every rank and caliber, including Lillian Gish, Marion Davies, Greta Garbo, Shirley Temple, Joan Crawford, Lupe Velez, Barbara Stanwyck, Thelma Ritter, Audrey Hepburn, Doris Day, Pam Grier, Jane Fonda, Alfre Woodard, Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, and Jennifer Lopez. For various generations, these names evoke the range of personas that have been the staples of motion picture genres throughout cinema history. These personas, however, often presented a double-edged sword. Many stars were trapped in the image created by the types of roles that made them popular and often limited their range of opportunities. An archetypal example is Mary Pickford, who found herself forever identified with an innocent-little-girl image that impeded her desire for more mature roles.

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Portrait of Anna May Wong. Carl Van Vechten. 1939 Apr. 25. Prints and Photograph Division. LOT 12735, no. 1205

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Actresses of color often found that stereotyping reduced them to stock characters—the African American maid, the Asian dragon lady, or the Latin spitfire. Although a few minority actresses managed to break out of the confines of supporting parts into starring roles, typecasting severely limited their options.

  • The Mexican actress Dolores Del Rio (1905-1983) achieved stardom when she appeared in films such as What Price Glory? (1926) [catalog record] and The Bad One (1930, FEB 1551-1558), but by 1942 her career in Hollywood was in decline. She returned to Mexico, where she became one of her country's leading box-office attractions.
  • Anna May Wong (1905-1961), the first Asian American female star in Hollywood, often found herself in small “atmospheric” character parts, as in The Thief of Bagdad (1924) [catalog record]. Although Wong received occasional lead parts, notably in Daughter of Shanghai (1937) [catalog record], she usually played a supporting role while major Chinese characters were played by white actresses, such as Myrna Loy or Luise Rainer.
  • Dorothy Dandridge (1923-1965) built on the success enjoyed by earlier African American leading ladies—such as Nina Mae McKinney and Lena Horne—to become the first black performer to receive an Academy Award nomination in a leading role for her work in Carmen Jones (1954, FGA 1800-1812). She continued to appear in such films as Island in the Sun (1957, FGA 5578-5591) and Porgy and Bess (1959) [catalog record]. In the early 1960s, however, she found Hollywood unwilling “to construct star vehicles, fearful that audiences would not pay to see a black leading lady.” 3

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