Each month, the Herstory Club curates a selection of films that complement our monthly theme. This collection will be female-focused – both in front of the camera and ideally behind too – and range from fiction to biopics of real women in history. The films we’ll be recommending aim to both entertain and educate, showcasing cult classics, new hits, and movies you may never have heard of.
This month’s theme of ‘the 20s’ offers much scope for film, especially in the form of musicals, with the 1920s often the ideal setting for some of the classics. From Bugsy Malone – the gangster musical comedy with children playing adult roles, and with a stand-out supporting part for a young Jodie Foster – to Funny Girl, the story of Broadway and film star Fanny Brice, which earned Barbara Streisand a Best Actress Oscar in 1969. Singin’ in the Rain depicted the transition to talkies in Hollywood and introduced Debbie Reynolds to the world in her first leading role; and flapper Millie Dillmount (Julie Andrews) determined to marry her wealthy boss in 1922 New York City in Thoroughly Modern Millie.
More recently, Netflix produced Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, an American drama based on the August Wilson play of the same name. Viola Davis plays the legendary “Mother of the Blues” in 1920s Chicago and, as the late Chadwick Boseman’s last film, it is likely to gain traction as awards season begins to pick up. It is impossible not to mention Woody Allen’s time-travel comedy Midnight in Paris, with Marion Cotillard as the twenties love-interest. Finally, Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 adaptation of The Great Gatsby cannot be missed as a modern take on the 1920s, with Carey Mulligan portraying Daisy Buchanan. The film’s female production and costume design teams both won their respective categories at the 2014 Oscars for their work on this dazzling reimagining of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel.
Our top five films for this month feature a Disney animation, a musical, the film follow-up to a beloved television series, and award-winning movies. Without further ado…
(2002, Dir.: Rob Marshall)
Based on the 1975 stage musical of the same name, Chicago follows Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger) and Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones), two murderesses in jail together in 1920s Chicago. With 13 nominations – and 6 wins – at the 2003 Oscars, Chicago is one of the most successful onscreen musicals of all time, helping to usher in a new era of musicals adapted for the screen.
Chicago is available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video
(2019, Dir.: Michael Engler)
Set in 1927 – around eighteen months after the conclusion of the television series of the same name – the film focusses on a royal visit by the King and Queen to Downton Abbey during their tour of Yorkshire. While the beloved television series and this subsequent film undoubtedly pride themselves on the ensemble nature of the cast, the standout storylines in the film centre around the female characters. New additions in the form of Crawley cousin Maud, Lady Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), her maid Lucy Smith (Tuppence Middleton) and Princess Mary (Kate Phillips) provide welcome interactions with fan favourites in the original cast.
Downton Abbey is available to buy on Amazon Prime Video and stream on Sky Cinema
(1991, Dir.: Mike Newell)
Enchanted April is a “feel good” period piece with a feminist twist. This adaptation of Elizabeth Von Arnim’s 1922 novel follows four English women in the aftermath of World War I, who rent a villa in Portofino, Italy, to escape their unhappy lives. A young Miranda Richardson and veteran English actress Joan Plowright won the Golden Globe awards for best actress and supporting actress, respectively, for their work here.
Enchanted April is available on DVD
The Danish Girl
(2015, Dir.: Tom Hooper)
Loosely based on the lives of Danish painters Lili Elbe (Eddie Redmayne) and Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander), The Danish Girl explores their marriage in early 1920s Copenhagen and charts Elbe’s journey as one of the first known recipients of sex reassignment surgery, becoming a transgender pioneer in the process. While criticised for its historical inaccuracy and the casting of a cisgender actor in a transgender role, the film still did well critically, receiving praise for the actors’ work. Vikander won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. However, running in this category was a controversial decision as she had an hour of screen time (which equates to 50% of the film’s run-time). As such she could have – and arguably should have, as evidenced by BAFTA and the Golden Globes placing her as lead – run for lead actress instead.
The Danish Girl is available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video
The Princess and The Frog
(2009, Dir.: Ron Clements & John Musker)
In The Princess and the Frog, aspiring young chef Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) works as a waitress in 1928 New Orleans while she dreams of opening her own restaurant. She embarks on a journey to turn an arrogant frog prince (Bruno Campos) back into a human but has to deal with the unexpected consequences of a spell by a voodoo magician. The film marked a return to hand-drawn animation and is the first Disney film to feature an African-American princess. At the December 2020 Disney Investor Day presentation, it was announced that a long-awaited sequel to the film would be arriving in 2022 in the form of a series exclusively for Disney+, entitled Tiana.
The Princess and the Frog is available to buy on Amazon Prime Video and stream on Disney+
About the Author: Emma Forth
I’m a first year History PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. My research combines my passions for the First World War and film by exploring the development of early cinema, 1909-1918, across all four nations of the United Kingdom. For the last six months I have been producing the first database and maps of British and Irish cinemas in 1914, showcasing the position of cinema at the outbreak of the Great War. In a four-year hiatus from education prior to postgraduate study in 2018 I worked as a risk analyst; ran the admissions department in a high school; and was a receptionist and volunteer at Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden. I am an avid reader, theatregoer, and cross-stitcher, and when not frantically Marie Kondo-ing my possessions and renovating my flat and during a pandemic, I can be found watching superhero films and dreaming of museums.