With the recent passing of Hollywood icon Lauren Bacall, it seemed appropriate to focus on the era she was most prominent. After all, the 1940s were not called the ‘Golden Age’ for nothing. The following is our personal countdown of the top 10 Hollywood actresses during that decade.
Honourable mentions: Irene Dunne, Ava Gardner, Veronica Lake, Ginger Rogers, Barbara Stanwyck, Gene Tierney
10. Judy Garland
It’s hard to imagine classic Hollywood without Garland. She is one of the most tragic movie stars of the Golden Age and one of the most talented. She ended the ’30s on a high with The Wizard of Oz and the stage set for a big career. However, this was perhaps the most roller-coaster decade of her life, as she was involved in multiple affairs (including Orson Welles, Vincente Minnelli, Tyrone Power), lost one baby and gave birth to another, and showed signs of mental issues which would eventually end her life. If this list was all about what happened behind the camera, Garland would at the top.
While Garland was also busy in front of the camera (starring in 19 films respectively), her personal life sadly overshadowed her films. The most notable releases are Meet Me in St. Louis, directed by Minnelli, which has Garland playing one of the four Smith sisters in a coming-of-age drama (2nd highest grossing film of 1944) , and the musical romance, Easter Parade.
Recommended: Meet Me in St. Louis
9. Olivia de Havilland
The only actress on the list who is still alive (98 years old!), de Havilland is best known for her role as Melanie Hamilton in the historical epic, Gone with the Wind. But her career didn’t stop there: while Garland’s off-screen antics became cause for concern, de Havilland is seen as somewhat of a pioneer. After losing the 1941 Best Actress Oscar to her sister, Joan Fontaine, de Havilland demanded Warner Bros’ give her more substantial roles. She was consequently suspended from acting, and it led to a long court battle which would change the way a studio could ‘own’ an actor’s services. While this did mean she was unable to appear in films for a large portion of the decade, she made her return in a big way in 1946, in To Each His Own, which won her the Oscar for Best Actress.
In the film, de Havilland plays a woman who has a child out of wedlock, and society requires her to give him up. While nowadays, it may not seem like a taboo subject, the 40’s was whole different era, and the actress won great acclaim for her portrayal. She would star in another three films before the end of the decade, and received two further Oscar nominations for The Snake Pit and The Heiress.
Recommended: The Snake Pit
8. Joan Fontaine
Ahead of Olivia, we have the other de Havilland sister, who changed her name to Joan Fontaine in 1937 to escape her sister’s shadow. While we would say de Havilland is the better overall performer, there is a something magical about Fontaine when you see her on screen. While the 1930’s was also her debut decade, it wasn’t until 1940 that Fontaine would receive her first genuine success, with the release of Alfred Hitchcock’s first Hollywood film, Rebecca.
Based on the 1938 novel of the same name, Rebecca tells the story of the second Mrs. de Winter, played by Fontaine, and her struggles to replace Maxim de Winter’s (Laurence Olivier) deceased wife. The film was voted Best Picture at the Oscars, and Fontaine received her first nomination but lost out to Ginger Rogers in Kitty Foyle. However, lightning did not strike twice the following year, when she won the award for another Hitchcock film, Suspicion.
Fontaine starred in a total of 13 films, receiving another Oscar nomination in 1943 for The Constant Nymph. Regardless of which sister people prefer, they are both iconic stars and deserve full appreciation as such.
7. Lana Turner
The 1940s was about the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, and not many actresses were on the same level as Lana Turner in this regard. Signed by MGM in 1937 when she was just 17, there was talk that she would be the next sex symbol; however, as with Garland, Turner’s personal life became a threat to her career, including multiple marriages and a murder trial involving her daughter. But somehow the unwanted publicity boosted her career, and she made a total of 18 films during the decade.
Her most famous role was The Postman Always Rings Twice, released in 1946. Based on the novel of the same name, Turner plays the married woman who falls in love with a drifter, and with him, plans to kill her husband, then has to live with the consequences once the deed is done. She was the ultimate femme fatale, merging her already established beauty with a sense of danger her personal life did nothing to defer. While not an awards regular, Turner’s iconic status is undeniable: she was arguably the pin-up during World War II.
Though she went to further success in the 1950s, achieving a nomination for Best Actress for ’57’s Peyton Place, the ’40s were the benchmark of Turner’s cinematic success.
Recommended: The Postman Always Rings Twice
6. Lauren Bacall
Now we get to the actress who is the reason for this list. While Bacall is not the first name you think of when asked to name the most famous actresses of all time, she is a legend because of her overall contribution to the film industry. Furthermore, it’s impossible to talk about this decade without mentioning the Bogie-Bacall relationship.
Bacall began as a model, and was discovered by Howard Hawks’ wife on the cover of a famous U.S. magazine, which led to her Hollywood debut in 1944 as the seductive Marie Browning in To Have and Have Not. This was the start of a ‘beautiful friendship’ (sorry), which led to Bacall and Bogart tying the knot in 1945. It was in 1946 when we would see Bacall in her most memorable role yet: as the femme fatale Vivian Rutledge, opposite Bogart in the iconic noir, The Big Sleep. Known for its overly complex plot, the film was most memorable for the sexually charged on-screen chemistry between the real-life couple.
Bacall made two more films with Bogart (Dark Passage and Key Largo), which cemented her place as a Hollywood great. With Bacall’s death, another curtain comes down on the greatest era of Hollywood cinema. Heaven has now received another star; may she rest in peace.
Recommended: To Have and Have Not
5. Joan Crawford
Perhaps the most experienced of the actresses on this list, Joan Crawford is considered by many film buffs to be the greatest actress of all time. While many of her contemporaries were establishing themselves as household names, Crawford’s career was going the opposite way at the turn of the decade.
Having been signed as a silent actress by MGM in 1925, Crawford (then Lucille LeSueur) would be with the studio for 18 years, and was seen as the ‘Queen of the Movies’ by 1937. However, within a year she was deemed box office poison after a few back-to-back flops. This led to MGM terminating her contract in 1943 before Warner Bros. signed her. While Crawford received some success with Hollywood Canteen, it was her 1945 film, Mildred Pierce which would go on to be her most iconic role.
Initially, director Michael Curtiz was totally against casting Crawford, who he felt was a ‘has been’. He wanted big names like Crawford’s biggest rival, Bette Davis (who declined). But Warner Bros. pressed on with Crawford regardless, and it proved to be the right decision. In Mildered Pierce, Crawford plays a single mother struggling to find independence and success in order to support her family, while constantly being put down by her daughter. The film was a huge commercial and critical success, leading to Crawford winning Best Actress.
This once again made her a household name, and Crawford starred in a number of successful films with big leading men right till the end of the decade.
Recommended: Mildred Pierce
4. Rita Hayworth
Before Marilyn, there was Rita. Rita Hayworth is not the most talented actress on the list, but the fact she is so high on it is testament to her overall popularity (remember her being quite important to the plot of The Shawshank Redemption?). The only actress on this list who never received an Oscar nomination, Hayworth is nevertheless seen as one of the greatest actresses in Hollywood history. Like Marilyn in the following decade, her star power lay in her unquestionable beauty and sexual appeal. Though shy and quiet in real life, on screen Hayworth was dynamite.
After doing a handful of minor roles for Columbia Pictures, she had her first success in 1941 with The Strawberry Blonde. This was followed by You’ll Never Get Rich, which introduced her talent for dancing and began her rise to fame. But it is the title role in Gilda which truly defined her star status. As the wife of a casino boss, who seduces her former lover (played by Glenn Ford), Hayworth’s seductive dancing and overall characterisation gave censors a lot of trouble (and everyone else a lot of enjoyment). This was followed by The Lady from Shanghai, which saw Hayworth change her famous red hair for short blonde hair. The film was a commercial failure, largely put down to Hayworth’s unrecognisable look, but is since seen as a classic.
While her career was cut short by her personal life and illness, Hayworth is still one of the greats.
3. Bette Davis
Crawford won’t be happy. By the time it was 1940, Bette Davis was already a double Oscar winner (for Dangerous and Jezebel), but the 40’s proved to be a hugely successful decade for the legendary actress. Unlike many of the actresses on this list, Davis wasn’t known for her looks, but rather her choice of character roles, which led her to being Warner Bros. most profitable star. She was the ‘bitch of Hollywood’, an image she maintained during the war effort (in good taste of course).
But her personal life caught up with her, with her being involved in multiple affairs before marrying Arthur Farnsworth in 1940. His death just three years later would impact on her career drastically, leading her to reject some classic roles (such as the aforementioned Mildred Pierce). Regardless of this, for the first half of the decade, Davis was a phenomenal success.
Davis was Oscar nominated for four different films in the decade, proving to be the darling of the Academy. Her most famous role of this decade is perhaps as Regina Hubbard Giddens in The Little Foxes, who struggles to make a name for herself in the early 20th century. This was followed by another iconic role as the repressed spinster, Charlotte Vale in Now, Voyager. The film gave Davis her fifth Oscar nomination in a row, establishing her as the most successful actress of the period.
While her status fell towards the end of the year, she would return in 1950 with her most famous role in All About Eve.
Recommended: The Little Foxes
2. Katharine Hepburn
Hollywood’s first independent leading lady, Katharine Hepburn’s star power spans for around 60 years; she is still one of the most successful Oscar winning actress (with 4 wins), surpassed only by Meryl Streep.
But things weren’t always so comfortable: while Hepburn was gaining success in the 30’s, she built a poor reputation off-screen, garnering criticism for refusing to be the glamorous girl Hollywood expected. Hepburn was never into posing for pictures either, and towards the end of the 30’s, it deeply affected her films, and as with Crawford, she was also deemed toxic. Although she is most famous nowadays for 1938’s Bringing Up Baby, the film was a commercial failure upon release, so epburn left Hollywood to return to Broadway, where she was acclaimed for The Philadelphia Story.
Hepburn quickly bought the film rights (with help of rich partner, Howard Hughes) and revived her Hollywood career almost single-handedly. The Philadelphia Story proved a great success, and Herpburn was once again a bankable star. Unlike many actresses, Hepburn preferred to be a screwball leading lady, and her portrayal of Tracy Lord was a perfect example of this. She famously commented: “A lot of people want to see me fall flat on my face”. Her next big hit was Woman of the Year in 1942, which had her playing another independent career woman, alongside Spencer Tracy. It was another success, but most memorable for beginning another iconic Hollywood relationship, between Hepburn and Tracy.
Hepburn’s career slowed down towards the end of the 40’s, as she dedicated herself to helping Tracy through his personal troubles, but she continued to make a name in the industry right till the end of her life.
Recommended: The Philadelphia Story
1. Ingrid Bergman
The AFI voted Hepburn as the greatest American actress of all time, but for many of us at The Metropolist it will always be Ingrid Bergman.
Initially starting her career in her native Sweden, Bergman was brought to Hollywood by David O. Selznick in 1939 to star in the Hollywood remake of Intermezzo, having starred in the original. The success of the film meant she would enter the 40’s as a hot prospect, and she didn’t disappoint, choosing roles which would define her career and make her one of the biggest Hollywood stars ever.
During the decade, Bergman was nominated for four Oscars, winning for her haunted portrayal as Paula Alquist in Gaslight (1944). But her most famous film preceded her individual success, when in 1942 she signed on to star in a little film called Casablanca. While she was not nominated for an Oscar, the Rick & Ilsa love affair went into movie history as one of the greatest love stories ever told. A film which was released at the height of World War II, Casablanca was a stratospheric success and remains one of the greatest films ever made. While some have criticised Bergman for seemingly doing the same roles (they are wrong), her success was one of the most consistent during the Golden Age. And clearly Hitchcock agreed, with Bergman appearing in three of his films, including Spellbound and Notorious, which some consider to be Hitchcock’s best.
While Bergman’s scandalous affair with Italian director Roberto Rossellini caused her to leave Hollywood for almost seven years, she had already established herself as a megastar and heroine of the Golden Age.
Recommended: Gaslight (because everyone has seen Casablanca)
But what do you think? Would you have favored Crawford over Davis? Think we missed off a crucial star? Sound off in the comments!