Classic Old Hollywood Bad Boys Deconstructed


For years, it’s been said that girls are attracted to bad boys.  However, there are times when some of these “bad” boys are only bad in name only while others live up to the name. Sometimes a guy is only seen as a “bad boy” just because he’s attractive and has an undesirable flaw. Here I have a list of some of the best defined bad boys of the Old Hollywood years (before 1970) and try to determine on a criteria on whether they are really as bad as people make them out to be. With each known “bad boy” I’ll ask questions whether he’s criminally inclined, gets along with his family or friends, mentally stable, potentially abusive and/or physically violent, whether he has trouble keeping a legal job, whether he’s sufficiently bad as the rest of the cast, if he respects women, and whether he’s actually interested or uses people. Of course, some factors matter more than others. So here is a list of Old Hollywood bad boys and whether they are really “bad” or just a good looking guy with an undesirable flaw. (I’ll only show those who are likeable around women since they are the hot point of debate. Also, I’ll only list the iconic ones from classic films, history, or literature.)

1. Jim Stark

From: Rebel Without a Cause, played by James Dean

Is he criminally inclined? Well, he skipped home, was caught for underage drinking, and participated in street racing but only under peer pressure and really felt bad about it. Still, his criminal behavior doesn’t deviate from what one would expect from a teenager.

Does he get along with family or friends? Though he doesn’t make friends easily he does get along with those nice to him. And though he may have trouble getting along with his parents, he nevertheless loves them.

Is he mentally stable? Well, he has issues but compared to his friend Plato (Sal Mineo) he is.

Is he potentially abusive or physically violent? He has a bad temper but is only physically violent when he gets really angry or upset. Also, he’s no where near as abusive as some of the characters.

Does he have trouble keeping a legal job? This isn’t relevant in the movie.

Is he worse than most of the cast? No, for there are plenty of worse people in the cast like Plato and the gang of school bullies.

Does he respect women? Actually treats Judy (Natalie Wood) better than her old man and one of her boyfriends. He certainly doesn’t physically hurt any women.

Does he care about his love interest? Well, let’s just say he takes more of an emotional interest in Judy than a physical one and probably wouldn’t want anything to do with him if she was mean to him. Whether he loves her, I can’t really say.

Verdict: Though Jim may have serious issues and is nowhere near perfect, he’s actually not much worse than what you’d expect from most teenagers. And compared to most of the teenage boys in the cast, he’s actually one least self-destructive and nicest guys around.

2. Cal Trask

From: East of Eden, played by James Dean

Is he criminally inclined? Not really.

Does he get along with family or friends? Well, though he seems to act perfectly fine with characters outside his family, his relationship with his family is dysfunctional. For one, his mother deserted and neglected her family when him and his brother were very young and had nothing to with them until the start of the film. Though Cal adores his deeply religious father, his dad doesn’t really think much about him and makes it no secret that he favors his brother Aron. And with Aron, Cal is basically jealous of him but later drives him insane and steals his girlfriend. Let’s just say it’s complicated.

Is he mentally stable? Sure he has serious issues but he’s pretty much grounded in reality.

Is he abusive or physically violent? Only with his brother and only when mad.

Does he have trouble keeping a legal job? Not only does he have no trouble keeping a job, he’s also a very successful as an entrepreneurial farmer and businessman. His bean growing experiment earned him a considerable profit.

Is he worse than most of the cast? Well, with the exception of Abra (Julie Harris), the sheriff (Burl Ives), and a few others, you might think that. He’s definitely a better person than his mother.

Does he respect women? Well, he doesn’t physically hurt them. Still, it depends on whether some women are nice to him.

Does he care about his love interest? Let’s just say he wouldn’t steal Abra away from Aron if he wasn’t emotionally drawn to her since she’s one of the few characters who’s nice to him.

Verdict: Cal may do some bad things but he is not a bad boy at all. He has some issues and is certainly labeled that, but most evidence points to the contrary. He just doesn’t get along with his family.

3. Lewton McCanles

gregory peck 1945 - by madison lacy

From: Duel in the Sun, played by Gregory Peck

Is he criminally inclined? Yes, commits rape and murder multiple times, shoots his own brother unarmed, and derails a train.

Does he get along with family or friends? He may get along with his father and some of the ranch hands but he doesn’t have a good relationship with his mother or brother who both aren’t happy being related to him.

Is he mentally stable? He’s very prone to self-destructive behavior, especially towards the end.

Is he abusive or physically violent? Oh, yes, very much so. He’s controlling and has an explosive temper. He rapes Jennifer Jones and shoots Joseph Cotten and Charles Bickford. Oh, he and Jennifer Jones both die in a shoot out.

Does he have trouble keeping a legal job? Not really but he works on his family ranch.

Is he worse than most of the cast? When it comes to inflicting violence, absolutely. When it comes to attitudes of the day, not really.

Does he respect women? Not at all. He and his mother don’t get along and he treats Pearl (Jennifer Jones) like shit and does whatever he wants with her without considering her feelings. Not to mention, he’s also very possessive and controlling of her.

Does he care about his love interest? Though it’s hard to say whether he loves Pearl, he certainly doesn’t care enough for her to consider her feelings or obtain her consent when it comes to sex. To him she just exists to sexually fulfill him until he’s done with her, or so it appears.

Verdict: For those who think that he can’t be that terrible because he’s played by Gregory Peck, I believe you are sorely mistaken. Lewton McCanles is  perhaps a “bad boy” in the truest sense. Avoid men like him at all costs.

4. Stanley Kowalski

Annex - Brando, Marlon (A Streetcar Named Desire)_02

From: A Streetcar Named Desire, played by Marlon Brando

Is he criminally inclined? Well, he’s a rapist and one of the most famous domestic abusers of all time.

Does he get along with family or friends? He can be a bully to Mitch (Karl Malden) and perhaps some of his other friends. As far as the play is concerned, he has a happy enough marriage with Stella (Kim Hunter). However, he doesn’t much care for her sister Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh) at all.

Is he mentally stable? Well, he does make a point about Blanche and is capable of rational thought, but he has an explosive temper. And he’s crying like a baby when Stella tries to leave him. Still, don’t call him a “polack.”

Is he abusive or physically violent? Not only is he verbally abusive to just about everyone, but he also beats his pregnant wife and rapes his sister-in-law. Not to mention, he’s very selfish and controlling.

Does he have trouble keeping a legal job? Not at all.

Is he worse than most of the cast? Absolutely, though Blanche does come close since she moonlighted as a prostitute and got fired from her teaching job for having sex with a seventeen-year-old boy.

Does he respect women? Well, he certainly doesn’t respect Blanche and doesn’t treat Stella much better. Then again, he’s probably not a misogynist because he treats everyone like shit.

Does he care about his love interest? Let’s just say he didn’t marry Stella just because she was from a more affluent background and no matter how bad he treats her, he can’t live without her.

Verdict: Stanley is an abusive and violent man who no one should dare associate with. He’s as bad as everyone makes him out to be.

5. Terry Malloy

From: On the Waterfront, played by Marlon Brando

Is he criminally inclined? His brother is a gangster so probably, though the worst thing he does is help the local crime syndicate knock off his friend Jimmy Doyle.

Does he get along with family or friends? Though he loves his brother Charley (Rod Steiger) his relationship with him is strained. Of course with everyone else, it depends on whether he’s a priest, a stevedore, or a gangster as well as the point in the film. Still, he’s great with kids and pigeons though.

Is he mentally stable? He’s unhappy at himself for his failed boxing career as well as guilty of betraying his friend. He does get better though.

Is he abusive or physically violent? Not really, but if you ever are violent toward him, he will beat you up. Also, used to be a boxer.

Does he have trouble keeping a legal job? He may not have a boxing career but he does work as a stevedore so, no.

Is he worse than most of the cast? No, Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) and his associates are much worse including Charley.

Does he respect women? Hard to say since Eva Marie Saint is the only girl in the cast but he’s not a bad guy towards her though and does testify against the people responsible for killing her brother.

Does he care about his love interest? Yes, he certainly does since she was his friend’s little sister and does give her the awful truth.

Verdict: Though Terry may seem bad at first, it’s actually pretty complicated to say since he’s pretty conflicted between his brother and doing what’s right. After Charley is killed, however, he’s certainly not. Still, he doesn’t think well of himself.

6. Heathcliff

Laurence Olivier Wuthering Heights

From: Wuthering Heights, played by Sir Laurence Olivier

Is he criminally inclined? How he made his fortune is legally questionable so we really can’t say. But he tries to ruin Hindley’s life through legal means.

Does he get along with family or friends? Well, he’s fine with people who are nice to him and/or don’t betray him. Yet, even that is no guarantee since the Lintons are nice and he treats them horribly, ditto Catherine Earnshaw (Merle Oberon) when she dumps him. Still, with his surrogate family, he’s nice to Catherine’s father but terrible to her brother Hindley.

Is he mentally stable? He has a terrible temper and a vicious streak to make everyone who’s ever wronged him pay. Also, he’s very much prone to self-destruction and has a tendency to drag others with him.

Is he abusive or physically violent? He’s controlling, vengeful, and has a short fuse, especially when she decides to date Linton (David Niven). He’s also terrible to everyone else. As for physically violent, no.

Does he have trouble keeping a legal job? We can’t really be sure since we don’t know how he made his fortune.

Is he worse than most of the cast? It soon becomes that way since Linton, Hindley, and Catherine made him the monster he became.

Does he respect women? No, since he’s willing to marry one girl he has no feelings for just to get back at her sister-in-law. And he treats his wife like shit. Not to mention, he’s controlling and possessive of Catherine and the two don’t have the healthiest relationship.

Does he care about his love interest? Has been in love with Catherine since they were kids and continues to love her even though they marry other people and have a very destructive relationship. As for his wife, Isabella (Geraldine Fitzgerald) not at all.

Verdict: Heathcliff may not be violent but he is certainly a bad boy since he makes it his mission to ruin people’s lives who wronged him, including Catherine. Definitely not a guy to bring home.

7. Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy


From: Pride and Prejudice, played by Sir Laurence Olivier

Is he criminally inclined? No.

Does he get along with family or friends? From what we know of, he tries to be nice to aunt and is very protective of his sister. Also, though he does make his friend Bingley break up with Jane, it wasn’t out of malicious intent.

Is he mentally stable? Most of the time unless you mention George Wickam.

Is he abusive or physically violent? He’s not violent or abusive at all. He doesn’t have a pleasant personality and isn’t the most tactful, however.

Does he have trouble keeping a legal job? For God’s sake he’s already stinking rich to begin with, probably doesn’t need one.

Is he worse than most of the cast? Well, in regards with social skills probably. Still, other than George Wickam, most of the cast consists of reasonably nice people.

Does he respect women? Absolutely, he knows a bad guy like George Wickam when he sees one even though he may not be the most socially inclined. Not to mention, he’s nice to Elizabeth Bennett (Greer Garson) and her family as well as everyone else.

Does he care about his love interest? Well, he does fall in love with Elizabeth Bennett and they do get married. Besides, he bailed out of an arranged marriage for her and doesn’t need to marry for money so a match with Elizabeth Bennett isn’t going to help him much. So yeah, he certainly cares about her.

Verdict: Though Mr. Darcy has an issue with rubbing people the wrong way, his biggest flaws are poor social skills and having an unpleasant personality. He isn’t a bad boy in the slightest and once you get to know him, you see that he’s a perfectly okay guy. So, ladies, it’s perfectly fine to swoon over him.

8. Hamlet


From: Hamlet, played by Sir Laurence Olivier

Is he criminally inclined? Well, when it comes against his uncle, he may be. Oh, yeah, he does kill Polonius and Laertes.

Does he get along with family or friends? Only Horatio and maybe his servants and a few others. He doesn’t seem to get along with everyone else. Relations with his mom and uncle have been strained since his father died, his uncle took the throne and married his mother. As with Polonius, Laertes, and Ophelia, probably not.

Is he mentally stable? On a few things as it turns out, but he may just be pretending to be nuts most of the time.

Is he abusive or physically violent? Yes, he certainly is since he doesn’t say nice things to Gertrude or Ophelia and he does kill three people including a guy through a curtain. Also, he’s living in the Middle Ages.

Does he have trouble keeping a legal job? He’s a prince so he’s already born with one and keeping it isn’t really on his mind.

Is he worse than most of the cast? In regards to most of the cast, he’s facing pretty stiff competition.

Does he respect women? When he told Ophelia to “get thee to a nunnery” he may not have necessarily told her to go to a convent. Also, he says a lot of terrible things to his mom which probably goes to say he doesn’t really respect women much.

Does he care about his love interest? Remember he told Ophelia to “get thee to a nunnery.” Besides, I don’t think Laertes and Polonius believe so he probably doesn’t.

Verdict: Sure Hamlet may have issues with his family, but though he may not be the worst guy on the list, he’s still not boyfriend material.

9. Rhett Butler


From: Gone With the Wind, played by Clark Gable

Is he criminally inclined? Well, he obviously gets rich in legally dubious ways. But he’s not inclined to do anything violent. Oh, wait.

Does he get along with family or friends? Well, he gets along well with his friends but not so much with his family. Spoils his daughter Bonnie like rotten though he tries to be a good dad. Also, him and Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) have a tempestuous relationship but pretty much deserve each other. Still, when it comes to certain relationships, he tends to have the wrong ideas and can’t seem to handle Scarlett’s immaturity.

Is he mentally stable? Most of the time except when his daughter dies and when it comes to Scarlett’s association with Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard). He tends be a very jealous guy.

Is he abusive or physically violent? Well, he served in the war. Not to mention, he’s very prone to explode at times and may have raped Scarlett after Ashley’s birthday party and later pushed her down the stairs, which he felt bad about later.

Does he have trouble keeping a legal job? Well, he did serve in the Confederate army but joined up at the last minute. In the civilian world, I’m not sure if he ever tried.

Is he worse than most of the cast? In regards to race and the Old South, definitely not. Still, he’s pretty decent compared to some unsavory characters.

Does he respect women? In regards to women in general, he’s certainly very polite and courteous. Sure he may have his moments with Scarlett but he tries to be good to her.

Does he care about his love interest? Oh, my God, Scarlett is the love of his life and would do anything for her though he does eventually leave her. He’ll probably be back once she grows up a little.

Verdict: Rhett is an interesting case. Sure he may have his moments but he’s pretty repentant about them most of the time and  is mostly a decent guy but may not have much understanding about relationships. Still, the way he earns his money makes him a borderline criminal, is very prone to jealousy, and can have the tendency to explode. As far as I’m concerned he’s a toss up.

10. James Bond

From: The James Bond Franchise, mostly played by Sean Connery

Is he criminally inclined? Oh, yes, since he does many things in his job that would put many people in jail.

Does he get along with family or friends? We know nothing about his family but he does cooperate with his co-workers and secretary. Just as long as you don’t try to kill him.

Is he mentally stable? He doesn’t have the healthy lifestyle and may be pretty prone to self-destructive behavior. Then again, self-destructive tendencies make him perfectly suited for his job.

Is he abusive or physically violent? Only toward villains who try to do any harm to him most of the time. Kind of goes with his job.

Does he have trouble keeping a legal job? Well, as long as the job is a way to make good use of his criminal and self-destructive tendencies, which benefit society as a whole.

Is he worse than most of the cast? No, since he’s around people who are much worse than he is. As with the good guys, I’m not sure.

Does he respect women? Well, he’s nice to his female coworkers and most of his flings in the series are usually consensual. Furthermore he’s willing to save them from the bad guys. And will only take them on when he has a legitimate reason to. Sure he may be a playboy who goes for attractive women doesn’t mean he doesn’t respect them. Besides, many of his women are in his line of work so it’s not like they’re looking for a husband or anything so they probably know what to expect.

Does he care about his love interest? He certainly doesn’t just see them as mere gorgeous sex objects like the movies make them out to be. I mean he kind of does see them as human beings and doesn’t really care about their sexual pasts as well as rarely exhibits any abusive behavior. Not to mention, his love interests seem to know that their sexual relationship with Bond will be casual and short-lived and don’t seem to mind. Still, hookup culture may be an accepted norm in the intelligence community in Bond’s setting.

Verdict: Bond may not be someone you’d want in a committed relationship nor a great role model, but though he may be bad at least he admits it and most of the women he’s involved with know what they’re getting into. Still, if you’re looking for a one night stand, you can do plenty worse than 007. He may be a playboy but he’s certainly a gentleman, just don’t expect much from him relationship wise.

11. Johnny Strabler


From: The Wild One, played by Marlon Brando

Is he criminally inclined? Yeah, but his crimes mostly range in stealing, vandalism, street harassment, and causing a public nuisance. He’s certainly a social deviant.

Does he get along with family or friends? Well, he’s good to his fellow gang members but there’s something about his rebelliousness that suggests he had a troubled childhood.

Is he mentally stable? Judging by the fact he rides a motorcycle without a helmet, you can say he does have a tendency for self-destructive behavior, which does come back to bite him. Also, his anger doesn’t help him much.

Is he abusive or physically violent? Well, he certainly doesn’t play well with others but he’s more violent to objects and rival gang members than regular townspeople.

Does he have trouble keeping a legal job? If he keeps up with his lifestyle he certainly will.

Is he worse than most of the cast? To some extent, yes, when it comes to the police blotter. But let’s just say members of the rival motorcycle gang in the film is far worse than him.

Does he respect women? Well, he really doesn’t have much respect for anyone. Still, he’s nice to Kathie and her dad’s a cop and rescues her.

Does he care about his love interest? Yes, he does care about Kathie and though he’s attracted to her, he know she’s better off without him and refuses to take her with him. But he does give her a stolen trophy to express his gratitude for all she’s done.

Verdict: Johnny may be a social deviant as well as fairly immature, but he’s mostly harmless other than that. Still, you wouldn’t let this guy date your daughter though. He’s probably a toss up.

12. Mr. Edward Rochester

From: Jane Eyre, played by Orson Welles

Is he criminally inclined? No, except in bigamy and possible domestic abuse but he lives in the 1800s.

Does he get along with family or friends? Well, he’s willing acknowledge paternal responsibility for a girl who may not be his. Of course, he keeps his wife in an attic. He seems all right with his servants and others and takes a special shine to Jane Eyre (Joan Fontaine).

Is he mentally stable? He might but he keeps his wife in his attic, which may spark considerable doubt on his sanity.

Is he abusive or physically violent? I’m not sure if keeping your wife in an attic qualifies as spousal abuse in the 1800s but it certainly does to me.

Does he have trouble keeping a legal job? He’s pretty rich so I don’t think he needs one.

Is he worse than most of the cast? Jane’s relatives and teachers were far worse to her than he was.

Does he respect women? Let’s just say he dated a girl just to make Jane jealous or throw off suspicion of his attraction to his governess. Not to mention, he tried to marry Jane even though he already had a wife she didn’t know about. Then there’s the keeping of his wife in the attic thing.

Does he care about his love interest? Let’s just say he probably loves Jane but I’m not sure if he cared about her happiness when he tried to marry her. He certainly didn’t tell her he was already married and kept his wife in the attic. Yet, she still goes back to him.

Verdict: Mr. Rochester may no be the worst guy around but he does have his share of selfishness and the whole keeping his wife in the attic thing. Not to mention, Jane could do better. I’ll just put him at toss up.

13. Clyde Barrow

From: Bonnie and Clyde, played by Warren Beatty

Is he criminally inclined? Yes, and a very notorious one at that who’s even done prison time. The real Clyde Barrow was very much this as well. Said to be a careless and remorseless killer in pursuit of small stakes.

Does he get along with family or friends? Oh, he certainly does get along with his brother and sister-in-law. And he seems pretty decent to Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) as well as fellow criminals and others. In real life, he also had close relationships with his mother and sister. Yet, he wasn’t sympathetic to the dispossessed though and hated cops.

Is he mentally stable? Well, let’s just say he’s very prone to inciting violence and has self-destructive tendencies. Not to mention, he was known for speeding Ford V-8s (even writing to Henry Ford about his appreciation for them).

Is he abusive or physically violent? Well, he’s certainly violent all right.

Does he have trouble keeping a legal job? If he had one, he certainly would.

Is he worse than most of the cast? Well, he’s a violent criminal who robs banks so I’d say so even if he is portrayed sympathetically. Him and Bonnie weren’t saints.

Does he respect women? When it comes to “his women” he might as in real life. Yet,  outside his circle doesn’t seem to respect anyone else. In real life, Clyde mostly called the shots and Bonnie went along.

Does he care about his love interest? Both in the film and in real life it’s hard to say whether him and Bonnie were really in love or that Bonnie was willing to tag along because she might have had a mental disorder that made her attracted to serious violent men remains questionable. As for Clyde’s sexual orientation, there’s considerable evidence he was reasonably straight.

Verdict: No matter what you make of it. Both in real life and in cinema, Clyde was certainly a guy you didn’t want to be around at all.

14. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid


From: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, played by Paul Newman and Robert Redford

Are they criminally inclined? Oh, yes, both rob trains and banks as well as kill people. Butch engages in prostitution. But they usually try to avoid killing as much as they could.

Do they get along with family or friends? As long as those people aren’t cops. Yet, they pretty much get along with their friends and Sundance’s girlfriend Etta Place.

Are they mentally stable? Well, let’s just say their sanity is questionable since they tend to expose themselves to danger a lot. And they do eventually get killed. In real life, we’re not so sure.

Are they abusive or physically violent? Well, they shoot people and blow up trains so they’re certainly violent.

Do they have trouble keeping a legal job? They tried to do legitimate work once, it didn’t take.

Are they worse than most of the cast? It’s hard to say since the film is so subjective.

Do they respect women? As far as we know they do since they’re pretty nice to Etta and respect whatever decision she makes.

Do they care about their love interests? Well, they care enough about Etta to respect her decisions even if it doesn’t work in their favor. Still, though she is Sundance’s girl (or wife in real life), Butch may have the hots for her.

Verdict: Sure there could be worse guys than Butch and Sundance, but understand that these guys were criminals and had a gang called “The Wild Bunch” or “Hole In the Wall Gang” and they rob and shoot people.

15. The Jets and the Sharks

From: West Side Story, played by too many guys I can’t list

Are they criminally inclined? Oh, yes, they’re classified delinquents and get in knife fights to kill.

Do they get along with family or friends? I’m not sure about family but they do get along with each other and their girlfriends. Tony from the Jets takes a special shine to Maria, the Sharks gang leader’s little sister.

Are they mentally stable? Well, they’re prone to self-destruction, but it’s hard to say.

Are they abusive or physically violent? Well, they have knife fights with each other that result in deaths so yeah, they’re pretty violent.

Do they have trouble keeping a legal job? Only Tony is ever seen doing any legitimate work but he may have trouble keeping it. Most are supported by their girlfriends, at least among the Sharks.

Are they worse than most of the cast? They are most of the cast.

Do they respect women? It’s hard to say since we never see any of the Jets with their girlfriends besides Tony. Sharks may seem pretty jarring to theirs and I’m not sure if Bernardo knows Maria is seeing Tony. Not to mention, Tony eventually kills him. It’s complicated.

Do they care about their love interests? Tony and Bernardo seem to but once again, it’s complicated.

Verdict: These guys are probably bad news since they get into fights with each other and into knife fights. Best be avoided at all times.

16. Colin Smith


From: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, played by Tom Courtenay (This isn’t a Hollywood movie but it’s a very famous one in Britain so it counts.)

Is he criminally inclined? To an extent but mostly when he’s desperate for money. He does land in juvee though.

Does he get along with family or friends? Gets along with friends and siblings but his relationship with his mother has been going downhill ever since his father died.

Is he mentally stable? As mentally stable as most normal teenagers. He just wants to be a kid.

Is he abusive or physically violent? Not really violent and abusive only when he’s angry.

Does he have trouble keeping a legal job? His mother puts him under a lot of pressure to get one but he lacks motivation. Yet, he may have no trouble being a professional runner but he doesn’t want that.

Is he worse than most of the cast? Since many of his peers are juvenile delinquents like him, it’s very complicated to say.

Does he respect women? To an extent, I suppose. Doesn’t have much respect for authority though.

Does he care about his love interest? Well, he does have a girlfriend and spends time with her. We don’t know much of the extent of that relationship though.

Verdict: Colin just wants to be a normal teenager and do what he wants with his life. Though he may be a juvenile delinquent, he’s not much of a social deviant as what you’d expect from most teens living in the inner cities. He stole money because his mother wouldn’t let him in the house if he didn’t get any. In short, he kind of makes Charlie Brown look pretty fortunate.

Feminist Films Before the 1960s


We often assume that feminism didn’t really take off until the 1960s and before that time, women basically were portrayed as happy housewives, submissive damsels in distress, innocent ingenues or evil women who led their men astray. These are the basic images of women in old movies that tend to come to our mind as well as the notion that gender roles were observed without question before the 1960s. However, these notions are dead wrong since feminism has always been apparent throughout history and there have been people who’ve questioned the notion of gender roles for centuries. Old Hollywood is no exception for many old movies have a great treasure trove of strong female characters as well as featured movies which challenged notions of gender roles and relationships between men and women. Here’s a short list of what I considered to be old movies that even a feminist would approve of:

1. Gone with the Wind

You wouldn’t think I’d put this movie on here since fans tend to watch it for the romance between Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler while critics and detractors would cite the historical inaccuracy, negative racial stereotypes, lack of good male characters, complain that it’s four hours long, or dismiss it as a mere chick flick. Some may not think that Gone with the Wind isn’t a feminist movie since it won a bunch of Oscars, holds the distinction of highest grossing movie of all time, was made in the 1930s, and is regarded as one of the greatest films of all time. Surely a movie with these distinctions and flaws can’t be feminist. Well, that’s where you’re wrong since I would very much regard this movie as a highly feminist film as well as a one of the most ground breaking movies for women. For one, this is a film about the experiences of women in the South during the American Civil War and the early years of Reconstruction and how such events affected their lives. It depicts women playing a role in history at a time when professional historians seldom wrote about women or before the concept of women’s studies even existed. Not only that, but it also shows how the American Civil War was also a woman’s war as much as a man’s whether it be on the home front or on the front lines. And this is back in 1939. Second, it features a strong and well developed female protagonist in Scarlett O’Hara who isn’t entirely a saint but certainly no damsel in distress. Not to mention, she eventually challenges the conventional notions of how a women should act at the time and does morally dubious things, isn’t universally liked, is very much a realistic character for her time, and is actually a strong female character feminists would approve of (even a lot of today’s action girls don’t amount to her rich characterization). I mean despite that she’s selfish, amoral, immature, materialistic, she’s very intelligent and later emerges as a strong and driven young woman ever determined to do what she can to avoid starvation or being a burden to others. Of course, this movie was based on the book by Margaret Mitchell, yet nevertheless, Gone with the Wind is a great feminist film which shows that a movie which features women’s experiences as well as a strong female protagonist with moral ambiguities could break records at the box office, win 8 Academy Awards, and be well regarded as one of the greatest films of all time. Of course, it’s not 100% relevant, but it’s still a timeless classic that holds up in so many ways. If there is a feminist film before 1960 which deserves a spot on this list, then Gone with the Wind is the gold standard.

2. Peyton Place

I place this film on this list since it portrays almost every character as three-dimensional entities who don’t necessarily come off as entirely unsympathetic (with the exception of Lucas Cross but I’ll get to him later). Yet, whatever their flaws, viewers are encouraged not to judge these people no matter but only to understand them as people. It’s also noteworthy to point out of how certain female characters don’t seem to conform to your 1950s standards. For instance, Allison Mackenzie puts her deceased father on a pedestal, mostly finds herself on the receiving end of her mother’s insecurities, and has a lifelong aspiration to be a writer. Her mother Constance (played by Lana Turner) is has managed to succeed both as a mother and businesswoman but can’t really leave her secret past behind which proves detrimental in her relationships with her daughter and new boyfriend Michael Rossi, the new high school principal. Allison’s best friend, Selena Cross is seen as a good girl whose stepfather Lucas makes her life at home the closest thing to hell on earth. Her motivation in the film is to achieve financial independence so she and her brother could escape from their godforsaken home. She’s an interesting case since she’s still seen as a sympathetic character despite having an abortion and later committing murder. Of course, Lucas raped her so who could blame her for killing him but she barely gets off (since the doctor almost didn’t testify). Then we have Betty Anderson who likes dress in sexy clothes, drink alcohol, behave in scandalous ways, and is much more forthcoming about her sexuality but still genuinely loves her boyfriend and does make peace with his father. Peyton Place is also a relevant film which condemns sexual abuse for how should be depicted as well as make Selena’s abortion and murder seem justified. The film always shows Lucas’ conduct to Selena as unwanted and never holds her responsible for Lucas’ actions.

3. I Was a Male War Bride

I put this film on the list since it’s one that specifically addresses sexism with a very interesting twist. Still, unlike most of the movies I have on this list, this one features a male protagonist played by Cary Grant. However, I included this movie on here because it addresses how sexism can negatively affect men. Set in Europe right after World War II, this movie is about a French officer who marries an American servicewoman and decides to spend his married life in the States. However, what him and Ann Sheridan have to go through is a bureaucratic nightmare through the War Brides Act, which is seen clearly as sexist US government policy. To the US only the men took foreign spouses and the military and red tape stacked against American servicewomen marrying men from another country. Of course, being an American servicewoman, it’s Ann Sheridan who’s being discriminated against on account of her sex. However, it’s Cary Grant who has to suffer for it firsthand since he has to endlessly explain that he’s married to an American soldier and entitled to shelter and transportation in a system that doesn’t recognize his gender as compatible with his situation. For one, Grant has to pass as a war bride in order to go back to the United States with his wife since all the spousal regulations seem to be for brides. Of course, he puts through a lot of shit and humiliation being a “war bride” such as having to fill out a form reserved for women, spending most of a night looking for a place to sleep, and having to board a boat in drag. On a further note, this is loosely based on a true story so there probably were a few “war brides” who just happened to be dudes. And they probably had to go through similar shit. Of course, while there may be plenty of movies that address men defying traditional gender roles, I Was a Male War Bride is one of few films that promotes the issue of feminism to a male audience.

4. Mildred Pierce

Of course, I had to include this Oscar-winning film since it’s one of early movies that centers around a successful self-made woman and single mother who despite her hard work and efforts to please her daughter, still gets no respect. It’s a very bleak look at what women can expect if they live and work alone in a man’s world, beset by men who want to exploit them, sexually or otherwise. She starts as an ordinary housewife driven to working as a waitress after her unemployed husband takes off and later starts her own restaurant and chain. Mildred Pierce is a woman is both a victim of circumstance as well as herself as well as a strong female protagonist with real flaws and assets. She is a hard worker with good business sense as well as a devoted mother. Of course, being a devoted mother to Veda is her biggest flaw, not due to bad parenting (she ain’t perfect), but how Veda is just one of the most ungrateful brats in movie history. Still, though she may be a woman in a man’s world, she’s still someone we sympathize with and want to succeed since she kind of reminds women of themselves in many ways. Not only that, but as a businesswoman, she becomes a victim to the same mistakes as any man would. Of course, Mildred met her downfall, but at least she made it to the top despite great odds.

5. A Letter to Three Wives

This is perhaps one of the most relevant films for women since it pertains to an issue that all women face, which is the struggle for perfection. Yet, it also tells women that they don’t have to be superwomen in order to be loved and appreciated by the men in their lives. All three women protagonists are each imperfect in their own way and have very imperfect lives and marriages. All three somehow feel inadequate when compared to their “friend” Addie Ross who their husbands see as a goddess and is probably the closest thing to a superwoman in her time, though she really is a complete bitch. Not to mention, all three think that the the strain on their marriages is their fault. And adding insult to injury, she sends them a letter telling these three women that she ran off with one of their husbands. It’s also interesting to note these women lead very different lives from one another, struggle with very different issues, and are portrayed in non-stereotypical fashion. You got Jeanne Crain who left the farm to serve her country only to come back having a difficult time adjusting to her husband’s world which is so different than the one she left behind. She sees herself as hick who wears cheap mail order clothes worrying that she wouldn’t be able to impress her upper class husband’s friends with her man being completely blind to what she’s dealing with. Ann Sothern is a working mother and breadwinner whose schoolteacher husband (Kirk Douglas) isn’t much thrilled with. It’s not just that she’s earning more money than he is but that she’s earning a living writing for a radio soap opera and how her job interferes with their lives. However, Kirk Douglas knows full well and accepts his situation since Sothern is just as smart as he is and that her status as a breadwinner allows him to have the career he wants without having to worry about the bills. Yet, Sothern doesn’t seem to know what Douglas wants from her. Then we have Linda Darnell who’s from the wrong side of the tracks and sees herself as a gold digger who married her boss just to escape her working class light. But Darnell and Paul Douglas’ marriage gives the two of them exactly what they need. Yet, she wonders whether she’d miss her husband if he was gone. Of course, the ending is rather ambiguous but  we can be sure that at least Sothern and Darnell have husbands who surely care for them despite their own flaws and that whether Crain’s husband left her or not, she’s willing to survive without him and at least has friends.

6. Adam’s Rib

Of course, this is another comedy which is said to feature a battle of the sexes between Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Yet, unlike most movies that feature a battle of the sexes, this one doesn’t insult the intelligence and rationality of either party. And in some respects Hepburn and Tracy both make valid points about sexism and treatment of those in the criminal justice system, particularly when a crime of passion is involved. Of course, Hepburn is the feminist who thinks men and women are equal, notes the double standard that exists for women and men regarding adultery, and humiliates Tracy in court in order to prove that he’s not immune to sexism as any man. Of course, Hepburn may have her sympathies with Judy Holliday who’s accused of shooting her asshole husband after catching him having an affair, but she knows it since she’s also a woman and sees why her client would snap. Furthermore, she’s very aware on how women were treated by society at the time and strives to make sure her client gets as fair a treatment as any man would in her place. On the other hand, though Hepburn is right to acknowledge sexism, this doesn’t mean that Tracy is completely in the wrong. Rather, though Tracy may have his own biases, he’s certainly no male chauvinist pig nor does he have anything against women, but quite the contrary. Actually, he’s a more progressive man for his time who’s perfectly fine with his wife’s force and ambition. He’s just not happy about her using the case for her own selfish purposes. To him, Judy Holliday’s gender and situation are practically irrelevant is as far as his job as a prosecutor goes. In Tracy’s eyes, Judy Holliday is guilty of attempted murder and showed disregard for the law as there should never be an excuse for such behavior regardless of gender. If Judy Holliday had been a man, it would be very clear that Tracy would’ve judged her no differently. Unfortunately for Tracy, though he may be on the side of the law and have no special affection for Holliday’s husband, he’s nevertheless working in his interests. And we’re very much instructed to sympathize with Judy Holliday since her husband is a man with no redeemable qualities and should never have custody of the kids.

7. All About Eve

Of course, this film may have it’s flaws but it’s an essential feminist film nonetheless because it shows the sexual bias and the entertainment industry and how such makes women become rivals instead of friends. Of course, it says that a woman isn’t complete without her man, but so did many Hollywood films at the time. Still, Margo Channing is an aging actress who plays roles of younger women and is insecure about growing older and settling down with her boyfriend Bill Sampson. She sees newcomer Eve Harrington as a threat to her career and goes through a diva meltdown which is dismissed as an overreaction until Eve tries to seduce Bill. However, the reality is that though aging, Margo is a highly talented actress at the height of her career as well as a star with legendary status who’s probably in a more secure position than many of her peers. Not to mention, she’s still very pretty and is dating a man who’s eight years younger than her who loves and respects her for who she is. However, Margo’s flaw is that she views her career as the most important thing in her life and knows all too well that her line of work where aging can be career killer. Yet, though Eve Harrington is a genuine threat, it’s age that triumphs over youth in this one and in some ways is a better female role model because of it. Margo may be a bitch but sometimes her whining can be seen as perfectly justified. Even though Margo learns to accept getting older, settles down with Bill, and decides not to play younger women, she loses nothing letting Eve play Cora and become a star. Sure Eve Harrington may be young, pretty, and talented, but she’s a sociopath who will do whatever it takes to get whatever she wants. And she manages to fool almost everyone in the cast except Birdie and Addison. Margo is a woman of integrity with supportive and sincere friends and has some genuine humanity in her. Eve is just a cold and manipulative bitch willing to use people as tools and cares only for herself. And since Margo’s willing to accept the direction of her career and start having a life outside of the theater, she survives Eve Harrington as well as many of the young actresses who come after her. Eve submits to critic Addison DeWitt, selling her soul to all her fans and the media since she has nothing but her career.

8. The Barefoot Contessa

This is more of a cautionary tale pertaining to the objectification of women and the price they pay for it. The film unfolds as a fairy tale turned tragedy as we see Ava Gardner as a person like Humphrey Bogart does, but is viewed by the rest of the male cast as an object to be exploited for their benefit without any account for her whether it be by looks, talent, status, or what not. In some way, this is what objectification really is and Ava Gardner ultimately suffers for it. Ava Gardner is a woman who is smart as she is beautiful whose main motivation is to enjoy the challenge and escape that a Hollywood career might offer a woman who will nevertheless value the simpler things in life. However, she’s also a woman who’s known to have sex with multiple men (known as her “cousins”) and has a mind of her own. And in every fairy tale there has to be a Prince Charming as in the Count Favrini or so Gardner assumes he is. Yet, once she marries him, you realize he’s just willing to use her as much as most of the other male characters. But in this case, it’s because she’s a glamorous celebrity whose marriage to her will work in his plans to bring his family to a memorable end. And it doesn’t end well for Gardner.

9. Roman Holiday

Of course, this is a romantic comedy, but it’s one that encourages women to do what’s best for themselves for a change. Of course, the man who’s stifling Audrey Hepburn’s life in the beginning isn’t a romantic interest but her dad who’s a king, which makes her a princess. And as a princess, she has royal duties which consists of going on diplomatic trips as well as having her schedule filled with PR activities all day long. Soon all the stress catches up with Hepburn that she takes off in the middle of the night and spends the next day doing whatever she wants such as living a day without her crushing responsibilities. And she does this only to the benefit of herself. Of course, Hepburn eventually has to return to her life as a princess but she does as a more assertive young woman who’s willing to accommodate her own needs alongside her duties and more able to think for herself.

10. Now, Voyager

Kind of has a similar message to Roman Holiday yet, Charlotte Vale’s path to empowerment and learning to think for herself doesn’t completely solve her problems. However, the domineering force in her life is her emotionally abusive mother who tried to control her all her life and lets her know that she is unwanted and unloved. Not to mention, Mrs. Vale doesn’t want her daughter to have much of a life either and does all the decision making for her. That is until Charlotte suffers a nervous breakdown and is confined to a sanitarium and later emerges out of her shell, goes on a cruise where she meet the unhappily married Jerry, and falls in love with him. Though adulterous, their relationship would have a positive impact on both their lives. When she returns, she confronts her mother and finds that she’s no longer scared of living for herself. After her mother dies, Charlotte returns to the sanitarium where she becomes a surrogate mother to Jerry’s daughter Tina. Also, unlike many women in old movies, Charlotte is perfectly all right to live without a man, doesn’t need to settle down for just anyone, and is willing to be happy with what she has, which is a lot but still.

11. Giant

Of course, this doesn’t start out as a feminist film since it begins with Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor’s whirlwind courtship and marriage. However, once they start their married life in Texas, Taylor starts turning Hudson’s world upside down. For one, she treats the  Mexican workers on Reata as human beings, doesn’t see anything unfeminine with discussing politics, and has no qualms about defying tradition. Still, I think what makes this movie as a feminist film is how it depicts femininity. This is expressed through Elizabeth Taylor  in relation to Mercedes McCambridge. Taylor is perfectly comfortable with being a woman and isn’t ashamed of her femininity. Yet, she’s still a strong woman who isn’t afraid to do what she thinks is right or speak her mind whenever she feels like it. She may be a woman but she’s also her own person and refuses to conform to her gender’s expectations. In the end, her life with Hudson helps change him into a better man though it takes a long time. On the other hand, McCambridge sees her femininity as something to be ashamed of and denies it in order to be one of the boys in order to feel dominant. She’s a misogynist and hates Taylor with an instant passion. She is butch and violent and thinks that only these two traits can be a show of strength. Of course, her harshness and violent demeanor are what causes her downfall after falling off Taylor’s horse that she treated so badly. In some ways, these two women show the difference between being a strong female character and being a female character just acting macho.

12. The Three Faces of Eve

This is a film that depicts a woman with multiple personalities superbly played by Joanne Woodward (best known for her marriage to Paul Newman) who received an Oscar for her performance that year. Of course, the afflicted woman is a quiet, mousy, and unassuming housewife named Eve White who suffers from headaches and occasional blackouts, from which emerges the wild party girl Eve Black. However, though Eve had this problem since childhood, this mental illness persists as a way for her to act out in an unhappy marriage with a man who doesn’t understand her condition nor cares to. In many respects, he’s an abusive jerk who later dumps her and later abandons their daughter. And Eve begins to recover as a third personality of the stable Jane emerges who gathers strength once Eve starts living as a single woman. In some ways, Eve’s personality disorder fed off of her unhappiness in a life she was reluctant to leave. Yet, when she does, Jane becomes stronger since she’s the most healthy personality as two Eves decline and starts leading a new life better than the one she left. May not be a feminist film, but it works out like one as far as I’m concerned.

13. Pinky

I know this one is the least known movies on the list about a black girl who can pass for white but don’t ask why she’s played by white girl Jeanne Crain. Then again, the Jeanne Crain portrayal makes sense. Anyway, she comes home from nursing school with a white boyfriend who she’s all set to marry and start a new life with him in Colorado. However, her grandmother isn’t too happy and asks her to take care of former boss Ethel Barrymore who’s on her deathbed. Crain reluctantly abides but thinks Barrymore is an unpleasant old woman to work for. Yet, when she dies, Crain finds out that this woman left everything to her in order that her estate would serve as a black clinic and nursing school (this is in the South during segregation). And when Barrymore’s will becomes contested by family members, she decides to fight and wins. May seem like a career vs. man story but is far more complex since the issue of race in involved. For Crain, marriage not only means being with the man of her dreams yet this would mean she’d have to live as a white woman for the rest of her life. Yet, she chooses to risk her relationship so she can fulfill the old lady’s wishes and help her community as well as brave the rampant climate of racism. It may not be the easiest choice to make but it was one that would make Crain a much happier woman because of it. And in a time when women were being encouraged to be happy homemakers, this movie is a breath of fresh air.