Sisters, Mothers, and More: Feminine Familial Roles in Classic Films

Two Sisters from Boston (1946) - Turner Classic Movies
June Allyson, Kathryn Grayson, Lauritz Melchior, Peter Lawford, and Jimmy Durante in Two Sisters from Boston (1946), playing traditional gender roles.

One of the things we of PEPS love in entertainment is tradition. Many traditional role models and values are featured in classic films, especially Hollywood productions from 1934-1954, when the Motion Picture Production Code’s strong enforcement ensured all films’ decency for everyone. Under the Code, marriage and the family were defended and glorified. In addition to strong masculine roles, this produced traditional female roles. These feminine characters are a breath of fresh air compared to modern Hollywood’s portrayals of emasculated males and feminist females.

A great guide to admirably feminine characters in Code films is familial roles. These include genetic family positions like daughter, sister, aunt, and mother, as well as legal family titles like sister-in-law, mother-in-law, and wife. These ladies display compassion, acceptance, devotion, and selflessness. Although admirable in anyone, these virtues have long been associated with traditional femininity. These traits make us want to emulate these ladies in our own lives.

Genetic Relationships

Listen, Darling (1938) - Turner Classic Movies
Judy Garland and Mary Astor in Listen, Darling (1938)

The first familial role any woman plays is daughter, often forming a close bond with her mother. Listen, Darling (1938) celebrates this relationship through Pinkie Wingate (Judy Garland) and her widowed mother, Dottie (Mary Astor). Horrified that her mother plans to marry a stodgy man (Gene Lockhart) she doesn’t love to provide for her children, Pinkie schemes with her friend Buzz (Freddie Bartholomew) to take Dottie away. Kidnapping her mother for a road trip is drastic, but her intentions are loving. When Dottie falls in love with a free-spirited lawyer (Walter Pidgeon), Pinkie offers to leave the family so her mother is free to remarry. Pinkie’s devotion and deep love for her mother are touching.

Cinema Style--Katharine Hepburn Toasts the New Year in Kalloch for 1938's  HOLIDAY | GlamAmor
Katharine Hepburn and Doris Nolan in Holiday (1938)

As sisters, many women learn to practice compassion and understanding with their siblings. A wonderful movie sister is Linda Seton (Katharine Hepburn) in Holiday (1938), the oldest of three children in a wealthy New York family. While Linda calls herself the family’s “black sheep,” her sister, Julia (Doris Nolan), is selfish and manipulative, and her brother, Ned (Lew Ayres), is an alcoholic. Although strong-willed and free-spirited, Linda tries to help make her siblings happy. When Linda meets Julia’s fiancé, Johnny Case (Cary Grant), she is overjoyed for her sister. She later refuses to acknowledge her feelings for Johnny because Julia loves him. She also encourages Ned’s music, which their father (Henry Kolker) forced him to abandon. Linda is a noble woman who loves her sister enough to share her happiness.

Sara Haden | Discover New Movies | Noovie
Sara Haden and Mickey Rooney in Andy Hardy’s Private Secretary (1941)

Aunts are less common in films but can be loving feminine influences. One wonderful movie aunt is Milly Forrest from the Andy Hardy film series, who is featured in all sixteen films (1937-1958). Sara Haden played Milly in all but the third and fourth films (1938), in which Betty Ross Clarke replaced her. The spinster teacher lives with her sister, Emily’s (Fay Holden), family and is a second mother to her niece (Cecilia Parker) and nephew (Mickey Rooney). While Emily is emotional and sensitive, Milly is practical and sensible. Judge Hardy (Lewis Stone) often confides concerns to his “good right arm” sister-in-law, who is more businesslike from being husbandless. Andy Hardy’s Double Life (1942) features one of Aunt Milly’s tenderest moments, when she bids Andy goodbye for college, calling him “the son I haven’t of my own.”

Since You Went Away (1944) - Toronto Film Society
Jennifer Jones, Claudette Colbert, and Shirley Temple in Since You Went Away (1944)

Women’s most sacred role is motherhood. Since You Went Away (1944) depicts one American family on the home front during World War II. With the father at war, the Hilton family is held together by Anne (Claudette Colbert), the devoted mother of two daughters. She runs the household while helping the war effort, including working in a munitions factory, aided by her daughters and her faithful maid (Hattie McDaniel). Anne feels her daughters’ emotions with them. When her older daughter, Jane (Jennifer Jones), falls in love with a young soldier, Bill Smollett 2nd (Robert Walker), Anne lovingly guides her through a treacherous wartime romance. She helps both Jane and Brig (Shirley Temple) cope with the war’s turmoil, through which they mature into selfless women, like her.

Legal Relationships

Ashley and Melanie greet Scarlett at his surprise birthday party. | Gone  with the wind, Wind movie, Olivia de havilland
Leslie Howard, Olivia de Havilland, and Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind (1939)

Some familial relationships are formed by marriage rather than birth, such as sisters-in-law. Melanie Hamilton Wilkes (Olivia de Havilland) in Gone with the Wind (1939), one of Hollywood’s saintliest characters, is a perfect sister-in-law. Sweet, loving, and accepting of everyone, she is Scarlett O’Hara’s (Vivien Leigh) sister-in-law through Scarlett’s short-lived marriage to Melanie’s brother. Although Scarlett remarries twice after Charles Hamilton (Rand Brooks) dies early in the war, Melanie is her devoted sister-in-law throughout the film. Melanie never wants to burden others, apologizes for unavoidably doing so, and always tries to help, even when bedridden after childbirth! Despite having three husbands, Scarlett loves Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), Melanie’s husband. When Scarlett arrives at Ashley’s birthday party after rumors have circulated about them, Melanie lovingly welcomes her, saying, “Our Scarlett’s here.” She shows trust and forgiveness rare in a sister, let alone a sister-in-law. Her unjudging, warm acceptance of others exemplifies sisterly love.

Mrs. Miniver | film by Wyler [1942] | Britannica
Teresa Wright and Greer Garson in Mrs. Miniver (1942)

Films often show strained relationships between mothers and their sons’ wives. However, Mrs. Miniver (1942) shows a mother-in-law who has a tender, loving relationship with her daughter-in-law. Kay Miniver (Greer Garson) is a brave Englishwoman who bolsters her husband (Walter Pidgeon) and three children during World War II’s early days. Her oldest son, Vin (Richard Ney), marries Carol Beldon (Teresa Wright), the granddaughter of the local noblewoman (Dame May Whitty), despite ideological and class differences. Knowing that Vin loves Carol, Mrs. Miniver happily accepts her as her own daughter. After the newlyweds return from their honeymoon, Lady Beldon mentions the stationmaster’s (Henry Travers) hybrid rose, called Mrs. Miniver. Kay tells her son’s bride, “That’s you, my dear.” Despite everyone’s fears that the wartime marriage may be short-lived, Kay helps them find every possible happiness, rejoicing at gaining a daughter.

The Egg and I
Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert from The Egg and I (1947)

Another important feminine familial role is being a wife, especially one who helps her husband achieve his goals, like Betty MacDonald (Claudette Colbert) in The Egg and I (1947). On their wedding night, her husband, Bob (Fred MacMurray), tells her he has quit his job and purchased a chicken farm. Although shocked by this rash move, the city bride goes along. The farmhouse is a decrepit wilderness shack, but Bob naively thinks the setting is perfect. Betty loves his innocent, wide-eyed view toward life, so she uncomplainingly rises early, cleans, cooks, and tends livestock. Betty never imagined being a farmer’s wife, yet she finds true contentment on the farm because she and Bob build a wonderful life together.

Examples for Us All

These seven films include admirable examples of femininity in familial roles. Pinkie Wingate is a daughter who will sacrifice anything to make her mother happy. Linda Seton is a sister who ignores her own feelings for the man she thinks her sister loves. Millie Forrest is an aunt who is a second mother to her niece and nephew, finding love and fulfilment in her sister’s family. Anne Hilton is a mother who helps her daughters through the crises they face during World War II. Melanie Wilkes is a sister-in-law who helps, accepts, and loves the selfish woman who wants her husband. Kay Miniver is a mother-in-law who welcomes her son’s bride as her own daughter, encouraging the couple to embrace happiness while they can. Betty MacDonald is a wife who helps her husband’s dreams of owning a chicken farm because she loves him.

Modern Hollywood rarely presents admirable characters of either sex. Classic films from the Production Code Era contained positive, uplifting stories with wonderful role models which viewers of all ages can still enjoy. Whether young or old, single or married, related genetically or legally, these characters show us that wonderful women are loving, empathetic, selfless, and above all feminine.

Noir and Chick Flicks: Since You Went Away(1944).

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One thought on “Sisters, Mothers, and More: Feminine Familial Roles in Classic Films

  1. This was such a sweet article! I love your examples, though I’ve only seen the one role, with Olivia de Havilland in Gone With The Wind. One of my favorite examples of a daughter is Marta Cabrera from Knives Out (2019), but I’m always looking for more examples. I will definitely look for these films!

    MovieCritic | Movies Meet Their Match

    Liked by 1 person

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