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Dream Girls of the 50s: But Can They Act?
by Karen Pecota

During the Berlinale 2006, the Retrospective (Retro) film division celebrated its 30 th anniversary. In collaboration with the Film Museum Berlin, many events highlighted the film classics of the 50s. For many people, these films are an opportunity to step back in time to experience true entertainment. Every Retro film I viewed at the Berlinale had a packed audience in spite of varied show times. The draw was that these fabulous old films were revived and shown on the big screen. Since the films are of historical value the nature of their restoration often needs to be introduced to the audience. Film restoration advisors accompany their films to the festival. One American representative who had brought I’ll See You in My Dreams featuring Doris Day and Danny Thomas was thrilled to be at the Berlinale where he had an enthusiastic audience to show his archive and his presentation was fascinating.

The first Retro film I saw was A Star is Born with Judy Garland. This was one film that needed an over-haul. As the beginning credits rolled, it was very clear that the red coloring of the big typescript had greatly disintegrated. Still shots were placed throughout the film because much of the original footage had been destroyed. While the vocals never missed a beat, the moving picture certainly had its problems. This style of restoration was very attention-grabbing. The natural surround sound was extremely clear and it made me feel like I was in the film. In one scene, there was a huge waterfall and the water noise was exhilarating. In the same scene, the actors were overlooking the beautiful night lights of Los Angeles, where the glow was so natural and vivid. I was so homesick! A film classic viewed on the big screen is awesome and to be revered. But, the people who value the product enough to restore it are the ones even more to be revered.

In 1977 the Retrospective division of the Berlinale opened, honoring Marlene Dietrich, for her film roles which often portrayed women being assertive in a male-dominated world. This year the theme of “Dream Girls: Film Stars from the 50s” also revealed the image of women to be self-confident, self-reliant, beautiful, gracious, and success driven, just like Dietrich.

I saw seven dream-girls along with their dream-boy counterparts: A Star is Born with Judy Garland, To Catch a Thief with Grace Kelly and Cary Grant, A Nun’s Story with Audrey Hepburn, Johnny Guitar with Joan Crawford, I’ll See You in My Dreams with Doris Day and Danny Thomas, Et Dia Ces da Femme with Brigitte Bardott and Angel Face with Jean Simmons and Robert Mitchum. Viewing these films with a good plot and diverse acting also opened the door for conversations with other film fans.

I attended a lecture with two authors who were experts on the subject of Hollywood and European Dream Girls. They discussed the role of women, what was important to them and reasons why these film icons had such success during the 50s. They mentioned that it was the film world which gave women a platform to show their talent and femininity. The “dream girls” were icons and all the production companies wanted their names connected with their company.

I also attended an interview with Sweden’s dream girl, Harriet Anderson. She was still strikingly beautiful at 66 years old. She was very candid about her days in film which gave the dream-girl life authenticity. She recalls while she was filming, “It was a lot of work to look glamorous every morning.” One of her pet peeves was being asked by the director to re-take the shot without a plausible reason why. Ms. Anderson felt that was very unprofessional and immature behavior. She was one of the few international dream girls that spoke different languages and therefore worked in German films, including several films with Ingmar Bergman. Ms. Anderson was one of his favorite actresses. She was asked if she was ever allowed to change any part of Bergman’s scripts and said, “You would have to be very careful approaching this subject with Bergman because his scripts were so well written. But, I do remember a time when he took my advice. It was a scene in which teenagers were talking and the script used old- fashioned language which kids didn’t use. I suggested that he change it! And, he did!”

She told many interesting stories of her career, including a time where she could have been seriously injured on horseback. Someone smacked the butt of the horse she was riding and away she went! Ms. Anderson makes no bones that these days were very difficult for women in film because they were simply hired to look good. She had a wonderful career behind the camera and loved it. She was very quick to let us know that her retirement is now in full swing and exclaimed, “I’m free!”

Later that evening, I briefly discussed the interview with Italian journalist, Barbara Basile, who writes for Collezioni, glamour magazine. Barbara was writing a piece on the dream girls but her concentration would be on the fashion statement of the 50’s. It was apparent that this topic will be a favorite for years to come. And, yes, the dream girls can act!