The "Hitchcock Blonde" is a cinematic icon. Cool, clever, capable and, well, blonde, Alfred Hitchcock's vision of the ideal woman, embodied by the likes of Tippi Hedren, Kim Novak and Grace Kelly, is easily identifiable and completely indelible. I love the Hitchcock Blonde, honestly, and think that, for all the twisted sexual psychology that seem to have lurked under Hitchcock's impulses in creating it, it's a complicated and worthwhile example of femininity in film.
But one of Hitchcock's talents was infusing even the bit players in his films with personality and identity, and for all the attention his heroines get, many of his supporting women are interesting and charming. More importantly, several of them are their own archetype, an often under-appreciated one in classic film¹ - pretty girls in glasses.
In fact, I have a hard time thinking of many examples of classic film daring to show desirable women in spectacles that aren't from Hitchcock's movies. There’s the totally awesome bookstore clerk in The Big Sleep - a lovely, knowledgeable lady who looked so much better before Bogey asked her to take off her glasses. But we never even learn her name. I'm sure there are some secretaries here and there, especially when we edge into the office dramas and comedies of the late fifties and the sixties. However, it seems that the best examples of girls in glasses who at least occasionally step up to the forefront comes from Hitchcock.
First off, as a disclaimer, Hitchcock obviously has a lengthy filmography and while I've seen a large number of his films, I have not seen all of them. Also, it's quite possible that even in the ones I've seen, I've forgotten a worthy side character. So this list is less exhaustive and more of a good start.
Miriam and Barbara from Strangers on a Train
It's true that the glasses women wear in Strangers on a Train serve more as plot device than character statement. It's also true neither one are great characters in the first place. Miriam, as the protagonist's fame-hungry, philandering wife, isn't much of a positive female portrayal - but, man, does she wear a great pair of bejeweled, dark-framed eyeglasses. And, given the way she openly carries on with not only one but two men (neither her husband), they don't seem hurt her much in the desirability market.
Barbara, the younger sister of the heroine, has more virtue but less personality. (Isn't that always the way it works.) But she shows a bit of cleverness and spirit at the end. All in all, they aren’t my favorite kind of girls in glasses, but I like the fact they're there.
Ann from Shadow of a Doubt
No one should be making any passes at Ann Newton because she's about ten. But if a more charming depiction of a future geek girl exists in film, I've never seen it. As the younger sister of the heroine, Charlie, Ann reappears at regular intervals in the film with her stack of books, her decided opinions and her round glasses. ² She knows something about everything and is happy to tell you about it whether you really want to know or not. Someday she'll fascinate some smart guy who knows what's good for him.
Midge from Vertigo
It's entirely possible this entire post exists to sing the praises of Midge. I may admire the icy ideal of the Blonde, but Midge is everything she’s not, and that's ten times better. I would never really want to be a Hitchcock Blonde, even if I could manage to pull it off. Midge, however, I'd switch places with in a heartbeat. Ah, to be a single gal in 1958 San Fransisco! The mid-century modern (if cluttered) bachelorette flat, the lingerie design day job to support her fine art habit, the first-name-basis relationship with the local bookseller/historian. She's cute, she's witty - and, of course, her best friend, Scottie, with whom she’s in love, sees her only as a pal and instead falls for the glamor girl who literally drives him insane. Way to go, Scottie.
Midge is really a very interesting female figure from classic film because she isn't idealized or demonized, or even dismissed as irrelevant. She's a little too smart and unconventional to be the typical girl next door, but, for pretty much the same reasons, she's not in the dreamgirl realm, either. She's loyal and independent and fallible and fragile. I'd like to think that after the whole Scottie fiasco she either found a man who wasn't crazy enough to not appreciate her or she aged gracefully into jolly old maidenhood, hopefully taking up residence at some San Fransisco sidewalk cafe and making fun of hippies. After all, it usually works out that the girls in glasses have a harder time in youth, but make up for it in the end.
Girls in Hitchcock films who totally should have worn glasses (or maybe, we can hope, did when they were home alone): Danielle from To Catch a Thief, Lil from Marnie and Annie from The Birds. In other words - the smart, sly brunettes. Don’t blame me for that, blondes. Take it out on Hitchcock.
1 Of course, modern film doesn’t really feature girls in glasses either, unless they need to convey that the character in question is smart and/or a misfit, so the bias persists.