1. Lana Turner in Ziegfeld Girl
This was one of Turner's finest and most complex performances. In it, she doles out the sass to family, friends, bosses, and even her love, eventually landing her in some hot water. This film is tough to find clips of, so I'll treat you to the trailer which shows plenty of evidence of the fine performance by Turner, as well as by Jimmy Stewart who plays her boyfriend. My favorite Turner line? "You're not the guy to defrost me."
2. Ginger Rogers in Shall We Dance
Rogers usually played hard to get to Astaire's over-eager. But I think her funniest and sassiest performance was in, "Shall We Dance" where Rogers plays an exhausted starlett hardened by the world of showbiz. She, as we might say today in more colloquial terms, "doesn't take no crap from nobody." This film contains themes of masking, female ambition, and living in a man's world. All of which Rogers handles expertly. As Astaire requently noted, watch her do everything he does here "backwards and in heels", and this time...on roller skates.
3. Angela Lansbury in The Harvey Girls
Ever wanted to see Angela Lansbury fist-fight with Judy Garland? Well, here it is! Once upon a time, before Lansbury was solving mysteries, serving tea, and ruling Broadway, she was a character actress who specialized in the stereotypical "bad girl". It's true!
Disclaimer: This video contains what I consider to be blatantly racist content, not to open a flame war in the comment section. It's just kind of embarrassing to me, so I always try to insert a warning about it. Pass this one over if you're just not in the mood for sensitive material today.
4. Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
Russell was consistently ahead of her time. Especially in the film, "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes". Where she not only managed to raise eyebrows from this now funny but once scandalous routine below, but she also was able to parody her co-star, Marilyn Monroe in a bold impression that could've been considered insult. Russell was fearless, and unforgettable as a result.
5. Betty Grable in Pin Up Girl
In this film, Grable plays a con-artist so good that she fools her way into a musical theater career. Grable was typically in films centered around some kind of con, and was usually singing songs about having power over men. Whether it was, "Once Too Often" about catching and leaving a cheating spouse, "Don't Carry Tales Out of School" about a teacher/student romance, or even, "The Merry Widow" which is below...most of her songs in this film were in sharp contrast to Grable's sunny character. She was singing about rather dark material, but got away with it because she was America's favorite pin-up and had the sensibility to mask what she was singing about with a sense of humor, a wink, and a nudge. At the end of this number (and what you don't see) is the huge climactic number of the film based on military marches. Tell me, who else can sing about all those topics in one film and end on a patriotic note?
6. Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby
This is possibly Hepburn's sassiest role ever, just watch the trailer if you don't believe me.
7. Cyd Charisse in Singin' In The Rain
I doubt there's anyone on the planet that doesn't know about this famous dance. But here, Charisse has the chance to play the man-eating steretype of a gangster's girlfriend in Gene Kelly's extended daydream. This is a legendary performance in the world of dance on film and it practically personifies the word, "sassy".
8. Rita Hayworth in Cover Girl
In this film, Hayworth plays a woman punished by life for her career ambitions. A frequent theme for her onscreen. There's a lot of subterfuge underneath this seemingly innocent number which comes at a pivotal time in the film, in which Hayworth stands in for a mannequin to dance (and dance well) with Gene Kelly. An echo of theme that her character is consistently forced to choose between what others want her to be for them and what she wants to be for herself. And if you enjoy this, I'd highly recommend, "Gilda" and the number, "Put the Blame on Mame" which, in the context of the film, is positively loaded with feminist questions and themes.
9. Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot
While it's true that Monroe was often relegated to the role of vapid youth, she worked with what she was given. In this case, she was able to portray a woman who refused to play by society's rules. Her character is timid about it, but she refuses to live as a woman "should've" in that time period. Often Monroe was cast as a kind of woman with two faces, one seemingly passive to men, but one also aware of the persuasive power of her femininity. A constant theme through all her films.
10. Eleanor Powell in The Broadway Melody of 1940
You haven't seen a high kick until you've seen an Eleanor Powell high kick. (Why do I feel like I should be holding a cigar and talking like James Cagney when I say that?) At the 2:45 minute mark of the video below, Powell starts dancing...and I'd be more than willing to bet you've never seen anything like it!
Runners up for the list were Ann Miller, Martha Raye, Carmen Miranda, Audrey Hepburn, and...oh who am I kidding? There will just have to be another list.