What made the Pre-Code era so scandalous, was the content and characterizations in those films made between 1930-1934 in a time when censorship was in name only. In the years 1932-1934, these were the rebellious years of filmmaking where the envelope was pushed so far, the Hays code of censorship was finally enforced. One of the benefits of this scintillating period was the portrayal of women in a liberated and empowered way.
Women were nor longer just sinners or saints. These women were more real than we had ever seen before. We felt sympathy for the nice women who were also naughty, and the naughty women who were also nice. These women were liberated enough to live life more as they chose. They were more in control of their lifestyles -whether it was to hold a career, or to be sexually liberated in choosing their romantic partners (sometimes more than one at a time, and sometimes suggesting homosexuality). These women in film from the years 1932-1934 were no longer simple linear characters, they were complex and often on par with men.
Here are just a few examples:
William Dieterle’s MAN WANTED (1933)
Kay Francis is Lois Ames, the splendid example of the woman who could have it all. Her character is in charge of her life. She’s the hard-working and successful career woman as the editor of her family magazine. She’s high-styled, beautiful and happy. Her husband is a spoiled, wealthy party boy whose only exercise is polo and secretly chasing other women.
She came from money and married into money. So she works not because she has to, but because she wants to (which she directly asserts more than once in the film). Things get more complex when she hires a man to be her secretary (the adorable David Manners). Life is suddenly filled with all sorts of choices. Note: there are a couple of lesbian references via stereotypes of whom to expect as the female editor prior to meeting her.
Michael Curtiz/ William Dieterle/ William A. Wellman’s FEMALE (1933):
Ruth Chatterton as Alison Drake makes Lois Ames look like a girl scout when it comes to the freedoms to pursue men. Drake is the top executive of an automobile factory who aggressively pursues and chews up men, then tosses them out to pursue her next conquest. She even has rituals she follows to snare her ‘victims’ not unlike Rock Hudson in PILLOW TALK.
She is also seemingly happy in her lifestyle of plethora of choices, that is until she meets engineer/business partner, George Brent as Jim Thorne. When she falls in love for the first time, she eventually finds herself at a crossroad to make a hard choice of love over her career. Personally, I hate this ending but it’s a fun change of character while it lasts. Why can’t she have monogamous love and still continue as the boss? Oh, Hollywood you came SO close on this one.
Ernst Lubitsch’s DESIGN FOR LIVING (1933):
Two men in Paris, Frederic March as playwright Tom Chambers and Gary Cooper as painter George Curtis, fall for free-spirited Miriam Hopkins as Gilda Farrell. She can’t decide between the two so she shares her flat with both.
Based on the original play by Noel Coward, Ben Hecht and Samuel Hoffenstein crafted the hilarious screenplay as Ernst Lubitsch used his razor-sharp genius to infuriate the censors with constant sexual chat and innuendos. Although it just barely made it through the Hays office, it was banned by the Legion of Decency and refused a certificate by the PCA for re-release in 1934.
Other Notable Female Characters of Dimension in Films:
Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg’s SHANGHAI EXPRESS (1932) and BLONDE VENUS (1932)
Jean Harlow in Jack Conway’s RED-HEADED WOMAN (1932) and Victor Fleming’s RED DUST (1932)
Joan Crawford in Lewis Milestone’s RAIN (1932)
Greta Garbo in Rouben Mamoulian’s QUEEN CHRISTINA
Mae West in Lowell Sherman’s SHE DONE HIM WRONG (1933) and Wesley Ruggles’ I’M NO ANGEL (1933)
Thelma Todd in Frank Tuttle’s THIS IS THE NIGHT (1932)
Loretta Young in Roy Del Ruth’s EMPLOYEE’S ENTRANCE (1933), William A. Wellman’s MIDNIGHT MARY (1933) and Lowell Sherman’s BORN TO BE BAD (1934)
Bette Davis in Robert Florey’s EX-LADY (1933) [Bette played the empowered female with fierce ferocity throughout her career but those roles built up stronger for her after Pre-Code]
Katharine Hepburn in Dorothy Arzner’s CHRISTOPHER STRONG (1933) and Sylvia Sidney in Dorothy Arzner’s MERRILY WE GO TO HELL (1932) [Dorothy Arzner was one of the rare female directors at this time]
Miriam Hopkins in Stephen Roberts’ THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE (1933)
Busby Berkley musicals featured free-spirited ladies like Joan Blondell, Una Merkel, Ruby Keeler, Ginger Rogers, Aline MacMahon, and Bebe Daniels in Mervyn LeRoy’s GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 (1933), Lloyd Bacon/Busby Berkeley’s 42ND STREET (1933), Lloyd Bacon’s FOOTLIGHT PARADE (1933), Ray Enright/Busby Berkeley’s DAMES (1934)
Barbara Stanwyck in Alfred E. Green’s BABY FACE (1933) and LADIES THEY TALK ABOUT (1933)
Naked Maureen O’Sullivan swimming in Cedric Gibbons’ TARZAN AND HIS MATE (1934)
These films portrayed women in varying shades of adultery, prostitution, betrayal, ambition, determination, confidence, inhibition, and empowerment. Sometimes as the instigator, sometimes the victim. These roles were not always depicted in the most flattering light, but they pushed the boundaries for women regardless.
Many salacious films presenting titillating female characters occurred prior to 1932 but the films made from 1932-1934 hit the censorship ceiling. While the films mentioned above are not a complete list, it touches upon many colorful examples of women that scared the begeezus out of ole Will Hays and the Catholic bishops over at the Legion of Decency. It’s a shame, really. Because it’s astonishing how few empowered or juicy female roles have come along since the enforcement of the Code beyond that summer of 1934.
So when you see MILDRED PIERCE, DOUBLE INDEMNITY or THE LETTER, note that the strong noirish Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis of the post-WWII 40’s and 50’s have the Pre-Code Joan, Babs and Bette to thank (along with all the other amazing Pre-Code women and filmmakers). Not to mention those roles that followed like Sigourney Weaver in ALIENS, Jodie Foster in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and the more current crop of comedy gems like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler in BABY MAMA, Kristen Wiig and cast in BRIDESMAIDS, and Melissa McCarthy in SPY. As the saying goes, well-behaved women seldom make history…
This article was my contribution to the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon, hosted by talented Fritzi aka @MoviesSilently of Movies Silently, Ruth aka @925screenings of Silver Screenings, and Aurora aka @CitizenScreen of Once Upon A Screen and sponsored by Flicker Alley, on June 26-28. Check each of their sites for the updated lists of participating bloggers.