From Maude having an abortion pre-Roe v. Wade to Wonder Woman revealing a secret matriarchal world, women on film have been way ahead of the curve fighting for change for more than a century. With Ladies First, we’re tracing the often-forgotten legacy that these leading ladies left on history.
Picture your favorite actors at their most Hollywood, their faces cast tens of feet high on a movie theater screen. Now, imagine your Jennifers, your Violas, and your Olivias acting out the following scenarios to packed Friday night audiences:
In one film, the heroine moves to the big city, after years of her father pimping her out to seedy bar patrons, with the express goal of using men to get what she wants. She sleeps her way to success and happiness. In another, the female lead can’t choose between two men, so she decides to live with — and date — them both. A third plot features a woman who owns a car company by day; by night, she sleeps with all her employees because she’s decided to “treat men the exact way they’ve always treated women.” After finding out her husband cheated on her, yet another character immediately seduces his best friend to “balance the books” — and she goes on to win an Oscar for Best Actress for her performance.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that this was a group of films slated for 2020 awards season. Movies that pair this kind of self-interest, sexual frankness, and A-list female talent fit in with the recent territory tread by Oceans 8 and Hustlers.
But comparable plotlines — and considerably more controversial ones — flooded cinemas 90 years ago. Baby Face (1933), Design for Living (1933), Female (1933), and The Divorcee (1930), the four movies described above, are representative of a brief, but prolific, period in Hollywood in which complicated women ruled.
Welcome to the era of filmmaking from 1929 to 1934 known as pre-Code Hollywood, the years spanning from the introduction of sound (“talkies”) to the institution of stringent censorship guidelines called the Hays Code. The Hays Code, written in 1930 by influential Catholics and formally enforced by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) in 1934, was a set of rules preventing Hollywood filmmakers from including anything morally “corrosive” in their films, ranging from open-mouthed kissing to interracial dating to violence. It made Hollywood hell for women.
According to Gregory Black in his 1996 book Hollywood Censored, the Code “was a fascinating combination of Catholic theology, conservative politics, and pop psychology — an amalgam that would control the content of Hollywood films for three decades.” These guidelines shaped much of what we think of as the Golden Age of Hollywood.
The Hays Code was introduced because of how simply wild films were without it at the time. Films from this oft-mythologized pre-Code era are known for their raunchiness, playfulness, and violence — and for a shockingly honest depiction of real life (which itself is often raunchy, playful, and violent). They were shockingly free movies about people going about their days in a grim, unfair capitalist system. They were movies about American life.
To watch these movies is to get a glimpse into a parallel universe, where taboos were not taboos, but screenplay fodder.
“It’s always really shocking when I see a pre-Code movie now,” Alicia Malone, author of Backwards and in Heels: The Past, Present And Future Of Women Working In Film, tells Refinery29. “You think of classic films from the mid-1930s onwards as being very sanitary and safe and civilized. Then, when you see the pre-Code films, they’re full of sex and violence.”
Malone regularly brings friends to screenings of pre-Code films, just to relish in their level of surprise.
“At first, they think, Oh, black-and-white film, boring. Very stale. But these movies are often short, funny, crazy, and interesting. So they have a good time and come out with a different perspective of what classic cinema can be,” Malone says, recalling the time her friend was shocked by Jean Harlow’s nudity in Red-Headed Woman.
Arguing that the era between 1929 and 1934 was the best in history for women on screen, Mick LaSalle writes in his book Complicated Women (2001), “Before the Code, women on screen took lovers, had babies out of wedlock, got rid of cheating husbands, enjoyed their sexuality, held down professional positions without apologizing for their self sufficiency, and in general acted the way many of us think women acted only after 1968.” The spectrum of sexuality was also represented. Greta Garbo’s Queen Christina was openly bisexual and kissed women — one of many queer characters in film.
When it came to the treatment of female characters, films of this era were more progressive than most of those that came almost a century later, and the public ate it up. During the Great Depression, movies were a cheap and accessible form of entertainment — and a necessary escape from the hardships of the era. Audiences bought 80 million movie tickets a week in 1930, and actresses like Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Claudette Colbert, Katharine Hepburn, Miriam Hopkins, Bette Davis, and Marlene Dietrich drove the box office.
Further, the movies’ morality was grounded in the idea that people in power are corrupt, morality is relative, and the shrewdest character wins, rather than some puritan idea of right and wrong. Good guys get scathed, bad guys go unpunished, and disobedient women get ahead.
These imperfect female characters did not have to be examples of what not to do. They could just be. And the audiences loved it.
The possibilities on-screen reflected a time of change for the women sitting in the audience. Some signs of liberation were flaunted proudly: Corsets were out, hemlines were raised, makeup was applied in public, and hair was cut above the shoulder in a bob.
Women who use their bodies as tools for advancement? How else do you think Barbara Stanwyck’s Lily made it out of her hovel in Baby Face? Gold digging? An entire musical called Gold Diggers of 1933 was about women finding husbands during the Great Depression. Women who act callously toward men? Jean Harlow’s Lil in Red-Headed Woman is as unapologetic as Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), the ringleader of the women in Hustlers. Sex workers who aren’t punished for their profession? In Rain (1932), Sadie Thompson (Joan Crawford) is shown to be far more morally upright than a craven priest, struggling against — and then giving into, in a violent manner — his lust. 2019’s Hustlers, in which a crew of female strippers drug and steal from their clients, is an example of a quintessentially pre-Code movie. (Except — spoiler alert — the pre-Code hustlers would have gotten away with it.)
Other changes were less cosmetic. Women were getting educated — the number of women attending college rose steadily through the ‘20s, with the number of degrees awarded to women going from 19% at the turn of the century to 39% in 1928. They were working as factory workers, secretaries, and sales clerks, not just housewives. They were voting. They were having sex: Whereas only 14% of women born between 1900 and 1910 had premarital sex, almost 40% who came of age between 1910 and 1920 did. In short, their worlds were expanding beyond the home.
The complex women on-screen captured the many varied directions a woman’s life could take at the time. Norma Shearer, a box office wonder married to influential MGM producer Irving Thalberg, eradicated the notion that ingenues had to be innocent. Her characters were sweet and they liked sex — a dichotomy many women in the audience personally understood was possible.
But this frank, progressive era of filmmaking would only last for so long.
At this time in American history, movies were not protected under the First Amendment, thanks to a 1915 Supreme Court decision that deemed motion pictures so potentially powerful they had to be regulated. Movies were a “business,” not an art, capable of good and evil. They were thought to have the power to shape and corrupt malleable audiences.
The Hays Code’s origin story begins in 1922, when the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association (MPAA) was formed, and William Hays, a Republican politician and the former U.S. Postmaster General, was elected its president. In 1930, he gathered other conservative Catholics to develop the rules that would define motion picture making for years to come.
Together, they imagined a Hollywood at odds with the bawdy projections on screens around the U.S. Their Code banned nudity, excessive violence, white slavery, illegal drugs, miscegenation, lustful kissing, suggestive postures, profanity. Just as vehemently, their Code insisted that movies promote the ideas of the marriage and home, government, and religion.
It was idealistic — and it was completely ignored by studios that were making a profit off racy movies. The Code was called a “joke” by The Hollywood Reporter in 1931.
Still, the pre-Code era was not a complete free-for-all. State censors held power. Certain “lewd” scenes in the Gold Diggers of 1933 that played with female anatomy, for example, were altered by some state censorship boards so that the aired versions varied throughout the country.
But the fate of Baby Face was the ultimate premonition of what the film world would look like when the Hays Code was officially adopted by studios. Censors forced Warner Bros. to change the ending so protagonist Lily (Barbara Stanwyck) would reform, instead of getting away with all that unapologetic conniving. In this new version, her mentor’s advice ("You must use men, not let them use you") turns into an utterly altered, and far less radical, "There is a right way and a wrong way — remember the price of the wrong way is too great." The uncensored version remained unseen until it was discovered in a Library of Congress film vault in Dayton, OH in 2004, like a time capsule from the ’30s urging us to reread the past.
In 1934, studios ultimately agreed to go along with the Hays Code because of pure economics. Just as they had overlooked the feebly enforced code in order to rake in money from movies, they eventually submitted when 290,000 jobs and the future of the film industry depended on cooperation. A boycott of movies organized by the Catholic Legion of Decency, and adopted by other religious and social groups, threatened to shut down filmmaking.
To end the boycott, Hollywood created its own jailer. In 1934, the MPAA created the Production Code Administration (PCA), devoted to making sure all movies abided by the Hays Code.
In capitulating to the boycott and the Hays Code, the studios lost creative freedom. Not only did administrator (more like censor) Joseph Breen and his MPAA staff oversee which movies landed on screens, they took an active role in determining what those films looked like. Now, movies were to be models of proper behavior — examples, not art. This especially impacted women characters. While actresses still ruled the screens, their characters had to either get married or “get punished in the end if they did something naughty,” Malone says.
Of all the era’s actresses, Mae West stood to lose the most when the Hays Code was officially instituted in July 1934, and the party ended. West best represented the freedom women were afforded in the pre-Code era. With zingers like, “When I’m good, I’m very good, when I’m bad, I’m better,” and, “It’s not the men in your life that counts, it’s the life in your men,” in her signature rasp, West’s characters possessed incredible swagger.
West’s fourth motion picture, It Ain’t No Sin, a Western-set movie teeming with sexual innuendo, was in production when the Code was enforced. The censors snipped the script, added a wedding scene, and changed the title to Belle of the Nineties.
“In the new and approved version...Miss West is now safe for her large following to visit,” Andre Sennwald wrote for the New York Times in 1934, obviously poking fun at the Code and the “bluenoses” (period code for prudes) who cheered at it. But the Code took itself seriously — and Hollywood was about to change.
There would be no room for women like West in this newly sanitized Hollywood landscape. “Many famous actresses were box office poison by 1937. The movies they were making, women on the cutting edge of social issues, were not being made,” LaSalle writes in Complicated Women. “The only ones who survived were women who were funny, because then they were able to make screwball comedies. You couldn’t treat romance in a serious way anymore.”
If there wasn’t room for seduction under the Code, then there certainly wouldn’t be space for proudly seductive characters like West’s in She Done Him Wrong (a sex worker who shouts at Cary Grant, “Why don’t you come up sometime and see me?”).
“The Code, once it came in, did hurt women in terms of what they were able to do on film. They didn’t have many topics to talk about aside from love and fashion. You couldn’t talk about abortions, or being pregnant. Or the cycles of life,” Malone says. A lesser-discussed part of Code history is how it stymied the career of Anna May Wong, heralded as the first Chinese-American movie star. Wong had been making headway in Hollywood during the 1910s and ’20s but could no longer get leading roles in the ’30s. “Once the [Hays] Code was enforced there was nothing she could really play other than the villain or the temptress," reads an article posted on the Museum of Chinese in America’s website. “The [Hays] Code... frowned on suggestions of interracial sex and, combined with the tradition of using ‘yellowed-up’ Western actors to play Asian roles, meant Wong’s options were curtailed. She never recovered from losing the lead role in The Good Earth — a Chinese woman — because the male lead was white.
Movies existed in a strange liminal state between art and propaganda until 1952, when the Supreme Court declared the Hays Code unconstitutional.
However, decades of sanitized filmmaking had far more of a cultural effect than five years of pre-Code cinema. The Hays Codes’ creators intended to have morals “trickle down” from the screen to the audience. And it worked: Even if these dishonest movies did not depict reality, they created the perception of reality.
Take the movies’ lasting effect on the depiction of heterosexual dating. Sexuality had to go “underground” after the Hays Code, emerging in clever wordplay or dark noir. And, as David Denby wrote in an article about censorship’s effect on American cinema for The New Yorker, these de-sexualized movies established the cult of the couple — “two people matched in beauty and talent who enjoy each other’s company more than anything else in the world” — a far cry from the raw, violent way men and women interacted (and used each other) in pre-Code movies. Under the Hays Code, romance was invented, and it flourished — and with it, a somewhat unrealistic depiction of what love was really like emerged.
Filmmakers subverted the Code in clever ways until it was overturned. By 1968, the Code was replaced with a ratings system that warned audiences of content, instead of deciding content for them.
But there were already decades-worth of sanitized movies that calcified the ’50s as the American Golden Age, an America in which the traditional family unit was the only acceptable way of life, people went to church, love was wholesome, and it was always a Wonderful Life. The country’s racial turmoil and Civil Rights movements were not reflected on screen.
It’s impossible not to wonder what Hollywood might look like, had the pre-Code era remained the status quo. Would movies have become sleazier and sleazier to attract a hungry public? Did the Hays Code push writers to have to be more creative to outsmart the censors, and shape the idea of movies today?
Now, movies can reflect reality — or not. They can be fantasy, and real, and art. But it’s taken Hollywood 90 years to get back to pre-Code ethos. Surely, Mae West would have a lot to say to Hustlers’ Ramona.
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