Damaged Goods: Women and Pre-Code Hollywood by Craig Hubert

“Don’t tell me the jive session has beat off without baby!” In this week’s Damaged Goods, Craig Hubert takes a stroll through pre-code Hollywood and highlights the feminine undertones of some classic films of the era.

16Threeonamatch Body

Bette Davis (left), Joan Blondell (center), and Ann Dvorak (right) in Mervyn LeRoy’s Three on a Match (1932). Courtesy Photofest.

The period of film history generally referred to as pre-code Hollywood is something of a misnomer. In truth, the small pocket the term calls attention to is actually post-code, or, to be more specific, between codes. In the wake of Jazz Age decadence, Hollywood was the prime target for moral crusaders concerned with the stronghold movies had on the popular imagination; the sensational lives on and off the screen put intense pressure on the shadows of the studios to clean up their content. This four-year Golden Age—from March 31, 1930, when producers and distributors promised to properly follow the guidelines of the newly penned code, and July 2, 1934, when a group was brought in to enforce it—produced a body of work within the studio system that crackled with mordant humor, social consciousness, and sexual confidence. For a mass medium that many claim, then and now, was nothing more than a dream factory, a product plant for escapism, many of the films made during this short period dealt directly with foundational myths of the country—and burst them wide open. This is on full display in Film Forum’s Essential Pre-Code series, running from July 15th through August 11th.

Gangster films, with their farrago of twisted Horatio Alger success stories and hollowed-out moral codes, receive the most attention, and rightly so. They are the most brutal and direct of pre-code pictures, still startlingly violent to a contemporary viewer, the common rise and fall narrative distorted and reshaped in numerous ways on its path toward the present. Gangster films tend toward the topical documentary tradition (real-life outlaws made front page headlines) and are male dominated, no doubt contributing factors in their front-and-center position in popular histories of the cinema. The critique in these films is two-fold: looking inward, the gangster must personally pay for the sins of excess; looking outward, the gangster is a product of society, and his sins and punishment mirror that of the country. Boom and bust.

The gangster film dealt with male failure from a male perspective. But the more complicated and interesting role of women in pre-code Hollywood is less often discussed. In gangster films, such as Scarface or Little Caesar, the female characters are respectable and innocent, often cruelly submissive; the male characters are flawed, but are blind to those flaws. What little power women have is stripped even further. In Female (1933), a woman holds all the power. Directed by Michael Curtiz (after William Diertele and William Wellman first attempted the material), Ruth Chatterton plays a hard-edged and witty owner of a successful automobile plant who, using her position, convinces attractive male employees to come to her house for dinner, where she then gets them drunk, sleeps with them, and then forgets about them in the morning. She is the ultimate threat to a dwindling 1930s masculinity: she sidesteps the accepted path for women, co-opting the male American dream for herself, leaving a trail of shrinking man-boys in the process. She’s not afraid of her sexuality, and doesn’t intend to give it up. The jokes are refreshingly frank, and Curtiz makes great use of the larger than life sets, especially in two separate sequences at the main character’s pool, an elegantly designed pond that stretches as far as the gags built around it. Unfortunately, the film takes a dead-end turn when the strong female character finds love in the form of a strong male character, apparently what she always really wanted. The film ends with her giving up power for dreams of family, but the whole scheme is hardly believable; this is a character who is being punished because the American myth was never meant for her.

07Golddiggers Body

Ginger Rogers in Mervyn LeRoy’s Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933). Courtesy Photofest.

Women would be punished, or punish themselves, in more devastating ways in pre-code Hollywood. Mervyn LeRoy’s Three on a Match (1932) is a social drama about three girls who went to primary school together but whose lived diverged—one became a chorus girl, one a stenographer, and the other a socialite—only to meet again as adults, in the heart of the Depression. When the socialite, played by Ann Dvorak, unhappy in marriage, falls for a dashing hustler in a suit, she quickly falls from grace. From there, the film devolves into a tabloid melodrama, complete with kidnapping and ransom, but is not without its thrills; LeRoy builds a great amount of tension in the final scene, which ends in a bold sacrificial suicide out an apartment window. The film covers a large amount of historic space, with March of Time newsreel interludes to cover the distance, and doesn’t explicitly address the climate of the times. The implicit argument, however, is that the atmosphere of desperation enveloping the nation breeds greed, selfishness, and violence. The hungry will do anything to survive. What’s most interesting, and has stayed with me the long after I’ve seen the film, is the fact that it’s never clear if the criminals are caught. Their fate remains an open question, while that of the woman is left spread out on the pavement.

“Police, police! There’s a man running wild here with a butcher knife, stabbing people!” The opening line, framed in extreme close-up, sets the tone of Ladies They Talk About (1933), in which Barbara Stanwyck plays the token female member of small-time criminal unit who gets busted after a failed bank robbery. After bucking the dubious advances of a childhood acquittance, now plowing his way through the depression as a reformer of the down-trodden, she ends up doing time in the ladies wing of the federal prison. Talk about the failure of masculinity: this is a social space from which men have been completely removed, a space in which they are not even needed. The women in the prison have formed their own families, and work together to survive. During the prison scenes, it’s rare to see a woman sitting alone, or even brooding; more often than not, they seem to be enjoying one another’s company. They sing songs, tell jokes, take walks, always together. When the reformer returns, still pining for the girl he sent away but still loves, she refuses his supposed goodwill; god-damn if she’ll let him display his power in this new space. The film tumbles into a “love is the answer” ending, but on quite shaky ground; we’re left with two philosophical extremes as option: reformist zeal or criminal enthusiasm.

This move toward the collective takes full shape in what might be the greatest and most misunderstood of pre-code pictures, The Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933). Still batted about as a frivolous piece of escapism, the film has suffered in the eyes of some critics who don’t take musicals seriously. From the biting comedy of the opening number “We’re in the Money,” to the ultimate drama of the final “Remember My Forgotten Man,” the film takes great pleasure in the idea of strength in numbers and especially, the strength of women: working girls who can’t catch a break take their future into their own hands, using their power over men to get what they want. On top of this rather groundbreaking subject matter, you get the breathtaking work of Busby Berkley, whose dance numbers, hypnotic in their grace and effusive in their celebration of motion, take the Great Depression head on. In his attempt to tackle it all, success and failure, Berkley created some of the most distinctive visual art of the period: funny, dramatic, political, and beautiful.

Craig Hubert is a writer based in New York City.

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