The following paper served as the introductory essay of a proposed film series that was part of the final project for the Bibliography and Methods of Research course (FTV 200), taught by Professor Allyson Nadia Field. The course focused on methods of research that moving image archivists use, and students were required to produce work resulting from research that could only be conducted at institutions located in Los Angeles.
A short time ago I had the chance to see the 1933 film Female, starring Ruth Chatterton as a sexually aggressive woman who is the head of a car manufacturing company. I was fascinated by the fact that movies in the early thirties could actually depict women in roles with a frankness and sex-positivity that remains rare even in today’s studio films. Until seeing this movie, I was under the impression that movies of the classic era only depicted women in subservient roles to men. I also assumed that, excluding suffrage, women’s roles in society had been mostly stagnant with little change until the 1960s.
Watching Female made me wonder if a film like that could be made today. Many of these movies I chose for my film festival project, The Liberated Women of Pre-Code, were labeled as “Class I” films by the Production Code Administration, and were forbidden from being exhibited. Even today many of these films would not be made without being revised because they deal with difficult issues such as prostitution and adultery.
Although most of these films were censored or banned, censorship is not the dominant theme in this festival. The Liberated Women of Pre-Code is being held to examine gender roles prior to the enforcement of the Production Code and to see how much things have and have not changed in the almost 90 years since its establishment.
The introduction of urban modernity brought major changes to women’s lives in the first few decades of the twentieth century. Like Lily in Baby Face, during the 1920s women began leaving rural areas and moving to the cities in great numbers pursuing economic improvement and excitement. Life in urban areas brought newfound sexual and financial freedoms to women of all classes. In 1929 more than 1/2 of all single women were gainfully employed and in large cities 1/2 of adult women workers lived alone in apartments. or boarding houses without parental supervision. As a result, culture was focused more on pleasure became oriented toward pleasure and leisure, which defied the Victorian ideal of domesticity, religiosity and sexual purity.
Because of their economic independence, women had more time and money to spend and they became avid media consumers. Hollywood took note and catered its films to women and reflected the changes to their lives. At the end of the 1920s through the early 1930s, American cinema showcased the image of the young, sexy and assertive woman. In those two decades female oriented movies flooded theaters and during the first 1/2 of the 1930s the woman’s film made up 1/4 of all “best of” lists, with 1931 having the highest number of films.
Once the Great Depression hit, Hollywood began to producing racier movies. The lack of a unified standard in censorship allowed the studios to take risks in what they would show in their films. These movies challenged the social and sexual conventions of their time by portraying realistic depictions of society’s downtrodden and inter-sexual relationships. After 1934 when the Production Code Administration was established and its Code enforced, the liberated woman of the past several years was forgotten as Hollywood instead focused its attention on the formation of couples, marriages and families.
A Woman of Paris: A Drama of Fate shows the free-living of Paris in the 1920s,. Although it is a silent film and doesn’t fall under the official Pre-Code period, it is pre-code as it was made in 1923, seven years before the Hays Code took effect. Despite Charlie Chaplin considering this one of his best films, and receiving rave reviews from critics, it did not perform well at the box office. Even today few are aware of its existence.
A Woman of Paris was Chaplin’s first dramatic movie, and the first in which he was not a star (he makes a brief cameo). The movie tells the story of a poor young woman, Marie St. Clair (Edna Purviance), who is kicked out of her home by her stepfather. She and her fiancée, Jean (Carl Miller), make plans to leave for Paris to marry. While she waits for Jean at the train station, unbeknownst to her, his father dies and he can not meet her. Assuming he has abandoned her, she leaves for Paris alone and becomes the courtesan to Pierre Revel (Adolphe Menjou). There she and her fellow courtesan friends live the life of luxury and rowdy parties. On the way to one such party Marie reconnects with Jean, and she must decide between the life of luxury and stability that Pierre provides or a life of love and poverty that Carl would provide.
The inspiration for Marie St. Claire came from Peggy Hopkins Joyce, a barber’s daughter from Virginia. Hopkins Joyce made a career of marrying and divorcing millionaires and her stories of being the mistress of a rich Brazilian publisher and a lover killing himself over her fascinated Chaplin.
Chaplin took the stories of Peggy Hopkins Joyce as his inspiration for A Woman of Paris. Hopkins Joyce was a barber’s daughter from Virginia who made a career of marrying and divorcing millionaires. Her tales of being the mistress of a rich Brazilian publisher and a lover killing himself over her fascinated Chaplin and became the basis for the character of Marie St. Clair.
A Woman of Paris is a precursor to the rest of the films discussed here, in that it overturned the stereotypical gender roles that Hollywood gave to its characters. The heroine, Marie, is a courtesan living a life of luxury that could be seen as promoting notion of a ‘kept woman’. The hero, Jean, is a weakling who is dominated by his mother. Meanwhile, Pierre, the bad guy, is utterly charming, considerate and amusing. At the time the movie was made, Hollywood idealized parents, and in A Woman of Paris the parents are the source of all the trouble.
By 1930 the ‘fallen woman film’ was being recognized as a genre. The ‘fallen woman film’ served as a lightning rod for reformers and censors anxieties about Hollywood’s depiction of sexuality. There is probably no other movie that offended censors and reformers sensibilities as much as >Baby Face.
Baby Face, like A Woman of Paris, tells the story of a woman who leaves an impoverished life in a small town to seek a better life in the big city. She too must use her sexuality to improve her situation. Lily(Barbara Stanwyck) moves to New York after her father (Robert Barrat) dies in an explosion. Prior to leaving town, she visits her mentor, Cragg (Alphonse Ethier), and in talking to him about life asks, “What chance has a woman got?” Cragg scolds her, “More chance than men. A woman young beautiful like you can get anything she wants in the world because you have power over men. But you must use men and not let them use you. You must be a master, not a slave. Look Nietzsche says all life no matter how much we idealize it is nothing more or less than exploitation. That’s what I am telling you, exploit yourself!….Use men, to get the things you want.” Lily takes his advice when she arrives in New York and uses her sexuality; bedding increasingly powerful men at her new job at Gotham Trust. Eventually she marries the head of the bank, Trenholm (George Brent) who attempts suicide after the bank crashes.
Baby Face was subversive in challenging the values of marriage, hard work and especially female chastity. Lily is not shown as working hard at her job and thus gaining riches. Instead she becomes wealthy by engaging in non-marital sex with a series of her male coworkers until she marries the man at the top of the corporate ladder. Instead of the movie condemning Lily’s use of her body, it condemns the hypocritical society in which a woman must use it in order to survive.
Prior to its release, Baby Face, was forced to undergo a series of revisions to inject moral elements into the plot. Several scenes were eliminated or changed, such as Cragg’s quoting Nietzsche in telling Lily to use men and not let them use her. This was changed to tell Lily that she must be moral in her ambition. Other scenes that were altered were Lily’s seduction of the brake man in the train car, her visiting the empty ladies room with her boss for an extended amount of time. The ending was changed to show Lily returning with her husband to the rough small town which she left. Eventually the movie received a Class I restriction by Joseph Breen, head of the Production Code, and was therefore banned from exhibition until its release on home video in the 1980s. In 2004 the uncensored version was uncovered in a Library of Congress film vault and screened to the public. A year later Baby Face was selected for the Library of Congress National Film Registry as a film that was culturally significant and worthy of preservation.
Blonde Venus(1932), is a film with Marlene Dietrich starring as Helen Faraday. Helen is a woman who returns to cabaret singing in order to save her husband’s life. Soon after her return she engages in an affair with the rich Nick Townsend (Cary Grant).
Sex is a major theme in Blonde Venus as it begins with Ned Farraday (Herbert Marshall) and friends gawking at Helen and her friends swimming nude in a lake. Later on in the movie when Helen returns to her singing career, she sings about her need for sexual gratification. This eroticized and glamorous version of her is in contrast to her role as the domestic wife who cares for her son in a small, dimly lit run-down apartment. In her opening number as the Blonde Venus, Helen sings “Hot Voodoo” with the lyrics:
Hot Voodoo – dance of sin
Hot Voodoo – worse than gin
I want to start dancing in cannibal style
That beat gives me a wicked sensation
My conscience wants to take a vacation
Got Voodoo – head to toes
Hot Voodoo – burn my clothes
I want to start dancing
Just wearing a smile!
Like Baby Face, Blonde Venus ends with the heroine’s return to her former life and loss of fortune. It also underwent censorship due to the suggestive lyrics in the music, Helen’s infidelity in carrying on an affair with Nick, and prostituting herself to better her position in life. In 1934 it was one of the first films Joseph Breen, head of the Production Code Administration labelled as Class I. Breen vowed it would never be seen again in its original form.
Merrily We Go to Hell and Christopher Strong were both directed by Dorothy Arzner and are the only films in this series directed by a woman. Both films deal with marital issues – the men are failures as husbands, and the women are imprisoned in wedlock.
Merrily We Go to Hell (1932, Paramount) portrays Joan (Sylvia Sydney) and Jerry (Frederick March) from their courtship through their unhappy marriage. Jerry is an alcoholic writer who falls for rich girl Joan, at a party thrown in Chicago. Craving motherhood and love, Joan ignores the warning signs in their problematic courtship and marries him. In their domestic life we see Joan never leaving the apartment and trying to be the ideal wife by knitting socks and cooking meals. She is unsuccessful in making her marriage work when Jerry comes in contact with his former flame Claire (Adrianne Allen). After Jerry openly cheats on Joan, she confronts him and tells him that if being a modern husband has its privileges, being a modern wife does too. She then conducts an affair of her own with Charlie Baxter (Cary Grant).
Katherine Hepburn plays the heroine Lady Cynthia Darrington in Christopher Strong(1933). She is a daring aviatrix who falls in love with Sir Christopher Strong (Colin Clive), shortly after they meet at a party. They engage in an affair until pregnant Cynthia realizes that Christopher would only reluctantly leave his wife. She then commits suicide to avoid damaging his family.
Like Merrily We Go to Hell, marriage for women is illustrated as a prison. Christopher’s wife Elaine waits in a dark room for her husband to return home while suspecting his infidelity. During his affair she assumes the strength of their marriage will bring him back, despite the fact that he loves another woman.
Cynthia too is imprisoned by her love for Christopher. In one scene, directly after they consummate their affair, the camera focuses on the bracelet Cynthia is wearing. Holding her wrist under the lamp on the nightstand Cynthia says, “I’m shackled.” After being forbidden to fly by Christopher, she eventually returns to her career as an aviatrix.
Madam Satan(1930) portrays a suffering wife who must deal with her husband’s infidelity. Unlike Elaine in Christopher Strong, Angela Brooks (Kay Johnson)is not passive when it comes to her husband Bob’s (Reginald Denny)infidelity. Angela confronts Bob’s young mistress Trixie (Lilian Roth) who tells Angela that the reason Bob was cheating on her was that she was cold, and he was looking for something that Angela couldn’t provide. Angela replies to Trixie’s insult, “He wants ‘em hot does he? Well, I’ll give him a volcano!” Later during a masquerade in a zeppelin, Angela, dressed in a cutout slinky gown, dons the identity of ‘Madame Satan’ and flaunts her sexuality. In doing so, she seduces everyone at the masquerade, including her husband.
In the beginning of Madam Satan, Angela is the decent and pure wife who is the epitome of the Victorian ideal. Although she is moral and chaste, she is sad and lonely. She is losing her husband to a woman who uses her body to obtain material possessions from men. Once Angela sheds her chaste identity by dressing as an exotic, masked woman, she metamorphosizes into a sexual creature. Madam Satan is in contrast to the idea that good wives are modest wives; they could be sexual creatures instead.
Female (1933), more than any other movie listed in this site, turns gender roles upside down. Ruth Chatterton plays Alison Drake, the head of an automobile manufacturing company who claims to use men like they use women. She engages in a series of one-night stands with her underlings, and when she is finished with them, she sends them to work in the company’s offices in another city. She has no desire to either get married, or have children and instead relishes her independence. Such a film was offensive to censors, and many changes were demanded to the script regarding Allison’s “sexual immorality” and “sex hunger”. The ending was revised as well, showing Allison giving up her life of independence and power for marriage and babies. Eventually the film was too much for censors and it received a Class I classification from the Production Code Administration, forbidding its exhibition.
It is important to note that a film like Female would have trouble being produced even by today’s more relaxed standards. In conducting affairs with her underlings and then tossing them aside when she’s finished with them, Alison engages in sexual harassment. She states that she uses men as they use women, and although treatment of this sort by men would have been overlooked at the time, today it would be grounds for a lawsuit.
Perhaps no other actress offended censors with her brazen sexuality as much as Mae West. Her strutting sultriness and bawdy one-liners mocked everything the censors were trying in vain to suppress. The negative publicity from She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel are credited with the initiation of stricter censorship leading to the development of the 1934 Production Code Administration.
She Done Him Wrong was based on the play, Diamond Lil, by Mae West. When Paramount head B.P. Schulberg requested permission of the Hays Office to make a film of the play, he was refused because it would result in an “unacceptable film”. At the time Paramount was in dire financial straits and knowing the movie would be a hit, Schulberg commenced filming without permission. Eventually permission was granted on the following basis: the title would be changed from Diamond Lil, Lady Lou could not be portrayed as a kept woman, her her criminal past would be counterfeiting instead of prostitution, and the character of the mission director could not be a member of the Salvation Army.
She Done Him Wrong (1933) takes place during the 1890s, in a saloon in the Bowery section of New York City. West plays the titillating saloon singer Lady Lou, who is the mistress of the saloon’s owner, Gus (Noah Berry). Used to getting any man she wants, she falls for Captain Cummings (Cary Grant), a mission director who is the one man she can’t have. Of the many famous lines Mae West has in the film, her most famous was said to Cary Grant when she suggested to him, “Why don’t you come up some time and see me?”
When asked if she had ever met a man who made her happy, West’s character Lou responds, “Sure, lots of times.” Later, she sings the song, “A Guy who Takes His Time” with the lyrics, “I’m a fast-moving gal who likes ‘em slow.”
She Done Him Wrong was a smash hit and set box office records. Due to the movie’s success, Paramount decided to launch I’m No Angel (a.k.a. The Big Show) directly afterwards.
I’m No Angel has Mae West in the role of Tira, a lion tamer working in a circus. After meeting audience member Kirk Lawrence (Kent Taylor) backstage, Tira becomes his mistress and he lavishes her with jewels and gowns. When Lawrence’s friend Jack (Cary Grant) approaches Tira about breaking up with Lawrence for the sake of Lawrence’s fiancee, Alicia, Tira falls for him. Shortly after, Jack and Tira become engaged, Jack is tricked into believing that Tira has other men in her life, and breaks up with her. Tira sues Jack for breach of promise, and her charm in the courtroom wins him back.
It wouldn’t be a Mae West film without several bawdy one-liners. In I’m No Angel she says such brazen classics as, “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 man.” These quotes, along with the glamorization of being a kept woman, and the suggestion that women have power over men by driving them crazy with sex, sparked outrage with religious and reform groups.
However, sex sells and despite the controversy, the movie was even more successful than She Done Him Wrong and set an attendance record in its first two weeks. I’m No Angel and She Done Him Wrong are credited with saving Paramount from bankruptcy and made Mae West a wealthy woman. As she said once, “I believe in censorship, after all, I made a fortune out of it.”
In 1930 the ‘fallen woman’ film was so common that it had become its own genre, and the lax Hays Code was failing in its attempt to instill movies with moral elements. After the outrage stemming from movies such as She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel, and a threatened boycott, Hollywood established the Production Code Administration and stricter censorship to appease its critics. For the next thirty years American movies mainly followed the Code guidelines. In the late 1950s movies such as Some Like it Hot began to be released without censor approval, and in 1968 the Production Code was abandoned in favor of the ratings system we have today.
Veronica Pravadelli, “Cinema and the Modern Woman,” in The Wiley-Blackwell History of American Film, First Edition, ed. Cynthia Lucia, Blackwell Publishing Ltd.2012
Jessica Watkins, From Fallen Women to Risen Heroines: Representations of Gender and Sexuality in American Film, 1929-1942, Thesis submitted to The Graduate College of Marshall University, May 2, 2005
Leonard J. Leff and Jerold L. Simmons, The Dame in the Kimono: Hollywood, Censorship and the Production Code from the 1920s to the 1960s. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990
Dawn B. Sova, Forbidden films : censorship histories of 125 motion pictures. New York: Facts on File, 2001
Leah Jacobs, The Wages of Sin: Censorship and the Fallen Woman Film. Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1991
Tom Pollard, Sex and Violence: the Hollywood Censorship Wars. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2009
Jennifer Tang, “The Forgotten Women of Pre-Code: An Annotated Filmography and Bibliography,” Feminist Teacher Vol. 20, no. 3, (2010): 237-248
Laurie Shrage, “Feminist Film Aesthetics: A Contextual Approach” Hypatia , Vol. 5, No. 2, Feminism and Aesthetics (Summer, 1990), pp. 137-148
(Margaret Herrick Library, The Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences, Beverly Hills, CA)
History of Cinema Series 1: Hollywood and the Production Code; Reels 1, 4 and 6
Core Production Photography Collections: Baby Face, Blonde Venus, Christopher Strong, Female, Madam Satan, She Done Him Wrong
Photoplay, Vol. 38, no 3. August 1930, page 61
Photoplay, Vol. 38, no 5. October 1930, page 53
Photoplay, Vol. 40, no 6. November 1931, page 38
Cinema Press-books from the New York Public Library, reel 5. Madam Satan, I’m No Angel