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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Kellow Fiorini

Ladies They Talk About - The end of an era

Updated: Sep 3, 2021

Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable in It Happened One Night, 1934.

In selecting a handful to write about, there were so many wonderful actresses I couldn’t get to: leading ladies — Constance Bennett, Loretta Young, Ann Dvorak, Marlene Dietrich, Miriam Hopkins, Joan Crawford, and Sylvia Sidney; Funny ladies — Una Merkel, Thelma Todd, Mae West, and Glenda Farrell; character actresses— Aline MacMahon and Marie Dressler; and exotic beauties like Dolores Del Rio and Anna May Wong.

A Woman’s Place

At the turn of the century propaganda to keep women happy in roles of domestic servitude was achieved through religious imagery that reinforced women as sainted homemakers and pseudo-scientists like craniologist Carl Vogt who said that an analysis of women’s skulls showed they lived in an arrested state between childhood and adulthood. The ideal woman was pure in thought and action, without interest in physical intimacy.

Post WWI, people migrated to big cities and women started working in offices where they interacted with men. There were social changes for both sexes in the 20s, but the changes in women’s lives can’t be overstated. Suddenly women on screen and in life were fully realized people with jobs, careers, sex lives, and dreams that went beyond the laundry and the dishes.

“When women go wrong, men go right after them.” – Mae West

Like all major social changes, there was fear and a longing by some; to return to “norms” we were leaving behind. When Joseph Breen became head of the censorship board, putting the horse back in the barn, so to speak, was a priority. Breen was able to summon a tremendous amount of support from the Catholic Church to censor films and shape them with their moral code. Cities were more progressive, but the middle of the country was still fairly conservative. After FDR was elected, people were hopeful the Depression would end and some were ready to go back to traditional values. Breen used his influence to work with priests who railed against morally questionable films by getting their congregations to sign papers promising not to see certain films. This crossroads and Breen were what collided to finally give the existing Code a set of teeth.

Mae West in Go West Young Man, 1936

“You know it was a toss-up whether I’d go in for diamonds or sing in the choir. The choir lost.” – Mae West

What woman would want a life of domestic servitude when she saw women on screen having a better time? Pre-code films told women’s stories with intelligence, artistry, and most importantly, they never judged. Author Mick Lasalle wrote, “In the pre-Code Shanghai Express, Dietrich plays prostitute Shanghai Lily. She says, ‘It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.’ Yet here’s the thing, the movie is not about her becoming worthy of him, but about the journey of faith that allows him to become worthy of her. Shanghai Lily doesn’t need to change. Her boyfriend needs a new attitude.”

Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express, 1932

Dietrich couldn’t play those roles once the Code was enforced. Her first film after its enforcement was The Garden of Allah as a devout Catholic who says, “Nobody but God and I know what is in my heart.” Later Dietrich lamented, “Imagine having to say that line! The conceit of it — I nearly died!” Claudette Colbert always resented Production Code restrictions, feeling that moralists with no talent had no right to tamper with a creative production. Mae West said, “I resisted the type of censorship that quibbled over every line as if the devil were hiding behind each word.” But there wasn’t much she could do, there was a censor on her set every day.

Mae West in the 1930s

Marlene Dietrich in her first film under the Production Code, The Garden of Allah.

The list of Code restrictions was so long it’s a wonder any film could get made. Criminals must be punished, unmarried couples, unwed mothers, women who tried to have a career and a marriage must suffer — double standards made a comeback. Anna Karenina could only be made if the unmarried couple rarely touched one another, and never enjoyed it. In a letter to producer Selznick, Breen said any physical contact between onscreen couple Anna and Vronsky was “extremely dangerous.”

Claudette Colbert in Sign of the Cross, 1932

The Awful Truth 1937, Irene Dunne and Cary Grant. Dunne thought it was silly that they couldn't show their married characters getting into bed together because of the strict Production Code. In this scene that action is implied by showing Grant and Dunne as characters in a clock. Here, he follows her back to her side of the clock. ie. they sleep together.

Marlene Dietrich

The Code disapproved of happy, liberated, assertive women. Under new restrictions, actresses whose images were synonymous with intelligent, driven, women like Shearer, West, and Dietrich struggled. Screwball comediennes Katharine Hepburn, Irene Dunne, and Rosalind Russell found stardom.

Enforcement of The Code on July 1, 1934, ushered in thirty years of propaganda designed to keep women in their place. Finally, in 1968 a ratings system replaced the draconian Code. The pre-Code era documented the birth of the modern woman, and to see these films now is to marvel at how much these women were like the women of today.

A quote from Kay Francis

*In a December 1930 interview with Motion Picture magazine, Kay Francis said, “I resent more than almost anything else the attitude of those men who do not treat women as if they were individuals. They will make love to you, but they won’t exchange ideas with you. To such men their wives are servants, their women friends are mere diversions. If you advance an opinion or an idea, they smile indulgently and pat you on the head --- as if it were awfully cute for a “little woman like you” to try to think! In fact, they grow pretty resistive if you try to advance an opinion! All they want of a woman is that she shall be a good audience. It is the old-fashioned masculine attitude – and it irks the modern woman immeasurably!”

This quote is ninety-one years old. As astonishing as that is, it proves that women in the 1930's were thinking and feeling the same things we are today, and that we are still fighting the same battles nearly a century later. ,


Meet other pre-Code actresses on

Mae West episode on You Must Remember This Podcast

Will Hays and pre-Code Hollywood on You Must Remember This Podcast

Kay Francis: I Can't Wait to be Forgotten by Scott O'Brien (*Which also provided the Kay Francis quote used in this blog entry)

Attaboy Clarence Podcast - Queen Anne - Features pre-Code actress Ann Dvorak, Hollywood's Forgotten Rebel.


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