Jennifer Kellow Fiorini
Ladies They Talk About: The women of pre-Code film.
Updated: Nov 1, 2020
Scantily clad bathing beauties in a Busby Berkeley number from Footlight Parade 1933
We think of “old Hollywood films” as innocent, with happy endings – and that is more or less true in the years after 1934 when the production Code was enforced. But the pre-Code era films, made before the enforcement of the Hollywood Production Code, dealt, in very frank ways, with social issues, sex, drug abuse, and violence.
The “pre-Code” era spans the time period when talkies became the standard in films – 1929 through July of 1934 - when the draconian Production Code was finally fully enforced and became Hollywood law for roughly the next thirty years. What was the Code and what was a pre-Code? There are entire books written on the subject, but for the purposes of this article, I want to focus on the huge social changes that took place before the Production Code during the pre-Code era that gave birth to what we would recognize as the modern twentieth century woman.
In 1930 the nation was hit with a massive hangover from the hard partying 1920’s jazz age in the form of the Great Depression. In 1929 the stock market crashed, just as theater owners spent a fortune outfitting their theaters for sound that would accompany talking pictures. Eight years earlier in 1922 scandals like the manslaughter trial of Fatty Arbuckle and the still unsolved murder of director William Desmond Taylor gave Hollywood the reputation as hot-bed of sin and vice. Films at this time were considered commodities and not art, therefore they were not protected under the first amendment of “free speech.” Afraid that the government would step in and censor movies, Hollywood offered to do it themselves by hiring Will Hays as head of motion picture Production Code– but all of this was just to placate critics of the studios. With the Great Depression hurting box office profits studios couldn’t afford to eliminate sex and violence from their films. Thus the pre-Code years refer to the time when there was a code but it wasn’t enforced.
Post World War I was a generation that survived a world war and an epidemic that killed a third of the world’s population. A rebel generation, they rejected everything that the generation before stood for. Women got the vote, broke free of corsets and never looked back. They lopped off their hair and wore short bobs, which meant freedom from hours spent grooming long hair. Though we think of the 1960s as the sexual revolution, the advent of contraceptives gave way to the first sexual revolution post World War I. The pre-Code era allows us to watch the modern woman come into being right before our eyes. As it was with World War II, women had gone off to work while the men were at war. They experienced the freedom of a life outside of domestic servitude, getting paid for a job, pursuing careers; women were finally at the helm of their own lives. This was the generation that roared, and defined modern life as we know it.
Even those who don’t like “old movies” find something to like and identify with in pre-Code films. Their honesty makes them feel more modern than the films of the decades that followed. In the pre-Code years women’s films were not a genre but stories that happened to be about women which both men and women enjoyed. This was one of the greatest periods in American cinema for actresses; one that has rarely appeared again once the Code was fully enforced.
Pre-Code VS the Code? Just look at how bedrooms changed!
Trouble In Paradise 1932, Herbert Marshall and Kay Francis contemplate sleeping together. During enforcement of the Code, Kay Francis and her husband have separate beds and a baby.
Books on the pre-Code era
Complicated Woman - Sex and power in pre-Code Hollywood by Mick LaSalle
Dangerous Men: Pre-Code Hollywood and the birth of the modern man by Mick LaSalle
Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930-1944 By Thomas Dorherty
Will Hays and pre-Code Hollywood - You Must Remember This August 13, 2018
For more on pre-Code cinema check out pre-Code.com
Next issue: Kay Francis – Queen of Pleasure