Nudge Wink and In Your Face: Pre-Code Hollywood

Jean Harlow and Clark Gable in uninhibited conversation. Red Dust (1932)

They weren’t called the roaring twenties for nothing. World War I had in effect ended the old order and the decade that followed brought a seismic change in many areas of American life.

For one was the explosive growth in urban living. This was the first time in the history of the United States that more people were living in the city as opposed to the rural areas. This shift opened the floodgates.

Now everybody needed an automobile a radio, telephone and anything else they could get their hands on. America became a consumer driven market. Whatever it was people had to have more of it or a newer and better version.

Of course it wasn’t just products and services. A new kind of culture was in play and nowhere more obvious than the flapper.

She was usually young, dressed in a highly non-traditional manner and above everything else thumbed her nose at what she considered the old ways of how a woman should act.

Many were shocked and outraged at this behavior which for the flapper meant she was doing it exactly right.

New image and the attitude to go with it. The flapper represented the liberated woman of the 1920's
New image and the attitude to go with it. The flapper represented the liberated woman of the 1920’s

Yet their reaction also exposed the hypocrisy and ingrained prejudice women have always faced. The 19th amendment had set off a firestorm of criticism with pundits (mostly men) declaring this was the end of civilization.

This newfound openness didn’t necessarily extend to everyone. The 1920’s while seemingly  very liberated was also a period of great intolerance. The Ku Klux Klan was at its zenith in regards to membership and popularity.

A dying ember had been given new life  thanks to xenophobia, Catholicism, antisemitism and good old reliable hatred of Black people (For which Hollywood of the previous decade can take a bow). Klan enrollment swelled to four million. Even Whites who were not card carrying members shared many of the same opinions.

25,000 people who forgot it was laundry day are forced to walk the streets of Washington in bedsheets and pillowcases while holding hands. KKK rally August 1925
25,000 people who forgot it was laundry day are forced to walk the streets of Washington in bed sheets and pillow cases while holding hands. KKK rally August 1925.   Bettmann/Corbis

Despite that, jazz the invention of Black America became the soundtrack for much of the country or at least the youth regardless of color.

This new way of life which moved at a dizzying pace bewildered many of the “back in my day” crowd. But what got so much of the older generation flustered was the attitude toward sex.

No doubt people were tipping around during the Victorian Era and  before. However what they seemed to do extremely well was pretend none of this was happening. You meet. Court in a non-sexual yet highly romantic manner. Marry and reproduce.

Clara Bow
Pushing The envelope. Clara Bow in Hula (1927). During the twenties the attitude toward sex became more open.

The roaring twenties generation came along and ripped that facade right off the walls. Yes you did marry and have children but sometimes there was a whole lot of action going on before that (and during) which both parties were okay with.

While cinema did not go graphic with it the films of Louise Brooks and Clara Bow reflected this new attitude. Movies roared along with the age and while some pined for the good old days of country living others had a good bye and good riddance philosophy.

Pre-Code Hollywood which lasted roughly until about 1935 continued to draw upon the cultural upheaval of the twenties. In many respects it allowed the movies to grow up which seemed to drive people like Will Hays and certain religious leaders out of their collective minds.

Paul Muni in Scarface (1932). The top gangster films of Pre-Code were fast raw and violent yet writers and directors allowed these characters to have shades of gray

Audiences were taken inside the world of the gangster in movies like Little Caesar with Edward G Robinson or Public Enemy with James Cagney (both made a year apart by Warner Brothers).

Yes they both got their comeuppance at the end but filmmakers had the audacity to show them as actual human beings. Tough, flawed and real. It wasn’t that moviegoers across the country stood and cheered these hoodlums but there were instances where they could definitely relate.

The desperate times of the Great Depression had many people looking for a way out. The gangster life or at least the one portrayed on screen was their escape.

And this was one of the hallmarks of Pre-Code. The willingness to take on difficult subject matter. Not really glamorizing it but more like a shrug of the shoulders to say, “Hey that’s life.”

Dorothy Mackaill in Safe In Hell (1931). Courtesy Photofest. The policeman beside MacKaill is Noble Johnson a virtual chameleon of films

I doubt if women wanted to rush out and be prostitutes when they saw Dorothy Mackaill as one in the William Wellman classic Safe In Hell especially after seeing the price she wound up paying.

But Wellman refused to show the protagonist’s story as one long penalty for the choices she made. Like it or not there’s a certain amount of integrity to her character something that in film was usually reserved for people on the higher end of the social ladder.

Moviemakers refused to spare anybody and just about every social issue was fair game. Even an alleged stalwart conservative like Cecil B. DeMille was willing to make This Day and Age a movie about teenagers in a racially integrated high school carrying out their own brand of vigilantism against a mobster that killed one of their friends and got off scot free.

Pre-Code could cover a lot of ground but it really all comes back to the role of women. The twenties had started the changes and Pre-Code carried it forward. Now they were not necessarily defined by their place in a man’s world but one of their own making.

Kay Francis in Mary Stevens, M.D. She’s a doctor and a good one. Nobody has to tell her how good she is. Stevens already knows. What she has to overcome is people’s prejudice toward being treated by a woman doctor.

After Pre-Code Stevens probably sees the error of her ways and gives up her practice with a smile just happy to hand the heavy lifting over to her husband.

Well she has a lot of heavy lifting of her own thanks to her husband but she ain’t giving up her practice. The fact that she is a female doctor comes into play to save a life as only a woman could.

Claudette Colbert taking a milk bath in Cecil B. DeMille’s Sign Of The Cross (1932)

Yet there was no getting around the obvious. Sex at least in Pre-Code was the best weapon women had at their disposal. The epitome of this is Barbara Stanwyck in BabyFace where she climbs the corporate ladder by literally sleeping her way to the top.

“Have you had any experience?” the office manager ask her not even trying to hide his lust. Stanwyck answers in that world weary here we go again tone, “Plenty”.

It’s a lurid tale especially in the beginning when you realize she’s being pimped out by her father yet once she truly understands the power she possesses it’s full speed ahead and up up and away.

One minute a subtle suggestion or a clever double entendre. The next minute even modern audiences are asking themselves “Did they just say and do what I think they just said and did?” And the answer is oh yeah. That’s Pre-Code.

She has him right where she wants him. Loretta Young in Born To Be Bad (1934). That title fits pre code movies to a tee.


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