The Motion Picture Production Code of Hollywood (or known simply as The Code) was a guideline made for Hollywood production companies and served as a guide as to what and what not were allowed in films. From the early 30’s to the late 60’s films produced in Hollywood were not allowe/ discouraged to include such things as profanity (swearing,saying “Oh my God” or “Damn”), scenes of childbirth, sex, sympathy for criminals, “provocative scene” as well as other things. Of course, as the years etched on production companies became less strict about the code but it was still enforced.
Movies were a lot more daring, sexually charged, and daring before the code compared to films made during the code. One of the great things about the entire Pre-Code era was the amount of female-centered movies. Largely forgotten these days, these films starred some of Classic Hollywood’s finest; Joan Crawford, Joan Blondell, Barbara Stanwyck, and Myrna Loy just to name a few. These women were written as smart heroines, strong and not afraid to be the boss. Sometimes using their sexualities and brains to get what they want as well. The movies I listed below are just some of the few I’ve managed to watch over the past year or two. Of course, there are hundreds of more, but these are the ones I think are best. I think anyone interested in film history should definitely watch some of these.
Barbara Stanwyck stars in “Baby Face” (1933), one of the essential Pre-Code films. “Baby Face” is about a woman named Lily Powers who after the death of her father, decides to use her sex appeal to get her way to the top of the social and corporate ladder. Stanwyck is incredible in this film and it is worthy to watch. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the entire movie on YouTube so there’s only the trailer in the link. Here, is one of the movies most famous scenes where Lily learns about how she can improve her surroundings.
“Blondie Johnson” (1933) stars Joan Blondell in her first leading role about a Depression-era girl who turns to a life of crime and becomes too involved in her wild life to care for love when she needs it most. I like “Blondie Johnson” a whole lot because the main character becomes “one of the boys”, if that makes any sense and delves into a life of crime just like a man would. “Blondie Johnson” shows a lot more action than “Baby Face” and Joan Blondell does amazing as Blondie. I could only manage to find a trailer for this one, but you could rent it on YouTube if you’re really that interested (or manage to find it on another site or on TV).
Joan Crawford stars in “Paid”, a 1930 drama about a woman who is wrongfully sent to jail for four years and returns to society with a desire to get revenge on the men who placed her there in the first place. One of the pioneering women’s prison movies I thoroughly enjoyed it, Joan Crawford is wonderful to watch in this film. I also couldn’t find the full version but they always show it on TCM. Here is the famous shower scene from the film to give you an idea about the contents of the film.
“Ladies They Talk About” is another women’s prison film that stars Barbara Stanwyck as a criminal who is thrown into jail by her own lover. Unlike “Paid”, “Ladies They Talk About” takes a more unsympathetic approach to women in jail, by portraying them as true criminals rather than ones wrongfully convicted. I was able to find a working link that contained the entire movie(!!) and I think it’s a great film to watch. If you’re still unconvinced here is the trailer.
“Gold Diggers of 1933” is a Pre-Code musical that focuses on the lives of showgirls during the Depression. This film stars Ginger Rogers, Ruby Keeler, Joan Blondell and Aline MacMahon and is choreographed by the great Busby Berkeley. Any of Busby’s movies made during this time can and do belong on this list (like Dames, Footlight Parade etc.) but I chose this one because of its content. It takes place during and acknowledges the Great Depression and really highlights the struggles of these female actresses. The numbers “We’re in The Money” and “Remember My Forgotten Man” are probably my favourite Busby numbers to date. I couldn’t find the movie in its entirety but in the links provided are some numbers and a trailer. There are also tons of clips from this film and other Busby films.
“Thirteen Women”, considered one of the first female ensemble films centers around a group of former sorority sisters who all write to a swami to receive a horoscope. Little do they know that the swami is actually one of their own former classmates, a girl named Ursula, who the sorority sisters made fun of for her mixed heritage. Soon one by one, Ursula begins to trick the girls into killing one another. This film stars Myrna Loy and Peg Entwistle.
But the era of strong women in film doesn’t end there. Even though the enforcement of the code stopped the circulation and popularity of these movies it doesn’t mean it stopped strong female characters at all. In fact, almost all actresses mentioned had thriving careers playing strong female characters. Especially Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck. I think it’s important that we keep these films alive in our culture and well known.