This post was whipped up, sweated out, and caressed into being for the Hot & Bothered blogathon, hosted by Aurora of Once Upon a Screen and Theresa of CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch, two ladies who go absolutely nutty over the films of 1932. I encourage you to head over to their dens of iniquity and thrust yourself into the seedy joys of pre-Code cinema. Click here for Day 1 of the blogathon, and here for Day 2. Don’t forget your satin robe, tumbler of gin, and a post-reading cigarette.
Have you ever been having a conversation with someone, discussing bands or a movie you both love, and discovered that while you revere the same thing, it’s for entirely different reasons? The conversation veers from excitement into awkwardness as you notice that while your cultural reference points might be the same, something in your respective backgrounds has led to a complete divergence in how you perceive art and why you would recommend it to another person. This happens to me frequently when I happen upon another person who loves studio era films. A new acquaintance makes passing reference to Humphrey Bogart and I’m instantly reaching out to clasp their hands, asking if they’d like to wear one half of a “Best Friends Forever” necklace, and mentally planning our future film club. Then I’m awoken from my fantasies by one of the following assertions from my new cinema soulmate:
I love that those movies aren’t full of sex and violence.
Men were men and women were women back then.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed many old movies with friends and family who believe one or both of these things. Neither belief should stop you from sharing and enjoying films with others (particularly those who are different from you), but when these ideas cross my path I’m driven to either counter them or just smile and nod. Since challenging people you’ve just met walks the very fine line between taking a principled stand and rudeness, I smile. And nod. And we carry on talking about how great Humphrey Bogart was, because you don’t have to deeply analyze his films to know that he was great, and I don’t bring up the fact that To Have and Have Not is basically just two hours of really good foreplay.
Maybe right now you yourself are wondering what’s wrong with either of those statements. Well, truthfully, not everything. When people say that old movies aren’t full of sex and violence, they’re right in the sense that old movies aren’t filled with lingering shots of women’s exposed nipples, thrusting butts or bloody decapitation. And sure, it can be nice to pop in an old DVD and not worry that a child is going to leave your house having learned several choice new words for show-and-tell. But in plenty of old movies, the depiction of sex and violence is catapulted far over the wall of mere suggestion. How could someone describe Double Indemnity without acknowledging sex and violence? What would The Searchers be without its threat of brutal vengeance? What exactly do some people think is happening when Rhett Butler forcefully carries Scarlett O’Hara up the stairs in Gone With the Wind? One has to engage in a particularly willful naivety to watch Barbara Stanwyck’s face as her husband is being murdered by her lover in the passenger seat of her car and see anything other than complete eroticism. Taking a film’s dialogue and images at face value and ignoring context, subtext and intention is like choosing to believe that Prince’s “Cream” is about the dairy product. Sure, maybe it’s something that the kids won’t pick up on, but keeping blood and boobs just out of sight isn’t exactly the same as art-making for the purposes of moral edification. The sex and violence may not be the flavour you’re used to, but it’s there, it’s intended, and it almost certainly has contributed to your worldview.
The second assertion is the one that drives me absolutely crazy, laden as it is with assumptions about the societal standards of the past, and judgement about how people act now. It almost always means some variation on “I miss heterosexual men in suits who took dominance over their domain” and “Wasn’t it great when women were graceful and virginal and never swore?” There are plenty of old films that cater to this mindset, because again, there was a more rigidly defined set of roles for men and women then. People who love this fact pick up on the mores of the era, but to the exclusion of the movies that challenge, in subtle and obvious ways, the assumption that everyone from 1920-1960 happily lived out a lifestyle they thought contributed to the moral good of humanity. For every Grace Kelly, prettying up the scenery with icy sexual unavailability, there’s a Marlene Dietrich wearing top hat and tails better than her male costars, or an Eve Arden passing sarcastic comment on her absurd surroundings. Biblical epics aren’t entertaining in spite of their homoerotic overtures, but because of them. Put Stephen Boyd or Yul Brynner in some more clothes and scrape the baby oil off of them, and I’m so outta there.
So yes, there is something innocent and appealing about Mickey and Judy employing their youthful faces and gee-golly energy to put on a show and the audience not having to think about teen pregnancy at the same time. And yeah, it’s way more fun for the Jets and the Sharks to battle it out with finger snaps and Jerome Robbins moves. There’s nothing wrong with those kinds of movies. Many of them are brilliant works of art, as great as any film where the vicious mobster leaves the gun and takes the cannoli. But they come from the Code era, when some filmmakers (who would have loved sometimes to put a bullet into the head of their lead character, or linger just a little bit longer on an important kiss) couldn’t do what they wanted. The “clean” art you love was built on a mountain of dirty dealings, shady compromises, and vicious hacks to the celluloid. By now we all know that they wound up poor little Judy like an automaton with uppers and downers – that should be enough to give anyone pause when asserting the supposed “innocence” of the era. What’s onscreen is a distillation of life that’s been run through several filters and then pasteurized for consumption. Some of the “cleanest” films I can think of were made in the 1940s – images of young girls drinking milkshakes at the soda fountain, while bloodied bodies fell en masse overseas in some of the most violent scenarios imaginable. The moral “goodness” of art has much to do with matters of commerce, coercion and propaganda, and to think that your unobjectionable movies arise purely from the natural moral fiber of a nation or a generation is to ignore so much.
If I could give a doctor’s prescription to these kinds of puritanical old film lovers, it would be this: Take two pre-Codes and call me in the morning. Because if the phrases I mentioned earlier convince me of anything, it’s that the speaker has skipped out during TCM’s pre-Code programming. Or maybe they’ve tuned in and objected to what they’ve seen. You can only make the meaningless statement “women were women” or “men were men” if you’ve only spent time looking at the movies that fit your definition of what men and women should be.
Ultimately, I’m still sympathetic to those who prefer films that followed the Code’s enforcement in 1934. I’m one of them, for reasons that have more to do with watching artists of the pre-Code era coming into the height of their powers than an increased pleasure with the prescriptive nature of plot lines and necklines. What I’d like to see is an end to the pretense that people were somehow fundamentally different – better – at mid-century, and that this difference drove the quality of the art. Make your arguments that the enforcement of the Code drove an improvement in the overall quality of films if that’s what you believe, but at least take a look at what the young people of the “Greatest Generation” came to the theater to see in droves. Like us, they were raised on a diet of gangsters, prostitutes, freewheelers and alcoholics. They liked the look of a shapely leg as much as you or I.
Take, for example, Jack Conway’s 1932 celebration of sexual manipulation, Red-Headed Woman. It’s got all the pre-Code gems (pre-marital sex, violence, excessive gin drinking, the briefest bit of nudity) and stars one of the era’s most iconic and fantastic stars, Jean Harlow. With a screenplay by Anita Loos, a brisk pace (possibly brisker than intended, since the film’s final edit was influenced by the powers at the Hays office), and wonderful co-stars like Una Merkel and newcomer Charles Boyer, Red-Headed Woman is, first and foremost, entertaining. Such is the glorious half-freedom of the pre-Code era that the film’s plot (“woman strategically sleeps her way to wealth and power”) seems stale. 1933 saw the release of Alfred E. Green’s Baby Face, arguably a more famous and notorious film, also about a woman developing gainful self-employment in the form of hunting for sugar daddies. But Red-Headed Woman has a sense of fun and witty self-awareness, which Baby Face replaced with pseudo-Nietzschean philosophy. Different strokes for different folks, and I like them both.
Jean Harlow plays Lil, a stenographer working for the wealthy and handsome Bill Legendre, Jr. (Chester Morris), who insists she’s destined for a better life as forcefully as Bill insists that he intends to be faithful, in the face of Lil’s pursuits, to his wife Irene (Leila Hyams). Harlow’s designs on Bill, and the methods she uses to break down the fortress of Bill’s noble monogamy, are intense. She wants him for the lifestyle he can provide her, and she’s going to use sex to gain access to his money. The act of sex seems less interesting to Lil than is the knowledge that the men in her sphere want to to have sex with her. Once she feels their lust, she knows she has power over them. Unlike other films which punish their women characters for this level of sexual domination, you might be surprised to hear that any suffering Lil experiences because of her own flaws is brief and inconsequential. Baby Face makes Barbara Stanwyck pay for her immorality, and the film suffers for it. In Red-Headed Woman, each act of extramarital sex is another step in the direction of Lil’s dreams. She’s an entrepreneur.
Many of the characters in Red-Headed Woman pass judgment on Lil, and although she acknowledges and rages against scrutinizing eyes, there never seems to be a moment when she judges herself. She is almost sociopathic in her willingness to hurt others, cackling with glee when she steals Bill from the arms of his thoughtful and loving wife. Harlow plays Lil’s emotions as extremes of jealousy and seduction, careless joy and fiery rage. In moments of intensity she is screaming and shrill, in moments of manipulation, coquettish and baby-voiced. For anyone whose perception of Harlow is as an open beta version of Marilyn Monroe – just a Hurrell photograph to hang in the bathroom – then Red-Headed Woman will transform the iconography into a real woman. In all of the terrible things Lil does – proudly “homewrecking,” cheating at every turn, whining like a child when she doesn’t get her way, finding the lap of luxury through the laps of men – Harlow never drowns herself in a potential pool of audience revulsion. Just as Harlow approaches the nadir of Lil’s inexcusable behaviour, she injects her with enough humour or satirical characterization to pull us back from the brink of total loathing. If Harlow developed the mold for the blonde bombshells of later decades, then irony and wit surely suffered in the replication. The story is slight but Harlow is giving it her all, especially in comparison to Chester Morris’s Bill, who spends most of his screen time in stony-faced consternation or angrily rubbing his hands over his face.
Lil’s sexual powers are so overwhelming that any man she encounters seems to succumb after moments in her presence. She hunts Bill like prey, first damaging his marriage after a single sexual encounter which Irene discovers, then initiating a second and final blow just as Bill’s trusting relationship with his wife has resumed. Meeting him one night as he is out dining with Irene, Lil shoves Bill in a telephone both. “You still think about me all the time, now don’t you?” she asks. Her question is purely rhetorical. Lil then refuses to set Bill free until he agrees to meet with her again. “Say you’ll come, say it,” she asserts. “Alright, I’ll come,” says Bill. There’s a slight chance that the use of that sexually loaded word isn’t intentional on the part of the filmmakers. But believe me, the doubt becomes less reasonable when you see and hear it in action.
In another scene, having confronted Bill for betraying her and returning to his wife, Lil locks him in her bedroom and mocks him for his fear of her sexual allure. She is, of course, correct that Bill fears Lil’s siren powers. He slaps her violently and, in a moment that proclaims the uncomfortable affinity Lil has for both sexual manipulation and violence, her response is as if a bucket of refreshing, cool water has been poured over her on a hot day. “Do it again, I like it!” she exclaims. Call me crazy, but in that moment I actually buy that Harlow’s Lil likes it. Everything else she does is so contentedly perverse and emptied of real feeling, and the pleasure she derives from pain so connected to her feelings of power and control that a slap, as Carousel‘s Louise so wrongly puts it, feels like a kiss. The thrills she gets from life sit at the extreme of what polite society finds acceptable.
Having successfully seduced and married Bill, Lil takes her victory lap as a newly wealthy woman by driving down the street and honking her horn to draw everyone’s attention to her luxurious car, designer dog, and impractical couture. She brings her friend Sally (the ever-delightful Una Merkel) along on her journey of trading men like baseball cards, with each new affair drawing faux outrage (and perhaps a touch of titillation) from Sal. It’s completely unsurprising when Lil decides that whatever level of wealth and social fame Bill’s last name has given her is insufficient and unsatisfactory. Someone with Lil’s ambition isn’t going to stop when she reaches mid-level management. She’s completely restless and doggedly determined to carve out a powerful role for herself.
Soon, she’s traded Bill in for an older and richer model – a coal magnate named Charles Gaerste (Henry Stephenson) who, like Bill, can run but never hide from Lil’s expert sexual advances. The malevolently scheming and self-satisfied look Harlow gets when she’s coming up with a manipulative plan is brilliant. We watch foolish men fall for her lies again and again, and over time, Lil becomes less a villainous figure than a genius of sexual performance who takes advantage of foolish, flawed men. Harlow becomes more and more gorgeous with each man she traps. The stenographer is transforming herself into a goddess, even if the wealthy society around her still sees her as a tasteless tramp. Harlow might look insane or overblown in her glittery gowns, but she is pure fashion and glamour. Like a good night’s sleep, a hefty allowance is a tonic for the exhaustion of life.
When she’s finally caught at her own game, after being spied having what seems to be an actual love affair with Gaerste’s sexy French chauffeur Albert (Charles Boyer), we expect there to be consequences for Lil. Gaerste, furious that his future wife has been cavorting with the hired help, asks his butler to summon Albert from her presence, leading to one of the most delicious innuendos in the film. The butler calls downstairs to Lil, asking if Albert is anywhere nearby. She, horizontal, tells the butler that Albert has been taking care of a little chore for her:
Gaerste’s Butler: He’ll be right up sir.
Charles Gaerste: Oh.
Gaerste’s Butler: He’s been working on Mrs. Legendre’s radio.
Just what, exactly, is Mrs. Legendre’s radio? It’s whatever the hell you want it to be. That’s the joy of sex in old movies. You have to take what the standards of the time could give you, and then fill in the rest with your own personal turn-ons. A viewer who refuses to believe that people of the 1930s were just as sexually charged might miss, or willfully ignore, the bit about Mrs. Legendre’s radio. They might even wish to deny the fact that women have radios altogether. But Anita Loos and Jack Conway? They were happy to think about radios. In fact, they thought radios were so interesting that they gave them a line of dialogue in a movie that ended up being a smash hit. Write it off as a briefly crass moment in an otherwise angelic era, but if you start to look closely, there’s “Mrs. Legendre’s radios” in black and white movies all over the place.
In some very small and meaningless ways, there are consequences for Lil. She doesn’t get the upper hand on Bill or Charles or the chauffeur, but only momentarily. She’s been caught doing something that could be life-destroying for another character in another film, and the Code era that established itself in 1934 could be particularly cruel to women who cheated their way to the top. But in this case, while it looks to us like the jig is up for Lil, she knows better. As a man observes earlier in the film, “There’s a dame. Strictly on the level, like a flight of stairs.” She’ll never give up her aggressive social climbing, and so, two years later we find her in Paris, having achieved yet again her goal of social visibility and wealth. Married to another rich benefactor, and with Boyer’s chauffeur fulfilling her romantic needs like a Beverley Hills poolboy, Lil has everything she ever wanted. Love and marriage, only not both with the same man.
Old movie lovers are vulnerable to accusations of mindless nostalgia, but the only times I’ve seen this be completely true is when an almost pathological aversion to sex and violence in the movies leads someone to tout the artistic successes of a film, in part, because of its “G” rating. Once that obsession with comfort begins to warp history, the nostalgia has indeed become mindless and the interpretation of a particular film ends up missing the forest for the trees (the forest being, for example, greater themes of American brutality in Double Indemnity, the trees being the oh-so-wonderful fact that neither Barbara Stanwyck nor Fred MacMurray say a four letter word while literally planning to murder someone). If old movies are better because old people were less crass and disgusting than we are, then you’re gonna have to explain to me what Una Merkel is doing holding this obviously phallic banana in a scene that needed no banana at all:
I’m so glad that pre-Code films are still available for us to watch, because they shake up our preconceptions about what people were like and the things that intrigued them long before any of us were born. It’s important to remember what the enforcement of the Code really did. Over several decades, did it succeed in making people better, in protecting children and adults from the realities of bad people and dirty thoughts? And even if it did succeed, would that be enough of a reason to censor artists and drop ridiculous roadblocks into stories that should have ended in some other way? Love the Code or loathe it, but it’s much more fun to love art for what it has rather than what it lacks. And if you love the men of classic film for their gentlemanly strength and the women for their elegant, motherly charm, then hoo boy, you had better not watch Red-Headed Woman.