The Rich Dividends of Sin: Women and Hollywood in the ’30′s

This is my second blog for the Jean Harlow Blogathon. While it does not concentrate solely on our lady of honor, it does concentrate on her era, and the time during which she was making films, in particular the film-making “odds” that she was up against. Enjoy!

Satan is ever seeking to convince people that the wages of sin is not death. Originally, he made that claim to Adam and Eve. Through the movies, he makes it again to our generation. Sin does seem to pay rich dividends in Hollywood.

-Dan Gilbert, Chairman, Christian Newspaper Men’s Committee to Investigate the Motion Picture Industry,

On May 17, 1934, the Chicago Tribune ran a small cartoon, entitled, “The Salacious Film Producing Company Debates Whether or Not to Get Worried.” It depicted five men and one woman crowded around a table, discussing a newspaper that one gentleman, in the chair marked “Salacious Film Producer,” is holding. The headline reads, “Nation Wide War Against Filthy Films.” Four men are drawn like stereotypical Hollywood executives- slightly balding, heavy-set, smoking cigars or a pipe, and wearing glasses. The fifth man seems to be the “Hollywood director type,” hair slicked back, a small moustache and a cigarette, short tight pants to just below the knee, and a short-sleeved shirt, open at the neck. The woman, dressed in a hat and stylish dress, with short hair, is standing just beside the director-type, with a cigarette in a holder. One of the executive-types is saying, “Why you’re one o’ the great educational influences o’ th’ country, Chief! Look what America was when you started educatin’ ‘em and look what it is today!” Another says, “Forget it Chief! Don’t Worry! These moral crusades soon blow over.”  The woman states bluntly, “Wait till you get your ten million, Chief, then you can reform without losing a cent.” But the crucial remark is from the director-type. He asks, rhetorically, “Hain’t you giving the people what they want? Is it our fault they’ve learned to like it rare?”

Like it rare, indeed. This cartoon, published at a quintessential juncture in the history of Hollywood motion pictures, was a salient reflection of the situation in Tinseltown. The “nation-wide war against filthy film” mentioned, had been raging for over 10 years in different forms. It was only in 1934, however, right around the publication of this cartoon, that it had reached epic levels.

The battle had started in 1922, when multiple Hollywood real-life scandals like the “Fatty” Arbuckle sex trial and actor Wallace Reid’s drug addiction, had elicited a public morality outcry. At this point a trade protection organization, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA), was incorporated, and the film industry appointed Will H. Hays as director, because his “conservative affiliations and sterling public image spoke well of the industry’s intentions.”[1] Hays began a program of self-regulation, but, unfortunately for them, that didn’t quite gel. Hollywood continued to be what a Catholic Church group deemed “the pest hole that infects the entire country with its obscene and lascivious moving pictures.”[2] In 1927, concerned as ever with the problem of censorship, Hays met with studio executives from Fox, M-G-M, and Paramount, and they orchestrated the first set of guidelines for the film industry, simply entitled the “Don’ts and Be Carefuls” while Hays organized the Studio Relations Committee (SRC) to implement them. However, suggesting that people “don’t” or “be careful” does not a clean picture make, and the films continued to make American moral groups bristle. Finally, in 1930, the “Code to Govern the Making of Talking, Synchronized and Silent Motion Pictures” was born; authored partially by Irving Thalberg, vice president in charge of production at M-G-M, and Martin Quigley, a Catholic Lay person and publisher of the Motion Picture Herald. As Leonard J. Leff and Jerold L. Simmons wrote, “the Code nonetheless promised some changes in Hollywood. Not only were the proscriptions more comprehensive than the Don’t and Be Carefuls, but Colonel Joy [Hays appointee who read scenarios and scripts] would attempt real enforcement.”[3]

The one thing that the PCA didn’t bank on was the effect that the Depression would have. The earlier Jazz Age of the twenties had people attending the theater in droves. Now, with unemployment at almost eight million Americans, the lush days were over, and the mounting East Coast pressure sent Hollywood a message straight from Darwin: those who produced runaway hits would keep their inflated salaries, swimming pools, and limousines; those who produced fizzles would join the soup lines…as attendance continued to slide, the cooperative spirit behind the initial success of the code dissolved.[4]

A multitude of things have changed in the last years since the Code, but the one thing that has never wavered is what sells. The same things that lure audiences to the movies in 2011, ensnared them to the screen in the early 1930s. Those who made films in 1930 knew about the restrictions. But they had a new code- the aphorism “sex and violence sells” was exactly what they followed, and if one were to look at the films that were produced at that time, they followed that code religiously, much to the distress of Will Hays, and his newly appointed public relations man for the Production Code, Joseph Breen.

Some films of the time include such titles as Two-Faced Woman, Sinners in the Sun, She Had to Say Yes, Night Nurse, Safe in Hell, I’m No Angel, Ladies of Leisure, The Greeks Had a Word For Them, Public Enemy, and Female. Clearly these were not what the PCA had in mind. But Hollywood pushed ‘em through, regardless. Sometimes, the racier the title, the better it was, even if it wasn’t particularly applicable to the plot. And the plots? They weren’t exactly Apple Pie and Mom. To the left of you, ladies and gentlemen, I give you drug addiction and alcoholism. To the right, we are offered rape and prostitution. Dead ahead of us, we can see all sorts of murder and criminal activity. Adultery, pregnancy out-of-wedlock, these were the subject matters dealt with in the films of the early 30’s.

On the other hand, these films are some of the most fascinating ones to come out of Hollywood since its inception, 100 years ago. There are a veritable plethora of reasons why these films are so provocative and interesting. However, the one thing that a multiplicity of films had during this time that they didn’t have again until possibly recently (and even that is arguable) is an exciting and unapologetically powerful location for women. Mick LaSalle, in his luminary work on women in the pre-Code era, writes,

The best era for women’s pictures was the pre-Code era…before the Code, women on screen took lovers, had babies out of wedlock, got rid of cheating husbands, enjoyed their sexuality, held down professional positions without apologizing for their self-sufficiency, and in general acted the way many of us think women only acted after 1968…That’s why the Code came in. Yes, to a large degree, the Code came in to prevent women from having fun. It was designed to put the genie back in the bottle- and the wife back in the kitchen.[5]

While there are many other reasons why the Code became strictly enforced in 1934, LaSalle’s estimation is not entirely faulty. This time period offered a type of role for women to play that, to this day, is still unusual. Cascading from the social changes in the 20’s for women, the right to vote, signature fashion changes, and the prevalence of more women going to college and entering the workforce, these films sought to reflect the emergence of power within “the weaker sex” by providing them with a wider assortment of icons and stories in an industry that soon limited their roles to those of less self-sufficient heroines. Although there is a multitude of instances of powerful female roles in the forties and beyond, they never quite had the same taste and free spirit attached to them as they did during the time before the Code of 1930 became an undeniable reality.

In addition to this, the Pre-Code era, due to its plethora of interesting roles for women, gave many actresses their start. In fact, many women began in Pre-Code films, established a certain “character” and became famous for that, even after the Code was enforced. One of these such women was Jean Harlow. While she was, quite literally, a short-lived actress, the persona that she established during her early films was one that followed her throughout her career. While she wasn’t always fond of it, it was one that she played often and played well.

Her first film, Hell’s Angels (1930), had her playing Helen, a character who as David Stenn notes, is “less a character than a caricature, a one-dimensional vamp who smokes, drinks, wears low-cut dresses, and seduces any man at hand.” (6) While she wasn’t lauded for her performance, it was still a case of a woman who was out there, doing what she wanted to because she wanted to. Her subsequent films took this and ran with it, with much better results. Such great results, in fact, that she became a superstar within the M-G-M stable.

Her next installment within the Pre-Code ranks was Public Enemy (1931), with James Cagney. A thorn in the side of  people like Will Hays and Joseph Breen, this was a gangster film; a genre they were very much not in favor of. Once again, Harlow turned on the sultry charm and plays the gangster’s love interest. Even within the first few scenes that we meet Harlow in this film, we are keyed into the fact that she is very much a sexually charged and interesting figure. Not at all like the milque-toast, mealy-mouthed women that were generally being displayed on the screen at the time.

While she did several other films that reflected her Pre-Code “ness” (Red Headed Woman, Beast of the City, Red Dust), it was actually the film that established her as a cinematic icon that also encoded her as a woman of some kind of independence and strength. In Platinum Blonde (1931), Harlow plays a character that, while seeming to undermine the virility of the male protagonist in the film, is actually quite a significant role as a female. While this film is, undoubtedly, prototypical Capra fare, pitting the poor against the rich, major class dissection, and an eventual outcome in favor of the underdog (the lower/poor class), Harlow’s character is no schlub!

The primary plot point in Platinum Blonde is that the character of Stewart “Stew” Smith (Robert Williams), while having initially fallen in love with and agreed to marry Anne Schuyler (Jean Harlow) does not like what the marriage entails. Multiple references are made within the film to show how “imprisoned”  Stew feels in the situation that he, himself, has gotten himself into (birds in cages, sock garters as symbols of constriction). His principal argument is that Anne is holding him within a set of circumstances under which he has no agency.

While this film seems to run as typical Capra-fare, it also seems to run as a kind of unintentionally subversive Pre-Code parable. The scandalous idea of being “kept” was generally reserved for out-of-wedlock, and almost solely relegated to “kept women.” But what if this concept extended itself to marital relations? And even better yet, what if the one doing the keeping were a woman? While the structure of the film still favors the character of Stew (most Capra films were male-centered, the women were well-fleshed out), it is quite fair to say that Anne’s character, and the power that she possesses within Platinum Blonde was not regulation or code of the day.

Within marriage during that time, agency was not something that belonged to the wife. Platinum Blonde seeks to turn the tables, if just a little. While it is not the main point of the film (class struggle being the center), looking at the character of Anne is important. Stew went into the marriage willingly. He was in love and wanted to marry her. Sure, she had money. But he knew that going in. There was, most certainly, a power switch that took place within the diegesis. Anne became the central “pants-wearing” figure of the household. Stew wanted to get out, as he wanted his independence. The great irony of the film is the gender issue. Once again, we can look to Mick LaSalle’s discussion of women in Pre Code films having Great Positions of Power. Looking at later films, we see women trying to break free of loveless marriages or ones in which they are being kept inside a “gilded cage.” Capra’s Platinum Blonde is one in which the woman is the figure who holds the key. Is Anne Schulyer an evil character? No, not even close. Is she close to the characters that Jean Harlow played in other films of the time? In fact, no. She is actually a great deal richer (pun intended) in character and her dominating presence gave her a stardom that went beyond the huge publicity campaign that Howard Hughes had organized around the film. Jean Harlow became best known as the Platinum Blonde, due to an aesthetic feature that was started in this film, however the character in this film helped launch a career that soared (albeit briefly) to heights that she never dreamed she would reach. By playing the rich Anne Schulyer, she “kept” her power in Hollywood, even if at the end of the film she “lost” Stew.

What Anne lost with Stew, Harlow gained in stardom, Platinum Blonde (1931)

On July 1, 1934, the amended Production Code went into effect. As a combined result of the formation of the Catholic Legion of Decency, who threatened a nation-wide Catholic boycott of the movies and accused the industry of “faking observance to the Code,”[6] and Joseph Breen’s new more stringent leadership, what was once just a set of guidelines to be ignored, became a fact that could not be denied. Ten days later, the Production Code Administration (PCA) officially opened for business, and it was at this point that Mr. Joseph Breen had ultimate authority on the output of the Hollywood studios. This authority was secured in three ways: first of all, no picture could be made without script approval from Breen and the PCA. Second of all, it could not be released if it was not endowed with Breen’s “seal of approval.” Lastly, if any company tried to release a film without a seal, God help them, no MPPDA theater could play it. And so, Hollywood changed. But not without leaving its pre-Code mark forever emblazoned on the annals of the cinema.

One of the more potent examples of a film that exemplified what the Code sought to ban, yet what LaSalle says is one of the crowning points of pre-Code cinema, is a film called Female starring Ruth Chatterton and George Brent.

This film, released on November 11, 1933, was a mixed production package. Initially slated to direct the film was German-born immigrant William Dieterle, later known for such titles as The Devil and Daniel Webster, and The Life of Emile Zola. However, on August 9, 1933, Edwin Schallert of the Los Angeles Times reported, “William Dieterle, who was directing Female, Ruth Chatterton’s picture, has been taken ill, and will be replaced by William Wellman.”[7] Wellman, an extremely prolific director, well-known for his work during the pre-Code era, went uncredited for his work on this picture, as did Dieterle, although, according to some sources, Wellman did direct at least 17 scenes in the picture. Brian Cady accounts that upon Dieterle’s illness, “the film was taken over and completed by William Wellman using cameraman Ernest Haller. At that point Warner Brothers decided the lead “boy toy,” George Blackwood, was not up to the job. They replaced him with Johnny Mack Brown and brought in Michael Curtiz who ended up re-shooting half the movie and gaining the final directorial credit.”[8] Final directorial credit went to Curtiz, but with three very prominent directors working on this film, it is clear that the production was more than a little chaotic.

Pre-production seemed to share the same bed. No less than three different articles of the time name Barbara Stanwyck as the leading lady. The Los Angeles Times, for example, quoted in their report of up-coming Warner Brothers productions that “Female, starring Barbara Stanwyck, from the sensational novel by Donald Henderson Clarke”[9] was set to start production soon. However, the next thing you know, Miss Stanwyck has changed her mind. Edwin Schallert writes, “What’s one woman’s poison is another’s meat. And that’s curious in this instance. Barbara Stanwyck didn’t care for the picture Female, which looks as if it will be Ruth Chatterton’s next. Miss Stanwyck was at one time scheduled for the film, but is understood to have successfully opposed doing it.”[10]

The image of Stanwyck and the image of Chatterton within Hollywood were quite different. To make that shift from one actress to another, must have involved some very interesting negotiations. Judging by past works, the role was definitely more of a Stanwyck vehicle. Chatterton, an older actress, was already well-known for Broadway roles, and stage success. Considered to be a very “classy” actress, a role like this was a slightly odd one, but it seemed to work.

Female, based on a controversial book by Donald Henderson Clarke, tells the story of Alison Drake, a hard-hitting businesswoman who runs her own automobile manufacturing business. The film opens with a shot of a business meeting, and a man speaking. The way it is constructing, it seems obvious to the viewer that the man speaking is a powerful figure, if not the head, of this company. Guess again. As soon as he is done speaking, the camera falls on Chatterton, who, upon opening her mouth, makes it abundantly clear who, figuratively, wears the pants around the business. She is all business, no-nonsense, and strong. She can handle multiple phone calls on multiple phone lines, while discussing important matters with her employees, and giving instructions to her secretary. Alison Drake, however, does have a soft spot: good-looking men. We learn, quite quickly, however, that it is not quite romance that she’s after, when she invites these employees up to her house for dinner to discuss “business.” Miss Drake plies the oblivious gentlemen with vodka, “like Catherine the Great” comments one of her servants, and then proceeds to have her way with them. Later, if at work they express any kind of romantic attraction, she quickly dispatches them to another branch of the company- in Montreal. Then one day, she meets her match- a man who does not cave to her seduction. After a very rocky progression between the two, during which he proposes and she practically laughs at the proposal, Alison finally decides that perhaps love and marriage are in the cards for her. She goes and finds her man, who had left town, and they make up, leaving us to infer the standard happy ending.

Alison’s nightly escapades and general characterization did not go unnoticed by censors. James Wingate, one of the censors at the time, wrote to Warner Brothers, horrified. He states,

It is made very plain that she has been in the habit of sustaining her freedom from marriage, and at the same time satisfying a too-definitely indicated sex-hunger, by frequently inviting any young man who may appeal to her to her home and there bringing about a seduction. After having satisfied her desires with these various males, she pays no further attention to them other than to reward them with bonuses. And in the event that they become importunate, she has them transferred.[11]

Mark Vieira notes that, “Warner Brothers told Wingate that Chatterton’s antics would be adjusted, but made no changes.”[12] Gee, that was a big shock in 1933. Not only were the censors unhappy, but also the very making of this picture went against the “Formula” that Will Hays tried to implement in 1924, which “discouraged the adaptation of disreputable plays and novels.”[13] Donald Henderson Clarke’s novel had already been the subject of an obscenity lawsuit. The New York Times reported that “a hearing on the charges brought against the Vanguard Press, book publishers, of 100 Fifth Avenue, by the Society for the Suppression of Vice was adjourned…the Society alleges that Donald Henderson Clarke’s “Female” which was published by the concern, is obscene.”[14] This film was definitely objectionable to all censoring bodies involved, and just after 1934, became one on a list of films to recall and never show again, care of Joseph Breen, and his post-1934 authority.

In the beginning of the film, a girlfriend asks Alison if she’s ever going to fall in love. Alison laughs. “It’s a career in itself. It takes too much time and energy. To me, a woman in love is a pathetic spectacle. She’s either so miserable she wants to die, or she’s so happy you want to die.” Her friend responds, “Aren’t you ever going to marry?” To which Alison quickly retorts, “No thanks, not me. You know a long time ago I decided to travel the same open road that men traveled. So I treat men the exact way they’ve always treated women.” The surprised friend says, “You definitely don’t have much respect for men.” To which Alison says, “Oh, I know, of course for some women men are a household necessity. Me? I’d rather have a canary.” This speech places Female into that category that Mick LaSalle discusses, about women in the pre-Code films coming into their own. He calls Female “role-reversal stuff, very entertaining” but he also notes that Chatterton’s character “predictably…fall[s] in love with the one guy she couldn’t push around.”[15] The strength and characterization that this film exhibits is probably the reason why almost every review compared Chatterton to Mae West, an extremely prominent and successful star of the pre-Code film era. In fact, West almost invented it, with her witticism and beyond-controversial antics and storylines.

Reviews at the time called the film “a sort of discussion of the dangers of feminism and a defense of woman’s place as homemaker”[16] and complained “one knows, moreover, that Miss Chatterton will eventually capitulate with a loud bang. It will be, oh, such a melting capitulation. It happens per rote”[17] I would argue, however, that the way she orchestrates the romance throughout the film, still places Alison Drake in more of a position of power than anything else. Sure, Jim Thorne would not fall under her spell of seduction- at first. She still devises the entire situation, and she makes it happen. Even at the end of the film, where some reviews note disappointment that she gives up her job, and gives in to the “normal” wife-and-mother-type role, she only says that to Thorne, in the car. At that point, however, they are driving to where she must have a meeting with very important businessmen. To me, this paradoxical situation only proves the power of this character more so, pointing out her ability to manipulate any situation to her advantage.

Alison Drake and Ruth Chatterton were not dissimilar. They were both powerful women, who placed high importance on their careers, sometimes to the disappointment of the men they were involved with. Chatterton was already a highly established stage actress by the time she got to Hollywood. Almost 40 years old, by Hollywood standards, she was even a little bit “past her prime” when she was playing roles like Alison Drake. She was a play-producer and aviatrix, and later became a fairly well-known novelist. It is not unusual, after all, that she was chosen for this part, after Stanwyck bowed out. What can be seen from this is that the role of Alison Drake was made vibrant by the personality and character of Ruth Chatterton.

Pre-Code films have recently become a popular area of research, over the last few years. There have been several books and even some documentaries made about the existence of, and circumstances surrounding them. This “unearthing” of these documents is integral to our appreciation of the rest of film history, but most importantly the image of women in film history. In regards to his work on the subject, and his book, Mick LaSalle said that he believes that “the real audience for this subject is young women… Young women are amazed by these films because it reassures them that they’re not some kind of a modern-day anomaly.”[18] It’s nice to have that reassurance.


[1] Vieira, Mark A. Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publishers, 1999.

[2] The National Catholic Welfare Conference, cited in “The Legion of Decency.” Commonweal 18 May 1934.

[3] Leff, Leonard J. and Jerold L. Simmons. The Dame in the Kimono: Hollywood, Censorship, and the Production Code from the 1920’s to the 1960’s. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990.

[4] Ibid.

[5] LaSalle, Mick. Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.

(6) Stenn, David. Bombshell: The Life and Death of Jean Harlow. New York: Doubleday, 1993.

[6] Lord, Daniel A., S. J. Played By Ear. Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1956.

[7] Schallert, Edwin. “Old San Francisco Immortalized in New Film; Studio and Theater News and Gossip.” Los Angeles Times, 9 August 1933.

[8] Cady, Brian. “Female.” Turner Classic Movies Archive. 1 December 2003. http://www.turnerclassicmovies.com/ThisMonth/Article/0,,25792%7C25796%7C25803,00.html

[9] “Warner Brothers Plan Full Program for Coming Year.” Los Angeles Times, 28 May 1933.

[10] Schallert, Edwin. “News and Reviews of the Stage, Screen, and Music; Gossip of Studios and

[11] Wingate, Letter to Warner, quoted in Vieira, ibid.

[12] Vieira,ibid.

[13] ibid.

[14] “Sumner Must Face Suit.” New York Times 14 April 1933.

[15] LaSalle, ibid.

[16] Watts, Richard Jr. “On The Screen: Female.” 4 November 1933., Warner Brothers Archives. Clippings File, Female.

[17] Cohen, John S. Jr. “The New Talkie: Female With Ruth Chatterton, a Tale of a ‘Captain of Industry.’” 3 November 1933. Warner Brothers Archives. .Clippings File, Female.

[18] Pickle, Betsy. “Complicated Women Looks at Early Brazen Film Roles.” Scripps Howard News Service 1 May 2003.

2 Comments

  1. [...] at Sinamatic Salve-Ation returns in top form with  “The Rich Dividends of Sin: Women and Hollywood in the ‘30s. Folks, this post is essential reading. An extremely well written essay on sex, censorship and how [...]

  2. Excellent analysis of a multi-faceted subject that has only recently received the wider study it deserves. I haven’t given it much thought up to now, but I do wonder whether the economic collapse or the arrival of movies with sound, with the impact of spoken word and images combined, was some kind of tipping point. I say this because I don’t think the films of, say, 1933, were any raunchier than those of 1926, at least not visually, but sound gave a little extra “kick” to the dialogue (Mae West occurs to me — without her vocal inflections, would she be anywhere near as provocative as she was in her early sound films?) Anyway, thanks for the very interesting article.


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