Torch Singer (1933, directed by Alexander Hall and George Somnes). Claudette Colbert, Ricardo Cortez, David Manners.
Female (1933, by William Dieterle, William Wellman, and Michael Curtiz). Ruth Chatterton, George Brent, Johnny Mack Brown, Lois Wilson.
Baby Face (1933, directed by Alfred E. Green). Barbara Stanwyck, George Brent, Donald Cook, John Wayne.
in White (1934, directed by Richard Boleslawski). Clark
Gable, Elizabeth Allan, Myrna Loy, Jean Hersholt.
Sometime last year, Turner Classic Movies had a festival devoted to women during the Pre-Code era. Some of the visitors to this site may not know about the Pre-Code era, so here's a short rundown: early talkies were nominally governed by a production code designed to protect the nation's morals, though up until 1934, it wasn't enforced. The resulting films made under this lax oversight had a laisez faire attitude towards sex and violence and many of the films produced during this period are more sophisticated and more free-wheeling than films made during the ensuing three decades (and afterwards, for that matter), once the nation's blue-noses succeeded in enforcing the code. The Pre-Code era is the era of Mae West and the sexual entendre, of violent crime films like Scarface, and of fleeting epiphanies like Jane's nude swim in Tarzan and His Mate. This era is of great importance to my own cinematic interests because the freedom of the Pre-Code era is one of the prime movers in the flowering of horror movies during the early thirties. Most of the great horror movies made during this period were vandalized by the Breen Office after the enforcement of the Production code, some irrevocably so. The enforcement of the code is as much to blame for the decline of horror movies in the late thirties and forties as any other factor.
The TCM festival focused on the changing roles of women, and suggested that the production code was an instrument of repression targeted overtly at women. Some of the films they showed to support their argument are these...
Singer (1933, directed by Alexander Hall and George Somnes)
features Claudette Colbert as a woman who gives up her illegitimate
daughter for adoption and then goes on to success as a notorious torch
singer. When she subsequently finds success as the host of a childrens
radio show, she uses it to find her lost daughter. This sounds pretty
sappy, and when you get to the end of the film, with its soggy soap-opera
finish, it actually IS pretty sappy, but during the first two thirds
of an economical hour and ten minute running time, this is as hard and
as sharp as they come. Yeah, Im hard, Colbert says
in this movie, hard like glass. You can cut me with a diamond,
so why dont you bring me a fistful. Colbert is the reason
to see the movie, along with its portrait of high living on the other
side of the tracks. Even as the film degenerates into a weepie at the
end, Colbert remains above it. Shes so good even unto the end
of the film that youre inclined to forgive the film for being
so touchy feely during its last fifteen minutes. Damn, shes good.
This is a tour de force, better here than in her Oscar winning turn
in It Happened One Night.
As a vindication of the rights and abilities of women, this is certainly
a notch above any post-Code films I can think of...