Genre Index


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.

Men 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...

Torch 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 children’s 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, I’m hard,” Colbert says in this movie, “hard like glass. You can cut me with a diamond, so why don’t 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. She’s so good even unto the end of the film that you’re inclined to forgive the film for being so touchy feely during its last fifteen minutes. Damn, she’s 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...

The vindication of the rights and abilities of women is center stage in Female (1933, directed in turns by William Dieterle, William Wellman, and Michael Curtiz). In this one, we find auto-executive Ruth Chatterton walking with a swagger that would be the envy of most men. A hard as nails CEO, she has little time for “feminine” niceties. When she sees a man she wants, she takes him. All well and good, but like Torch Singer, this one goes all weak in the knees in the end, too, as our heroine meets a man who makes her want to be more “feminine.” Even so, her profligate career up to this point was completely unacceptable to the Breen office, and rather than castrate the film, it was simply banned.

Baby Face (1933, directed by Alfred E. Green) goes soft at the end, too, but not for want of trying. Recut twice BEFORE the code was enforced, the first two thirds of this film are STILL lacerating. For those of you who thought Barbara Stanwyck was the ultimate femme fatale in Double Indemnity, Phyllis Dietrichson ain’t got nuthin’ on Lily Powers Trenholm. After her father/pimp dies, she gets a job with a bank and sleeps her way to the top. The visual metaphor for this, as the camera works its way up the floors of the bank building, is brilliant and brutal. The hints of unsavory behavior in this film can’t have sat well with the nation’s censors--I’m hard pressed to think of a more lurid relationship in the films AFTER the code was demolished than the one between Lily and her father: He’s pimping her out and there is a hint of incest. Stanwyck is a sexual predator of the first order in this film, a woman who has been marked by her sordid past. No amount of wishy washy disembling at the end of the movie can erase that indelible image. This one is just plain nasty. Recommended.

The spectre of back-alley abortion rears its ugly head in Men in White (1934, directed by Richard Boleslawski), as young doctor Clark Gable has a dalliance with a nurse one overworked, stressful night. This dalliance threatens his impending marriage to bratty socialite Myrna Loy, and the nurse, played by Elizabeth Allan, realizing that Gable will never marry her, performs an abortion on herself (this is never mentioned explicitly, by the way). Placing Gable into a blinding set of medical scrubs underlines the resemblance George Clooney bears to Gable. I have to admit that I’ve never been an admirer of Clark Gable, but he’s perfect here. His combination of macho posturing and self-assurance is perfect for playing a doctor on the edge. Myrna Loy is largely wasted here (as she often was during her early career). Jean Hersholt plays Gable’s inevitable mentor, dispensing dimestore medical ethics like it was candy. The most striking thing about the movie, apart from the way the white uniforms seem to glow, is the byplay between men and women. The women are as worldly as the men in this film, and just as jaded. I should also mention that the sets in this film are superb. A better art-deco hospital I have never seen, and they lend the film a certain gravity. Of course, this is another film that was suppressed by the Breen office. Alas...