Ladies They Talk About: The Women of Pre-code Film

by Kennifer Kellow-Florini

We think of old Hollywood films as innocent, with happy endings – and that is more or less true in the years after 1934 when the Production Code was enforced. But the pre-code era films, made before the enforcement of the Hollywood Production Code, dealt, in very frank ways, with social issues, sex, drug abuse, and violence.
The “pre-code” era spans the time period when talkies became the standard in films – 1929 through July 1934 — when the draconian production code was finally fully enforced and became Hollywood law for roughly the next 30 years. What was the code and what was a pre-code? There are entire books written on the subject, but for the purposes of this article, I want to focus on the huge social changes that took place before the Production Code during the pre-code era that gave birth to what we would recognize as the modern twentieth-century woman.

In 1930, the nation was hit with a massive hangover from the hard partying 1920s jazz age in the form of the Great Depression. In 1929 the stock market crashed just as theater owners spent a fortune outfitting their theaters for sound that would accompany talking pictures. Eight years earlier, in 1922, scandals like the manslaughter trial of Fatty Arbuckle and the still unsolved murder of director William Desmond Taylor gave Hollywood the reputation as hotbed of sin and vice. Films at this time were considered commodities not art, therefore they were not protected under the first amendment of free speech. Afraid that the government would step in and censor movies, Hollywood offered to do it themselves by hiring Will Hays as head of the motion picture production code. But all of this was just to placate critics of the studios. With the Great Depression hurting box office profits, studios couldn’t afford to eliminate sex and violence from their films. Thus the pre-code years refer to the time when there was a code but it wasn’t enforced.
Post WWI was a generation that survived a world war and an epidemic that killed a third of the world’s population. A rebel generation, they rejected everything that the generation before them stood for. Women got the vote, broke free of corsets and never looked back. They lopped off their hair and wore it in short bobs, which meant freedom from hours spent grooming long hair. Though we think of 1960s as the sexual revolution, the advent of contraceptives gave way to the first sexual revolution post WWI. The pre-code era allows us to watch the modern woman come into being right before our eyes. As it was with World War II, women had gone off to work while the men were at war. They experienced the freedom of a life outside of domestic servitude, getting paid for a job, pursuing careers — women were finally at the helm of their own lives. This was the generation that roared, and defined modern life as we know it.

Even those who don’t like old movies find something to like and identify with in pre-code films. Their honesty makes them feel more modern than the films of the decades that followed. In the pre-code years women’s films were not a genre but stories that happened to be about women that both men and women enjoyed. This was one of the greatest periods in America.
Next: Kay Francis – Queen of Pleasure

Jennifer Fiorini holds a bachelor degree in advertising from The Fashion Institute of Technology where she minored in film studies, Italian film and language. Originally from Toledo, Ohio, she divides her time between New York City and Torino, Italy. She is part of Creative Oxygen’s New York team, writes for eCurrent Magazine, and contributed to Troy Howarth’s book, Murder By Design – The Unsane Films of Dario Argento.

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