HIST 4077: American Popular Culture
31 March, 2005
Hollywood, the Production Code, and Women
The years between the rise in popularity of sound films, in the late 1920’s, to the enforcement of the production code, in 1934, marked an era of uninhibited expression in filmmaking. This same period in time calls to mind relaxed moral standards and a modernization of sexual ideas. These ideas about sexual behavior, unheard of only a generation earlier, became a popular way for women to have more freedom and power. In Complicated Women, Mick LaSalle sets out to prove how the constraints levied on films from 1934 until 1968 effected women's freedom to have power and be sexual beings. More specifically, Mick LaSalle shows the production code took away women's sexuality and power. Not only is LaSalle’s argument compelling but also after convincing the reader, he invites the reader to answer a new question: How might have film evolved without the code at all?
To illustrate the validity LaSalle's argument about the restrictions that the Code put on women, let us compare two films. One pre-Code film, The Divorcee starring Norma Shearer, and the other film, His Girl Friday starring Rosalind Russell, released shortly after the enforcement of the Code. Notably, almost any such comparison of women in films of this time would make fine examples for this argument. I have chosen these two films for their similarities in personal relationships of the main characters. In both, the leading woman is the ex-wife of the leading man for the greater part of the story.
One main point of LaSalle's argument is the judgment of strong women. LaSalle contends that up to present day movies, audiences maintain a strong judgment of women's actions. Referring to Julia Roberts in Something to Talk About, LaSalle states "The movie had her resist [sleeping with another man] in order to keep her from seeming frivolous and maintaining the audience's sympathy (71)." In comparison, Shearer in The Divorcee, in a similar situation, has no trouble giving in to temptation and maintaining audiences' sympathy and respect. Now look at Russell in His Girl Friday. Only on the surface does Russell appear strong. The difference is power. Shearer, Ted’s ex-wife Jerry, has total control over her own destiny; she can do anything and sleep with anyone. Russell, as Hildy, in contrast has only two choices; she can marry and become a homemaker or remarry her boss.
Without digging very deep, it becomes clear which woman has the power. Beyond power of choices, Shearer has power of sex. The code enforced two regulations on His Girl Friday that fundamentally contrast The Divorcee. The Code states that films must uphold the institution of marriage and punish premarital sex. With this in mind, Hildy becomes a virtuous ex-wife who stayed faithful to her ex through the entire film. If Hildy had already remarried, this movie would not pass inspection, as this would sully the institution of marriage sending the audience an immoral message. Furthermore, Jerry did not need to remain faithful. She even had an extramarital affair, stayed virtuous, and went unpunished. Before 1934, the definition of virtue did not require faithfulness in celibacy but faithfulness in love to maintain the audience’s sympathy (52).
LaSalle demonstrates that virginity was not a requirement for virtue in per-Code films. He sites Faithless, a story of a woman who becomes a prostitute to support her injured husband. As covered in class, during the pre-Code era, almost every popular actress played a prostitute and LaSalle shows that many women in these rolls often maintained a pre-Code sense of virtue (92). The Code effectively painted over all the shades of gray with black. According to the Code, if a woman did not behave as a saintly wife, she must face repercussions.
The popularity of sex in movies may have come about from a change in target audience, but the elements of sex in stories like The Divorcee are true to life. As discussed in class, Hollywood responded to the hard times of the depression by trying to give people something not available in other forms of entertainment, namely violence and sex. In reality, people engage in premarital sex and extramarital affairs, something wholly condemned by the Code. So, in looking at His Girl Friday in respect to The Divorcee and to real life, one wonders why Hildy acts platonic to both her future husband and her ex-husband. This lack of sexual prowess is unrealistic for a woman with two suitors.
Another noticeable difference after the code is the "take back the scoundrel" ending to movies. LaSalle compares the endings of the pre-Code When Ladies Meet and the remake. In the first, the wife abandons her cheating spouse. In the remake and other like films, the cheating men got off with a token punishment (170). The Divorcee and His Girl Friday comparison reflects the same idea. In The Divorcee, Ted takes back Jerry, while in His Girl Friday, Hildy takes back her man (though he did not cheat on her, she does find him despicable at the start of the film). Moreover, this "take back the scoundrel" approach exemplifies how the Code punished men only slightly for the same infidelity it crucified women (191).
In several parts of the book, LaSalle points out that part of diminishing women's power came from maintaining men's control. This shift in power expresses itself in His Girl Friday. Hildy spends all her energy completing tasks given to her by her fiancée and ex-husband. LaSalle illustrates this point with Two-Faced Woman, which MGM added a new scene to appease the Legion of Decency.
A movie that playfully celebrated a woman's powers of seduction was transformed into a movie about a silly gal and her indulgent husband. The added scene in Two-Faced Woman did little to mitigate the film's immorality. It merely shifted the power position to where the guardians of so-called morality could feel more comfortable. It turned a joke on the husband into a joke on the wife. (221)Undoubtedly, Shearer and other pre-Code actresses maintained their power at the cost of men's power. At least pre-Code films' balance of power realistically reflected real life at the time. Again questioning His Girl Friday, why would a real life Hildy remarry her ex after all he put her though.
Movies like His Girl Friday crossed modern scenarios with old-fashioned sentiments. Hildy was a star reporter with dreams of a home life. A woman who desires to give up work more closely resembles a chauvinist’s fantasy than any real working woman of the time. LaSalle mentions the results of a 1936 poll. The results show that a majority of women felt wives should not work. However, women who worked were greatly in the minority in 1936 explaining the views this poll produced. Thus, there is a visible integrity in Shearer’s character not found in films produced after the code. As shown earlier, the enforcement of the code restricted women and put them back into the places they were in around 1890 – places without power.
At this time, I would also like briefly to bring up abortion in pre-Code films. Neither The Divorcee nor His Girl Friday allude to abortion but I find it an important part in the changes that occurred due to the Code. LaSalle takes Men in White as case in point. In this film, Elizabeth Allan, playing the character that gets the abortion, plays out the film without the portrayal as the criminal (165). Moral objections aside, during the Code era, women in films could not exercise any such freedom without punishment. Abortion symbolizes a power women have that is completely their own. No matter if abortion is criminal or not, the Code both deleted this reality and this power of women’s free choice.
LaSalle makes it clear how the code changed films while enforced and then goes further to examine the lasting effects the Code has had. Since the per-Code era, the dynamic of the film industry evolved from powerful stars to powerful producers and directors. LaSalle makes the point that today film actresses do not have the power they once did. Today filmmakers not stars decide the movies made. LaSalle argues that before we will see film stories restored to the pre-Code "golden age", women must regain a strong influence in the industry (251).
In closing, the Code did very much take away power from women. The Code worked not only to punish crime but also to limit the behavior of women. What the Code really enforced was a double standard. One where the man could cheat and the woman must try her best to hold the institution of marriage together. One where the man played strong characters and the women played the faithful servant. At the root of the actions of freedom taken away and the actions of submission forced on women in film lies the transformation from sexual humanistic women to robotic wives.
LaSalle, Mick. Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood. New York:
St. Martin's Press, 2000.