Anne Morse on Women & Morals in Pre-Code Films
Here was sex without victimhood, sophistication without chastity. Here was a bold, modern woman with no apologies,” wrote the film critic Mick LaSalle of Norma Shearer’s role in the 1930 film, The Divorcée. “They’re well dressed, well paid, and sexually gratified . . . they sleep with whomever they want, max out their credit cards and never have to worry about play-dates or carpools,” wrote Newsweek of the women of the television series Sex and the City.
Seventy years, a motion-picture code, and a million miles of celluloid separate the films of Norma Shearer and the episodes of Sex and the City. Yet critics praise their actresses for the same dubious quality: a willingness to portray promiscuous female passion.
Norma Shearer both led and personified a brief, “anything goes” Hollywood era, the five years leading up to the enforcement of the Hollywood Production Code in mid-1934. Critics celebrate the “pre-Code” era, as it came to be known, as a kind of golden era of movie-making because it allowed women to “explore their sexuality” on film.
“Between 1929 and 1934, women in American cinema were modern!” exulted LaSalle in Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood. “They took lovers, had babies out of wedlock, got rid of cheating husbands, enjoyed their sexuality . . . and, in general, acted the way many think women only acted after 1968” (the year the Code hit the cutting room floor).
Added Jane Fonda, narrator of a recent Turner Classic Movies documentary called Complicated Women, “For five sexy and fun-filled years beginning in 1929, movies were glamorous, sophisticated, and startlingly frank. Women . . . brought to the screen a fresh, sometimes raunchy, and always exciting freedom” that became “an affirmation of a new morality. They set the tone for the twentieth century—and it seemed like nothing could stop them.”
Most important of all, these cinematic creatures were allowed to violate on-screen social mores with impunity; they suffered no consequences imposed by society’s prudes and kill-joys. (This appears to be a big part of why modern critics like these films: They gloried in telling clergymen, city fathers, and concerned mothers to take their stifling morality and . . . well, you know.)
But watch a few of these pre-Code films, as I recently did, and you’ll discover something interesting. While pre-Code heroines do indeed escape societal punishment for “exploring their sexuality” (which evidently they cannot do within marriage), they often do suffer from what philosopher J. Budziszewski calls “the revenge of conscience.”
For instance, in Baby Face (1933), Barbara Stanwyck sleeps her way to the top, ultimately marrying the company president for his money. Pre-Code fans delight in the fact that Stanwyck “empowers” herself through sex. But Stanwyck herself recognizes that she has, in the process, bartered away a big chunk of her own soul. When her husband, facing bankruptcy and ruin, implores her to return half a million dollars in jewels and cash, she defiantly refuses. She has, Stanwyck explains, paid too high a price for them.
Anti-Code critics celebrate the fact that in a 1932 Tallulah Bankhead vehicle called Faithless, a husband discovers that his wife has engaged in prostitution—and decides to keep her anyway. But these cheerleaders overlook the most important element: context. This film is no Pretty Woman; prostitution, for Bankhead’s character, is not merely another career choice, but a revolting alternative to which she is driven by desperation.
Bankhead plays a flighty flapper whose profligate spending drives her into bankruptcy. Fearing poverty, she rejects her fiancé (Robert Montgomery), who has just lost his job, in favor of becoming the mistress of a wealthy older man. But when Montgomery tracks her down to the apartment owned by her lover, her shame is palpable. As her wealthy lover begs her to stay, Bankhead removes her glittering evening gown, puts on her own shabby dress, and departs. As she marches out the door, her lover angrily tells her: “Don’t kid yourself. You can’t square this with that boy.” “You’re right. I know I can’t,” she replies. “But if I try hard enough, maybe I can square it with myself.”
Bankhead’s resolution is tested when she is unable to find a job. Her landlady, knowing she hasn’t eaten for two days, suggests prostitution. No thanks, Bankhead replies. Better to starve the body than sell the soul. That evening, Bankhead again bumps into her former fiancé. By now she’s learned that love is of far greater value than money, and the two marry. Determined to support his wife, Montgomery crosses a picket line to take a job as a truck driver. Union members promptly run him down, badly injuring him. He needs a doctor and medicine, luxuries the couple cannot afford.
Watching her husband slip away, Bankhead becomes desperate—and ultimately does for him what she would not do for herself. After another fruitless job hunt, Bankhead sells her body in order to buy medicine. The degradation she feels after her first night on the streets is written unmistakably across her face. (In a rare sympathetic depiction of Christianity, an Irish Catholic policeman who arrests Bankhead for prostitution listens sympathetically to her story. Instead of taking her to jail, he finds her a job.)
Faithless is a modern and moving take on The Gift of the Magi: Both husband and wife sacrifice what is most precious to them out of love for the other. In the end, Montgomery discovers what his wife has done. He’s horrified, of course. But he forgives her because he understands why she did it.
Perhaps the quintessential pre-Code film is The Divorcée, a 1930 Academy Award-winner starring Norma Shearer and Chester Morris. The film features a thoroughly modern young couple who reject traditional morality in favor of making up their own rules. Shearer wears bobbed hair and fashionable slacks, and holds down a job as a writer. Significantly, she also wears a man’s name—Jerry—which hints at the film’s main theme: that women have the same sexual desires (and temptations) as do men.
This theme is given flesh early in the film when the pair passionately kiss in the moonlight. “Whew! My head’s going around like a pinwheel!”, Jerry declares. “My heart’s beating like a steam engine! Feel!”, Ted responds. In a few years, when he has made enough money, Ted adds, the two can marry. Jerry replies:
The couple marry and enjoy three blissful years of wedlock. And then, on their third anniversary, Jerry discovers that Bill succumbed to a single act of infidelity. She is shocked and sickened by the news, but her shock swiftly turns to rage when Ted tries to justify his behavior. “I’m sorry, darling, of course,” Ted says. He should have stopped there, but he foolishly adds:
Jerry does pull herself together—and takes her revenge in the form of a one-night stand with Ted’s best friend. Meanwhile, it’s clear that despite his brave words, Ted—now out of town on business—is nervous over the way Jerry is taking his confession. Nevertheless, he still can’t bring himself to admit he did anything wrong. He sends Jerry a telegram reading: “Have not slept a wink thinking of you. Please try to understand.”
When Ted returns home, Jerry tells him: “I’ve balanced our accounts.” She looks at him meaningfully. Her declaration is a body blow to her husband. He demands to know the man’s name.
So much for trying to make up fresh new rules for living. The “old” rules have just come back to bite these two on their derrières. When Jerry realizes that Ted will not forgive her, the couple divorce. Jerry embarks on a life of sexual adventure, taking up one lover after another.
Predictably, modern critics rejoice in this self-destructive behavior, calling it “a sincere journey of self-discovery,” as LaSalle put it. Jerry “was the new woman, finding a way toward her own truth in a new world of skyscrapers, honking horns, and jazz.”
But in the end, Jerry is stuck with the old truth: God has invested sex with great power and meaning; we violate his plan for it at our peril. It’s not true that infidelity “doesn’t mean a thing”—for either husband or wife. In the end, reality hunts Jerry down. In order to find happiness, she is ultimately forced to “subdue [her] soul to reality,” as C. S. Lewis put it in The Abolition of Man.
Jerry begins this journey back to truth when she runs into an old flame who has heard gossip about her numerous affairs. “You’ve been trying to forget quite a lot, haven’t you, Jerry,” he gently asks. Jerry begins to cry. “Oh, I’ve made such a mess, Paul! I’m so tired. I’m so fed up. I’ve made such a wreck of things—such a good-for-nothing mess!”
Nothing could be more obvious than that her life as a sexual plaything has caused enormous harm. As Jerry explains to Paul: “I see my way, I see it so clearly now, Paul. I’ve never given my word and broken it before except once—and that was the promise I made on the altar, with all my heart and soul.”
Jerry travels to Paris, determined to find her ex and attempt a reconciliation. We find Ted engaging in his own self-destructive behavior, doing his best, as one friend puts it, “to wreck a fairly good mind and an A-1 body.” When Jerry finally locates Ted, the two agree to forgive one another and give their marriage another try.
Seventy years after The Divorcée was made, film critics rightly view this picture as Code-breaking in its sympathetic portrayal of a woman who engages in sex out of wedlock—not once, but many times. No, society doesn’t punish her. But the critics appear to have left the theater before the final reel of this film spun out: The promiscuous lifestyle they celebrate—the one they would have modern women emulate—deeply damages the woman who embraces it. In the end, she renounces sexual immorality, as do the women of many other pre-Code films.
And this is why many pre-Code films have an integrity modern films lack (and why it is so amusing to see secular film critics—who loathe Christianity—enthusiastically recommending pre-Code films that embrace a deeply Christian worldview). How many times have we seen modern films and sitcoms in which women conduct one casual affair after another with no physical, emotional, or spiritual consequences?
And yet we know this is seldom true in real life. Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation recently compared sexually active teenagers with their peers and found that sexually involved teens “are significantly less likely” to be happy and more likely to feel depressed and to attempt suicide. Two thirds of those studied say they regret becoming sexually active. As well, we read of women who have to drink themselves numb in singles bars in order to steel themselves for sexual intimacy with a near-stranger.
Not all pre-Code films are as honest as The Divorcée, of course. Shearer herself appeared in one of the more dishonest films of the era: Strangers May Kiss. Abandoned by her lover, Shearer’s character spends the next two years sleeping her way through Europe. “I’m in an orgy, wallowing—and I love it!” she exclaims.
Nonsense, answer the modern women of Sex and the City, who have been there, done that, and rather wish they hadn’t. Given what women now know about promiscuous sex—the disease, the heartbreak, the soul-suffering—I predict that in the not-too-distant future, modern versions of Strangers May Kiss will not be made; women would find the plots laughable.
The pre-Code actresses wanted to remake the world in what they believed would be a freer, sexier, happier image. (“None of the old taboos . . . mean a damn to us. We don’t care,” actress Dorothy MacKaill scornfully announced in 1930.) But ironically, many of the pre-Code stars themselves suffered from the “revenge of conscience” when they attempted to live a taboo-free life off-screen. Pre-Code stars such as Joan Crawford, Betty Davis, Myrna Loy, and Marlene Dietrich suffered multiple marital crack-ups and much personal unhappiness. Clearly, their “new morality” was not ready for its real-life close-up.
Perhaps the stars of the pre-Code era should have taken a long, thoughtful look at their own best work—films that were made when filmmakers were still under the influence of Judeo-Christian truth. They might then have realized the impossibility of attempting to “subdue reality to the wishes of men,” as Lewis put it.
Or to the desires of beautiful, glamorous, pre-Code women.
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“Complicated Consciences” first appeared in the March 2004 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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