Pop-Culture | Posted by Jackie S on 09/16/2010

Women in Pre-Code Film

the divorcee: a great example of an empowered woman in pre-code film

the divorcee: a great example of an empowered woman in pre-code film

Pre-production code films were made from 1929-1934. They were interesting, because they explored subjects that would be relevant in today’s society. They had themes of violence, drug abuse, and sexuality. The thing that was so “naughty” about these films was that most of the sexual encounters were controlled by women. The actresses in these movies gave strong performances as intelligent, independent, and, yes, sexual people. The roles were such departures from the housewife/stereotypical characters women usually played in classic cinema.

There were some great actresses in pre-code films. There was Norma Shearer, Greta Garbo, and Barbara Stanwyck. Actresses got to personify the promiscuity of the typical “male stereotype,” and turn it into many complex characters that were also successful and strong-willed. To me, it was so refreshing to find women get to be as comfortable in their sexuality as a man in the world. Even so, the women were so much more than that. It was inspiring to observe these powerful and strong characters, who just happened to be women.

Take the movie The Divorcee (1930) for example. Jerry marries Ted, and everything’s just great. Then, Jerry finds out that Ted has been having an affair. He tells her it “didn’t mean anything” and to forgive him. They continue their marriage and try to work things out. Well, when Ted goes out of town, Jerry cheats on him. Ted gets home, and when he finds out, he wants a divorce immediately. **Double Standard Alert** Norma Shearer is astounding as Jerry. She delivers some serious “you-go-girl” monologues.

What puzzles me is the ending to most of these movies. After a time of self-reliance, The Divorcee ends with Jerry reconciling with her husband.

But she was happy! What happened?

Greta Garbo

Greta Garbo

Most pre-code films threw in a respectable ending, to make up for the not-so-respectable plots. I believe most of these movies were about the characters, not the storylines. Sure, the stories were good enough, but what made them special were the remarkable female lead players.

Why did these roles stop popping up?

The Motion Picture Association of America began to enforce the production code in 1934. Scripts had to be approved by a special board, and America didn’t see another steamy film for years. Women were once again portrayed as obedient little things in most movies.

I’m really just a fan of classic movies, which included these smart and sexy women, as well as the all-obedient housewives. It’s a shame we don’t see more movies in vain of pre-code cinema today. I love a good love story, but shouldn’t we all have the option to see something else?

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  • Toongrrl @ at 5:45 pm, September 16th, 2010

    There’s a great TCM on Pre Code women called, “Complicated Women”, and a book of the same name by Mick LaSalle. You might’ve found the ending of “The Divorcee” sucky, but consider what happened for women after the code….

  • The Raisin Girl @ at 1:04 am, September 17th, 2010

    Well, it’s not as if there aren’t other things out there. Sure, a lot of cookie-cutter romantic comedies get made, especially around Valentine’s Day, but there are other films in the world. What about Scream 4, slated to come out next year, starring possibly the only Final Girl to ever survive all the movies in a slasher franchise (correct me if I’m wrong).

    There’s also Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1, coming out later this fall. Sure, the plot is centered around Harry, but let’s not forget that nerdy, super-smart, sassy, and actually quite badass character called Hermione Granger.

    The 70s, 80s, and 90s and beyond have been full of movies that weren’t romances and female characters (in movies and TV both) that weren’t just obedient housewives…and weren’t the other end of the spectrum either, the slutty “femme fatale.” The female action/sci-fi hero is incredibly prominent (Elektra, UltraViolet, Aeon Flux, Resident Evil trilogy, Nikita, etc). I could go on, but I think you get the picture.

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