The Criterion Shelf: Pre-Code Divas

ThatShelf takes a look at the heroines who melted celluloid in a time before censorship.

Broads, dames, skirts. Words for women in the days of yore have a charm to them that dull the memory of how dismissive they are. These terms come to mind when watching Criterion’s Pre-Code Divas collection. They’re at least implied if not uttered in a number of them, and seeing these characterizations played in such richly decorous, highly imaginative modes makes me wonder if women have always been an imaginative concept in movies. Good girls and bad girls, tough broads and wilting violets, inspirational moral guides or cautionary tales. While the propagandistic nature of cinematic storytelling serves, usually, to reassure men (of their bravery, patriotism, or morality), women are meant to be instructed, usually in the form of admonishments (the good girl gets married) or warnings (the girl who loses her virginity before marriage ends up degraded, dead, or both).

There’s a popular concept that pre-Code movies are vastly different from later films, particularly the way women are portrayed after the Production Code, which was created in 1930, was enforced beginning in 1934. Pressure by religious groups and the studios’ fears that the government would intrude on their business decreased the amount of times that women were shamelessly reduced to their negligees, but before or after what is considered the beginning of censorship (1934) there is always a sense of female-identified characters as types more than as human beings, and audiences could either enjoy identifying with or conflicting with them. What really changes after 1934 is how they meet their outcomes: in Pre-Code movies, sometimes bad girls live (and bad guys too), and there’s still instruction, but there’s a lot less guilt.  After, if they do wrong, they pay dearly for it.

Pre-Code movies are also notable for having a lot less ambiguity about sex. You never see any action before the screen fades to black, but there are quite a few cases in this collection where people are very obviously doing it. (Screwball comedies, which were a product of the Production Code, would get most of their clever screenplay machinations from their methods of reassuring audiences that characters weren’t having sex.) 1930’s The Divorcee is a similar remarriage plot as would become popular in screwball comedies, but there’s no doubt that the estranged couple enjoy other partners before restoring their union and upholding (and in some sly ways making a mockery of) the sanctity of marriage. Barbara Stanwyck in Baby Face makes no bones about using her body to get what she wants and then, at the end, she finds love anyway (and it’s the guy who takes the bullet, not her!)

The two most direct examples of pre-Code female stardom were the two who never fully recaptured their early heyday on film. Mae West, who believed that “an orgasm a day keeps the doctor away” and wasn’t afraid to say it, gave up the movies when she got tired of dealing with non-stop censorship. Marlene Dietrich was fearless not only about her bisexuality but radiated an aggressive, unapologetic sensuality on screen and, while she enjoyed a lengthy career in various media for the rest of her life, struggled to maintain the A-list status in feature films that she enjoyed in her first decade at Paramount.

It’s possible that silent films are responsible for humans being reduced to iconography in cinema. Without words and with the desire to only use title cards as judiciously as possible, visual cues became important for spreading as much information quickly in very few images, which resulted in blonde girls being good, dark-haired girls being sinister, rain falling when couples were unhappy and sun shining when love was in bloom. One wonders if the cinema would cater quite as adamantly to character tropes if there was sound on the screen from day one, but then one wonders if it would make any difference. Given the struggle for women to achieve equality socially, economically and politically, is it any wonder that they often remain figures of imagination in storytelling (and in some ways continue to do so: while many celebrated Promising Young Woman for its taking on a thorny subject matter, it’s also about a character who does something as extreme as killing herself to prove the film’s themes and, in doing so, suggests that she is as much a symbol in her director’s imagination as Dietrich was in von Sternberg’s films).

Criterion previously explored the pre-Code world in its collection of Paramount classics, a few of which resurface here, but there are a few other gems as well. Reviews are by Bil Antoniou except where noted, with thanks to Dakota Arsenault and Matthew Simpson for their generous contributions.

All films are recommended.


The Divorcee (Robert Z. Leonard, 1930)

After Norma Shearer and Chester Morris fall madly in love and marry, they quarrel when he has a drunken night with a woman of loose morals and she gets back at him by enjoying champagne and dancing with their friend Robert Montgomery. They make their split official in court but he gets drunk at parties and she wears overly designed gowns in Europe so they clearly need to get back together at some point. The film that epitomizes Shearer’s image as the cinema’s most popular Modern Woman, this one bears the distinction in this collection of being the only one to earn its star an Academy Award (or even a nomination) for her performance. The award was apt, for while other starlets were still hemmed in by the technical limitations of microphones hidden in bouquets and centrepieces, Shearer gives the camera a full range of emotional, boisterous activity. It’s also a film that epitomizes the hypocrisy of pre-Code movies, baiting its audience with the promise of immorality while actually being deeply conservative and judgmental, its characters finding sex but no joy post-marriage and, quite frankly, no divorcees by the final reel.


The Cheat (George Abbott, 1931)

Tallulah Bankhead plays a high society dame who gets herself into trouble at the roulette table, then doubles her five thousand dollar debt by making a side-bet with the casino owner. She steals from a fundraiser that she is working on and tries to double her money on the stock market but loses that too, forcing her to accept the help of sneaky Irving Pichel and agree to his bargain: she gets the cash and he gets to spend time with her. The Pichel character’s connection with a vague concept of Asian culture (taking advantage of viewers’ simultaneous fascination and fear of the Mystical East) would remain a stereotype throughout the golden age of the medium and can also be seen in this collection in Daughter of the Dragon. Bankhead is hilariously campy in her melodramatic scenes, but watch the casual ease with which she performs seemingly innocuous moments. It’s incredible how often she could be in a movie from a much later, more modern period.


Daughter of the Dragon (Lloyd Corrigan, 1931)

Anna May Wong represents one of the most interesting cases of ambivalent progress in classic Hollywood cinema: on the one hand, she was a rare case of a non-white star but she also rarely got to play beyond narrow, reductive stereotypes. Her main attempt to expand her career by appearing in the big-screen adaptation of Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth was thwarted thanks to the studio’s fears of having her play against a white male co-star, so Luise Rainer was put in yellowface instead and won an Oscar for her efforts.  Daughter of the Dragon delivers the best and worst of Wong’s situation, as she commands the camera with her stylish, iconic image and plays an anti-heroine who never gives into the requirements of movies that women sacrifice everything for the love of a man or a child, but her role also plays into sinister, Oriental temptress motifs. Of course, all B-grade horror films of the era play to one reductive concept or another, and it’s worth pointing out that in this film there are two Asian actors in the leads during a time when these characters were more often played by white actors with their eyes taped back. Wong plays a showgirl who learns that her actual father is the nefarious London criminal mastermind Dr. Fu Manchu (Warner Oland), who is soon murdered by longtime enemies and inspires her to take his place as the doer of evil deeds. The problem is that she falls in love with the man she is meant to kill, and the fact that he prefers the company of a white girl is the only indication that she might stick to the original, darker plan. Corrigan’s direction elicits a great deal of beauty from the dark, shadowy images and for something so silly and slight it’s actually a great deal of fun.


Dishonored  (Josef von Sternberg, 1931)

Dakota Arsenault: There are very few partnerships as famous and infamous as Josef von Sternberg and actor Marlene Dietrich. Even though von Sternberg was an Austrian Jew who was raised in America and Dietrich was a theater and film actor in Germany, the two eventually found themselves working in the Hollywood system where they collaborated on seven films in five years. Dishonoured came out in 1931, smack in the middle of their two most famous works, 1930’s Morocco and 1932’s Shanghai Express. Dietrich plays Marie Kolverer, a poor prostitute who passes a test from the head of the Austrian secret police, who offers her a job as a spy only to be known as X-27. She is to use her street smarts, her skill at manipulation and of course her sexuality to root out enemies of the state. After successfully entrapping a Colonel who was leaking military secrets to a Russian military officer posing as an Austrian pilot, she sets her sights on the double agent and gets sent to Russia to learn their plans of attack. X-27 is accused by the Russian Colonel Kranau, played by Victor McLaglen, that she “trick’s men to their death with [her] body” and when asked to spend the night with her he responds by saying “If I stayed here another minute, I’d be in danger of not only losing my life, but falling in love with you, you devil”. In typical Dietrich fashion she spends the film looking fabulous in her lace and fur street walker outfit, along with her over the top sequined masquerade outfit, in between bouts of getting secrets out of gullible men. Even when faced with a firing squad she still has the wherewithal to fix her lipstick and strike a pose. If that doesn’t scream ‘diva’, nothing does.


Night Nurse (William A. Wellman, 1931)

Matthew Simpson: The story of a young woman, Lora (Barbara Stanwyck), who, after completing her training as a nurse, is assigned to the care of two sickly children of an alcoholic socialite. Things seem off almost immediately, and it becomes apparent just as quickly that the family’s chauffeur, Nick (a pre-Gone with the Wind Clark Gable), is behind all the trouble. While perhaps shocking by 1931’s standards –and cited as one of the films that would inspire the creation of the Production Code– there is much here to see that wouldn’t be fair game to dramatize in contemporary cinema (except, likely for many, one scene where Gable knocks Stanwyck out over a disagreement and faces exactly zero consequences). Still, the performances are stagy, campy, and fun in a way that only classics like this are, and it is a novelty to see the likes of Gable, Stanwyck, and Joan Blondell leaning into these different character types than the ones they would end up most famous for.


Safe in Hell (William A. Wellman, 1931)

Matthew Simpson: With its dark storyline concerning a woman who recently turned to prostitution on the run from a murder charge, hiding out on a Caribbean island with only a friendly hotel owner and several lecherous men to keep her company, it’s easy to see why Safe in Hell was marketed as risqué in 1931. Indeed, the story goes to some dark and unpleasant places as Gilda (Dorothy MacKaill) spends her days warding off advances from various terrible men. MacKaill is magnetic in the role, though. It’s likely best known for its bleak-as-hell ending, which I won’t spoil here, there are some excellent scenes worth seeking the film out for, in particular one in which she does go to dinner with the men around her and enjoys one night of being the centre of attention after months of hiding. Its morals are more than a little dated, with the overarching plot being that of a woman pledged to stay faithful to a man while being manipulated and abused by several others, but Safe in Hell is a film that will likely spark lengthy conversations after viewing.


Back Street (John M. Stahl, 1932)

Universal eventually filmed an adaptation of Fannie Hurst’s novel three times and, to no one’s surprise, neither remake could quite capture the perfect blend of naïve romance and sexy transgression of this original. Irene Dunne and John Boles play turn of the century lovers who meet in Cincinnati on the eve of his marrying a woman his family approves of. They reunite five years later and begin an affair that lasts the rest of their lives despite the fact that it means relegating her to a life of shame and secrecy in the apartment he has set up for her to visit him in. The 1941 version with Margaret Sullavan and Charles Boyer would emphasize tragedy appropriate to the war years. The 1961 adaptation with Susan Hayward and John Gavin was highly altered and leaned heavily on post-war prosperity guilt, but here we have an emphasis on real people with real emotions in a socially conscious, restrictive and hypocritical world.  Plus, there’s that shocking scene where she asks him to “give her a child,” which is not something a censor would even allow mentioned in the years to come.


No Man of Her Own (Wesley Ruggles, 1932)

Clark Gable and Carole Lombard only made one movie together which, ironically, they shot well before they ever developed a relationship off screen. On screen, their chemistry is afire in this silly romantic comedy about a low-level card sharp (Gable) who skips town when his brassy girlfriend (Dorothy Mackaill) threatens to turn him in. Hiding out in a small town, he meets a gorgeous librarian (Lombard) who is looking for any excuse to see the wider world and, after a whirlwind romance, they marry. He continues his crooked card games and, upon discovering how he makes his money, she does her best to straighten him out. Based on a novel by future exploitation film producer Val Lewton, provocatively entitled No Bed of Her Own, this one’s script was co-written by Chicago author Maureen Dallas Watkins, who once again designs a female characters whose moral goodness is a performance that helps her get through society’s narrow window for female success, but whose upstanding intelligence is always undone by how hot she gets for a rowdy bad boy. Pre-code movies were open in their indulgence of sexual compatibility onscreen, and while this film exists as barely more than an excuse to watch two gorgeous stars interact, it proves that little more than this excuse is needed.


Scarface (Howard Hawks, 1932)

Dakota Arsenault: The years of 1931 and 1932 were the single most compelling period for the gangster genre. In ‘31, you had the releases of Little Caesar and The Public Enemy and the following year was Howard Hawks’ Scarface (The Shame of a Nation). While it was technically released in the Pre-Code era, the Hays Office (precursor to the Hays Code) was in full effect and no single film may have done more to speed up the mandatory rules studios needed to follow. Not-so-loosely based on Al Capone, the film takes his nickname, his rise to power by killing his boss, and the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, among other elements, as inspiration for writer Ben Hecht, possibly one of the greatest screenwriters from Hollywood’s Golden Era. Famed tycoon Howard Hughes financed the film through his independent company and wanted the most violent, gory, action filled movie possible and Hawks certainly delivered. We see shootout after shootout (where they used military marksmen to actually fire real guns ” safely” at the actors) showing gangsters being mowed down by the maniacal Tony Camonte, played by Paul Muni, the Broadway star. The film was so brutal that the Hays Office and every other certification board had a fit and forced many edits and reshoots before even thinking of allowing the movie to be seen in public. Shockingly, the sub-plot of a possible incestuous relationship between Tony and his 18 year old sister Cesca (Anne Dvorak) stayed in. Watching the film, you can’t help but see its DNA over future gangster films like Bonnie and Clyde, The Godfather, Goodfellas, Brian De Palma’s Scarface, and more. It lacks the diva aspect of Pre-Code divas, however, as both Dvorak and Karen Morley (playing Tony’s girlfriend Poppy) turn in great performances but are relegated to such little screen time that the film’s inclusion in this pack is a bit odd.


This Is the Night (Frank Tuttle, 1932)

Sex is practically in the celluloid in this erotic comedy about two lovers (Roland Young, Thelma Todd) trying to get away for an adulterous vacation in Venice.  Cary Grant, in his film debut and you can’t tell, is the javelin-throwing husband who comes home early and finds Young in his Paris apartment, upsetting Todd who pretends that the train tickets she bought were a surprise vacation for her spouse. Young says that he’s also taking the same trip with his wife, which requires him to hire a woman (Lily Damita) to fill out the role, but Grant never falls for the story and Todd gets incredibly jealous of the hired beard, leading to all manner of silly complications once they reach the city of romantic gondola rides and murky canals. Visually dazzling, delightfully funny and, like many pre-Code sex comedies, it lacks the rigid and polished structure of later screwball classics. Its other shocking elements include a running joke of Todd’s clothes constantly being torn off and Damita performing a brief but tantalizing striptease.


Three on a Match (Mervyn LeRoy, 1932)

Three women who went to grade school together are reunited as adults and find that they have easily settled into their types: the brassy showgirl (Joan Blondell), the upright career woman (Bette Davis) and the classy society dame (Ann Dvorak).  Trouble soon follows as Dvorak, bored in her marriage to an upstanding lawyer, falls in love with a handsome bloke who turns out to be a mob hood, abandoning husband and child and living on skid row as what was then referred to as a hophead. Were it made in the 1980s, it could be a TV miniseries exploring all three women’s narratives, but at 65 minutes, it focuses mainly on the last character, reversing the stereotype of the self-sacrificing mother but holding to the idea of punishing women’s immorality in no uncertain terms (which it does in an incredibly shocking ending).


Baby Face (Alfred E. Green, 1933)

It is shocking how graphic things get in this film, in which Barbara Stanwyck survives being abused in her father’s dingy bar before taking her ambition on the road and climbing her way up the corporate ladder one man at a time. After her home and business burn down, she takes the advice of a Nietzsche-reading professor and exploits her wares to get her way. The film makes no bones about the many times she trades her body for what she wants, becoming the mistress of increasingly powerful men in her insurance firm, but it also admires her fighting spirit in dealing with it at the same time. Stanwyck was the opposite of Joan Crawford: rather than a diamond in the rough, she was a woman of her station who made it something noble without diminishing the characteristics that placed her in that milieu (namely her accent and her unapologetic gaze). A girl whose father tries to prostitute her to his buddies can hardly be expected to find other ways to get by and the film punishes her more for her hubris than her dirty deeds by the final reel, though not permanently so.


I’m No Angel (Wesley Ruggles, 1933)

Mae West plays a circus performer who needs money to get her boyfriend out of trouble, which her boss only agrees to if she performs as a lion tamer who, through clever visual effects, puts her head into the lion’s mouth. In doing so, she becomes a major sensation who attracts the attention of wealthy playboy Cary Grant. After they fall in love, her past comes back to haunt her and threatens their relationship. It features many of her most famous lines, including ” peel me a grape,” and is one of the strongest testaments to her screen persona, viciously witty, dangerously sexy, and yet somehow generously warm.  The star is having a marvellous time flouting propriety and you can’t help but get deep pleasure out of watching her do it. It’s among the last of West’s truly transgressive films before the censors began invading her scripts with their pesky demands.


She Done Him Wrong (Lowell Sherman, 1933)

Based on her own play Diamond Lil, Mae West writes and stars as the saloon gal with the heart of gold who has to thwart an ex-con ex-boyfriend, save a girl from sex slavery, and elude being implicated in a diamond-forgery scheme, all while trying to romance Salvation Army goody-two-shoes Cary Grant and fend off every other gent in New York City. It’s only 65 minutes, but it’s jam-packed with witty quips, musical numbers (including West’s classic “A Guy What Takes His Time”) and a fun and twisty plot. As always, West astounds.