Movies were not just cheap entertainment. Movies influenced women’s place in society and perceptions of themselves and others.
Movies of the 1930s can be divided into the before and after of the Production Code of 1934. Until the Production Code went into effect between 1933 and 1934, Censorship was lax with few strict regulations on sex, vice, violence and morals.
Looking back to movies produced before the Code, feminist movie critic, Molly Haskell observes, “Women were conceived of as having sexual desire without being freaks or villains . . . Women were entitled to initiate sexual encounters, to pursue men, even to embody certain ‘male’ characteristics without being stigmatized as ‘unfeminine’ or predatory.”
Marlene Dietrich in Morocco, Blonde Venus and She Done Him Wrong. Miriam Hopkins in Design for Living, Greta Garbo in Susan Lenox, Her Rise and Fall, and Queen Christina portray some of the pre-code, liberated heroines. Mae West played characters in She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel who openly exploited men for her own pleasure.
The Production Code of 1934 changed the landscape of movies. No more passionate embraces or Mae West steamy sexuality. No exposure of sex organs (the chimp in Tarzan wore a body stocking). No revealing clothing. Twin beds even for married couples. Crime punished. Traditional roles and marriage sacred.
After the Production Code, there were films of young working women making it on their own terns who seemed to gladly give in when the right man came along. Ginger Rogers starred in Gold Diggers. She also starred with Katharine Hepburn, Andrea Leeds and Lucille Ball in Stage Door where men make only token appearances.
And movies with comic relief were popular. Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night. Katharine Hepburn in Bringing up Baby and Holiday. Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth. In these and other comedies, women were somewhat wacky, but with brains of their own.
There were many strong women played by Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis and other talented actresses throughout the 1930s. The moral code clamped down and attempted to conceal what simmered under the surface, but could not stop Hollywood from expressing human nature. The Code was in effect for thirty years.
Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Claudette Colbert, Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, Marlene Dietrich, Mae West and Ginger Rogers.
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