Bright Lights Film Journal

Dizzy from the Altitude, Happy to Plummet: Pre-Code Cinema and the Post-Code-Shock Syndrome

“The air is saturated with their feelings for each other as they listen to ‘the distant music of the falls,’ the same falls, of course, that will threaten to kill her.”

With the Forbidden Hollywood DVDs and Turner Classic Movies on cable, Hollywood films from 1929 through to part of 1934 — collectively known as “the pre-Code era” — have become more accessible than ever before; since, in fact, the era itself. For film lovers and scholars it’s a windfall, but for social critics and anti-social rebels, it’s perhaps the most valuable of opportunities to study the way hegemonically-instilled mores were once shrugged aside and how thirty-odd years of “Code” conditioning still leaves its mark today, no matter how permissive cinema appears to get.

After the ratings system finally and forever toppled the Code in 1968, mainstream cinema could say whatever it wanted, but even with open-eyed mavericks like Peckinpah and Hopper pushing boundaries, the Code’s ghost lingered like an invisible schoolmarm. Bloody westerns might challenge the idea of “good guys and bad guys,” but romantic drama and comedy — the bedrock of pre-Code sauciness — still suffered, and more than ever still suffers today, from something we might call Post-Code Stress Syndrome (PCSS). No matter how transgressive many of these films may be, it’s in direct relation to a perceived normality and “rightness” of conceptual social mores like the sanctity of marriage and childbirth, etc. A film like Juno, for example, portends to be rebellious and cutting-edge while all the time subverting its message through lauding the conventional wisdom of heterosexual marriage and the “infant uber alles” mentality of the post-Spielberg generations.

The thing that strikes me as most genuinely subversive in the pre-Code era is the universally recognized commodification of premarital sex; namely, the expensive diamond bracelet as the symbol of mistresshood, much more lucrative in the short run than marriage and the saddling down with debts and childbirth. Films like The Graduate (1967) were squarely satirizing our ingrained social mores, but still acting — albeit subconsciously — as if these mores were inarguably universal givens. Imagine the harsh response that The Graduate (the Juno of its day) would have met if the recently college graduated Ben (Dustin Hoffman) had championed and adopted Mrs. Robinson’s style of sexual detachment and openly moved in with her? Isn’t she paying for the hotel rooms? Couldn’t he be trying to get a bracelet of his own?

Instead, we’re led to believe Mrs. Robinson is a “sick woman” and that Ben’s dalliances with her are the result of his postgraduate malaise. She’s the corrupter, he a saint who briefly catches her “sickness,” but recovers and opts for the traditional same-age union. The older woman being married is verboten, and thus Ben feels a shame that he acknowledges with great guilt and is later ostracized for, by Mrs. Robinson especially. In other words, despite the film’s perceived countercultural stance, this older married woman/younger man fantasy is still read as a sort of social sickness.

Ben’s race at the film’s climax to stop the wedding of Mrs. Robinson’s daughter to a WASP-y young nobody is thrilling because it is ultimately a slap in the face to Christian values (the cross thrust through the door to trap the wedding party is the ultimate fuck-you to the Code), there’s no alternative solution provided at the end, and we’re still left with an acceptably “similar” couple in age and hair-coloring — Katherine Ross and Dustin Hoffman. This is especially interesting when one considers the overall Jewishness of the cast. The originally planned cast was to be all blonde, with Robert Redford as Ben and Candice Bergen as Mrs. Robinson; they wouldn’t dare have the very Jewish-looking Dustin Hoffman sleep with a Swedish ice princess like Candice Bergen, no matter how many crosses are defiled — at least at the time. The hilarious use of the cross as a weapon against the hissing wedding party loses some of its potential punch when the guy wielding it is of the Jewish faith; imagine the outrage if it was wielded so disrepectfully by Robert Redford!

To be fair, even in the raucous time of the pre-Codes such things would also be unthinkable; racism and elitism ran wild, but at least institutions like the holy sanctity of marriage weren’t so ingrained in the popular consciousness as to be almost invisible. Of course, part of the reason for the obsession with devaluing marriage was the newfangled taboo legal process of divorce. What the pill was to the 1970s, divorce was to the 1930s: an explosion of repressed libido. Divorce enabled the mistress to finally get respectable, to be guaranteed a slice of the pie rather than living off pawned bracelets. The old-fashioned wife at home was clearly the enemy now, as opposed to the old days of “vampires” in films like D. W. Griffith’s Battle of the Sexes (1929). Those hokey films with Jean Hersholt abandoning wife and children to get taken by some grifter and her gigolo boyfriend (with most of the screen time going to the saintly wife’s tears and prayers); that stuff was old hat. Girls just wanted to have fun, and they did, and if they got a diamond bracelet out of the deal, that was better than being “good” and having to wait at home with the kids, praying the husband isn’t out buying bracelets for somebody else.

The pre-Codes had plenty of greedy shopping sprees, but they always came with the notion that a girl was getting her just dues for even putting up with the oily louts who’d been shagging them in between dissolves. They shopped, but they were also working for it, via navigating a treacherous maze of hunters, prey, and policemen. This was also a time when the boozy millionaire playboy was often more admirable and likeable than the morally “correct” suitor, the “forgotten man,” or penniless “dreamer” who often turned out to be a hypocrite or social climber (as played by Monroe Owsley in Ten Cents a Dance). One was careful to invest in things that could be pawned.

And if couples lived in sin, they were often very happy and financially secure; when parental or societal pressures forced them to marry, the result was often disaster. In films like The Animal Kingdom, Illicit, Ex-Lady, and Possessed, a fine and dandy life of bohemian cohabitation is ruined via marriage and the tedious obligation of “social respectability.” It may take a nasty divorce, a spree of alcoholic philandering, or a gunshot to end the misery of married life and mark the return to the Edenic life of sin. Marriages themselves frequently resulted in rape-pregnancies (Call Her Savage, above) or other evils that left our heroine prostituting to pay for medicine for her child or radiation treatments (Blonde Venus) for an incapacitated, leeching hubby. The idea of having a baby and living in squalor, prostituting to pay for baby’s medicine, was a woman’s picture masochistic fantasy and may be seen as — as it is so obviously in Marlene Dietrich’s Blonde Venus and Clara Bow’s Savage — the rare and precious chance to be a prostitute and martyr at the same time. Why else are these brats even in the films? As soon as Bow’s half-breed heiress turns her first trick, her baby conveniently dies in a tenement fire. Once Dietrich has lowered herself to prostitution and squalor, she lets an ungrateful Herbert Marshall take her “Johnny” away so she can go back to the high life with Cary Grant.

The 1920s and ’30s were the time when upper-class women were banded together as moral reformers, the force behind prohibition and stern condemners of divorced couples. The pre-Code movies portrayed these reformers as stuffy old matriarchs or chattering imbeciles, using class discrimination as a weapon to keep their sons and daughters from marrying anyone they might really love. By trying so hard to keep it “pure,” they choked marriage half to death. If it had any social merit, if it kept the woman “respectable,” that was not seen as a plus even in the typical upper-class mise-en-scene. The lesson was: kids and husbands are leeches; bourgeois respectability is akin to suffering. Jean Harlow craves the high hats’ approval in Red Headed Woman, but we really want to see her snubbed so she can tell them all off. Marriage was supposed to make everything sunny and right (as it would have to be shown once the Code took full effect) but seldom did (witty drunks like Nick and Nora Charles were the typical exceptions). Outside the mansion walls, there was enough social outrage at the mass poverty that free love, illegal booze, drugs, and hot jazz were not just rebellion, they were a justified response to the situation; they also pacified the natives and stopped them from storming the Upper East Side and putting all the hoity-toities to the sword. And even then, those upper-crust bitches wanted to take it all away, like they were just begging to be guillotined.

If the pre-Code marriages were more often than not unhappy traps to escape from, the post-Code marriages were solid bedrocks upon which to “almost” cheat, like a dog that’s very brave on the leash but a coward once it’s off. Sorry hangers-on poked around these marriages, looking for weak spots (such as David Wayne’s passive-aggressive next-door neighbor courting married lawyer Kate Hepburn in Adam’s Rib), but eventually the righteous alpha male tossed them out of the house. These post-1934 domestic paradise films often begin with the morning rituals of a happy household — the cook or housewife making breakfast in a frilly apron, the husband yawning and drinking orange juice, shooting down his wife’s cockeyed plans and dizzy dreams with bored quips as he thumbs through the paper . . . a supposedly admirable stability that always strikes me as suffocating (all white rooms choked up with huge bouquets of flowers, white ornaments, and other overbearing set decorations) — as if the director is secretly rebelling against Code-meister Joe Breen’s awful edicts by draining the life out of the scenario anyway he can.

Once the working day has begun, trouble at home or business pratfalls ensue, either via an interloper, misunderstandings, finding out the couple is not married, etc., or some other thing on which the sanctity of marriage becomes tested and tricked out but never seriously threatened. In order for genuine “play” to occur in post-Code screwball comedies, the couple would have to regress to childhood, re-enacting games of discovery and difference, getting their clothes dirty, breaking the badly healed bones of matrimony in order to set them right — in what Stanley Cavell calls “the comedy of remarriage.”1

This was a vast difference from the pre-Code marriages, which were often a trap to get the man under thumb and turn him into a dull breadwinner, the way Myrna Loy tries to castrate the artistry of Leslie Howard in The Animal Kingdom (1931), while his true love, the bohemian Ann Harding, is off in the city doing her own thing; or Kay Francis supporting the married guy in his business ventures while the “cold” wife stews at home (Street of Women). As with Bette Davis in Ex-Lady (1933), these are women who make their own fortune, often as a fashion designer or artist. Women executives were able to be free; able to take male lovers (Female, Her Secretary, Trouble in Paradise), and/or leave them alone. The males were either happy in the situation or sulked about it in a way the women may find “adorable” but never took seriously (as Garbo tells one such lover in Queen Christina [1933]: “You are petulant, Magnus, and I have no time to soothe you.”) In 1933’s Female (above), the male lover (George Brent) is actually a good car designer, and the final arrangement manages to be one of equality, but the point is made: these women don’t ask the man for independence, they fucking go ahead and take it.

Once the Code hit, a free woman was a threat akin to the red menace. In place of equality you have the woman on a stake, as in I Married a Witch (1942), where marrying Frederic March means giving up one’s limitless magical power to become a household drudge. Ditto Bell, Book & Candle (1958), wherein witch Kim Novak stops being a cool beatnik art dealer to become a white-dress-wearing, non-magical florist because love for dim-witted dolt Jimmy Stewart has robbed her of her powers. You can feel an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with this “settling” (Novak always seems like she could beat up Stewart anytime she wanted to, even without magical powers). The Code-meisters allow black magic onscreen with the caveat that it’s renounced in the end for the dubious joys of saintly housekeeping. As in the old days, the witch gets to evade the pyre if she confesses, renounces Satan, and voluntarily enters into a state of domestic slavery. If the filmmakers seem to be on the side of the “hip” audience members, making these concessions seem as odious as possible, we’re still left with a bitter taste in our mouths.

After the rating system eliminated the Code, women raced back to the “free flapper” style they left at the height of 1934. This should have/could have been a golden age. However, we quickly went too far back, past the pre-Code, to the Griffith-y era of the “vampire woman” who marries and manipulates for the long green, for the bling, even while calling it love. Her shallow greed is not even seen as a liability — so long as it’s ultimately sublimated into the trappings of marriage. In the bridal boutiques of the post-1934 world, the woman is given fully sanctioned vent to her greed and lust for sparkling objects and haute couture; it’s all conferred the sheen of respectability by the wedding to come. In the pre-Code films, a woman may marry a cad on impulse — to spite her father if he’s eager for her to marry some breadwinning Ralph Bellamy type — and subsequently suffer, suffer, suffer; but this is as much her own self-indulgence as punishment for disobeying father. When she’s had enough, she storms out on her worthless spouse in righteous fury to be with the good-natured rogue who sees right through her coy act. In the modern romcom, this cad — the Ralph Bellamy — is actually the good guy.

The success of this re-championing of marriage as materialist fantasia is most recently attested to by the huge international grosses of the “women’s musical,” Mamma Mia! The poster alone is a paean to the glorification of feminine greed. Dressed in her wedding gown, with no groom present, we see the heroine kick her head back with a huge enraptured smile. This is a girl who has her bracelet and her wedding, and a new car, and no obligation whatsoever to put out. Rather than being a complex system of diamonds for sex, the new system is girls-take-all-give-nothing (fear of AIDS being the ultimate catch-all excuse). They want total equality with men, they want to work and make the same salary, but want men to pay for everything, and pamper them royally. In this schema, sexually active males — divorcees and self-confident players — tend to be viewed as predators, while the good 40-year-old virgin “nerd” guys — with good jobs, bland faces, and khakis — are the “keepers,” able and willing to provide the “dream life” to a lucky, deserving, manipulative ball-buster through hard labor. The gold-digger is sanctified: Modern Bride magazine looms over all, and all is montages of trying on clothes and rings set to 1980s classics.

The 1970s — An Unmarried Woman and the Quick Scabbing of the Patriarch’s Feminist Wound

We do see women in some 1970s films returning to pre-Code explorations of independence and freedom, via that amazing symbol of pre-AIDS liberation, the birth control pill. The concept of the “singles bar” was huge in the 1970s — too bad they don’t exist now — where everyone just sort of stands around. In the 1970s’ films, people talk for four minutes over a drink or two, maybe dance to a disco track, and then say, “Let’s go to bed.” Pretty heavy, especially when the girl is the first one to want to leave. Diane Keaton gets killed for her sexual liberation in Looking for Mr. Goodbar, but in general once the frazzled housewife got free of her idiot husband, things got rosy and the new guy in her life was usually bearded and had been through EST.

A very good example of this sort of thing is the excellent Paul Mazursky film An Unmarried Woman (1978). Jill Clayburgh (right, with Alan Bates) works at an art gallery to support herself and her daughter after dumping her philandering husband (Michael Murphy). She meets a successful artist, Paul (Alan Bates), who wants to whisk her away to his summer place in Vermont. But she decides to stay in the city and pursue her “career.” He’s hurt when she rejects his plan, and doubly hurt when he realizes how his rage at her decision makes him part of the bourgeois hegemony he thought himself above. When push comes to shove, this freedom-loving bohemian still believes with patriarchal willfulness that his old-fashioned expectations should be met and honored, that the whole free-love women’s lib thing is just a lot of wild-oat sowing before we all settle down to “what really matters.” According to Molly Haskell in From Reverence to Rape, the film apparently pissed off a lot of women who felt Bates was a real keeper and she should have gone with him to Vermont:

Women didn’t seem to feel that Clayburgh had suffered enough and refused her their sympathy. Nor would they buy her turning down Alan Bates, witty, gorgeous and successful, whose work was hanging in the Museum of Modern Art! Women were of fiercely mixed minds: on one hand, she didn’t deserve him; on the other hand, as long as he was there she jolly well better snap him up! How dare she pass up a trip to Vermont with the guy just to consolidate her position at that paltry art gallery!2

Similarly caught in a web of contradictory emotions are Todd Gitlin and Carol S. Wolman, who also feel Clayburgh’s character hasn’t grieved or guilt-tripped enough over her failed marriage and that her therapist is grossly incompetent to suggest she find a man after only seven weeks. They gloss over her choice to stay in New York, since in their eyes she loses all her interest as a character the moment she falls for Bates, who as a famous artist is considered “her superior”:

At the very end, to mock her residual independence, he (Kaplan) leaves her with one of his big gaudy paintings in the street, without the means of transporting it to her apartment. She wafts through Manhattan hanging on to the canvas as it sways and swings her around like a sail. Mazursky leaves her in the street, obscurely triumphant . . . The episode is treated comically; the important thing for Mazursky is that Kaplan remain endearing. Erica’s independence by this time is formality . . .”3

This reading of the film smacks of knee-jerk feminist militancy, the sort that unconsciously endorses what it seeks to destroy by granting it too much power. Watching in the supposedly more enlightened age of 2008, I don’t see any evidence of Mazursky trivializing Erica. Who cares if Bates speaks at times like a macho shit, as long as Clayburgh doesn’t take his authoritative tone as anything but the prattle of a spoiled child? Wrapped in hegemony’s invisible headlock, Wolman and Gitlin wince and bow before Bates’ male authority, then resent him for it later, not realizing their error because it’s so close to home they can’t see it.

Mazursky and Co. are clearly feeling out ways in which Clayburgh’s newfound independence can survive in the face of love, brave actually in their decision that Erica should lose some ground once she falls into bed with a “keeper.” How often have we all felt ourselves finally becoming confident and comfortable in our skin only to immediately attract some “catch” we’d never win in our less confident days? Instead of walking tall, we’re soon back to tiptoeing on eggshells, waiting for them to phone; it happens to everyone, not just divorcees who haven’t “suffered enough.”

Erica is also aware of her backsliding, and we continually see her baffle and irritate the old-world Paul by clinging to what little independence she’s already won rather than succumbing to his control. Paul is also aware of how his love for her bumps him back a few personal strides. He’s aware of his backsliding into a patronizing swine and can’t help it. Neither can Erica. Neither is dominating the other, and that’s the point — it’s a stalemate. Her decision not to go with him to Vermont is her decision to pursue her blossoming self-confidence as opposed to giving it back up to that thing called love, which dissolves self and independence like salt in the sea.

The real telling present is hers to him — a jar of herring (he claims he became an abstract artist when as a child he watched his father throw a jar of it at the wall in a fit of spousal rage). This herring jar is a symbol of her valuing abstraction over Paul’s tangible, messy affection. The jar is the kiss-off, the feminist equivalent of a fish in a bulletproof vest. For her part, Erica has no problem wheeling his gift, the large painting, home through the wind. This scene is not the meek embarrassment Wolman and Gitlin make it out to be; this is a woman who works at an art gallery. I’ve worked in one too, and can tell you two things she would know: (1) the number of an art handler to come pick it up once she gets tired, and (2) that a big-ticket item like this is the thing that’s going to get her an assistant directorship at the gallery, or enough bread to go into business for herself. That’s how plenty of art galleries start, with one painting. You sell it and then invest the cash into more affordable rising artists. Paul doesn’t hand her a promotion through this; she just knows how to spin his passive-aggressive male clownery into gold. She may be getting swung around by Bates’ sail, but she’s handling it with the grace of a yachtsman relaxing in the harbor. It’s Bates’ hairy artist who’s been objectified here; his condescending male ego is just more wind resistance: every angry bellow just strengthens her budding sailing muscles.

The extreme reverse of this ability to shrug off patriarchy’s authoritative voice can be found in Rosemary’s Baby (1968), wherein Mia Farrow is enslaved easily into the will of her bossy husband and the witches next door, largely due to her eagerness to please (one can’t be rude to the elderly; doctors know best, so she endures the pain and foul smell of the tannis root; never standing up to her husband’s condescending dismissals, etc.). When she does act out, it’s to get that boy short haircut, a passive-aggressive move on par with anorexia or self-cutting (“it’s very ‘in’,” she explains). Polanski ingeniously realizes he can have it both ways — he can make the witch coven real and make us think it’s just Rosemary being paranoid. He can do this because he’s suffered enough as a child in WW2 Poland to see right through conventional social mores as just another bunch of bourgeois ideology, a cheerful mask that can be ripped off at any moment to expose the hideous monster beneath. The more Ruth Gordon wins us over with feisty old lady charm, the more we realize just how deeply evil and ingrained these social mores really are. We can’t resist them either, and we know they’re evil.

The D-Word

Christopher Strong, the 1933 love-gone-wrong weeper directed by Dorothy Arzner, is a typically fascinating example of the “modern divorce” film, wherein the players are mature enough to realize that the sanctity of marriage and Victorian repression is “old-fashioned” but are unsure where to go now that they’re free of it — the childless unmarried state of bohemian living is seen as ultimately a dead-end. Katherine Hepburn stars as the androgynous, Amelia Earhart-style aviatrix who falls for married gentry Colin Clive. Still the patronizing patriarch, Clive can’t leave his wife but nonetheless makes Kate swear to give up flying (“it’s too dangerous”), leaving her alone to rot, waiting for his next visit, while he keeps up appearances with stick-in-the-mud worrywart wife Billie Burke. Meanwhile, Clive’s free-spirited daughter (Helen Chandler) sleeps with gigolo Jack La Rue and then marries divorced dandy Ralph Forbes, oblivious to mom’s endless condemnations. Though Chandler and Forbes consider themselves a hip modern couple, they hypocritically judge dad and Kate when they find out the truth. The situation where the kids do what they want but then flip their moral lids over their parents doing the same is a common one in the pre-Code days, when divorce was still a tricky issue. Films like Christopher Strong, Forbidden, Street of Women, and countless others showed that modern women could have high-paying jobs and married men on the side and be cooler and more liberated than their ungrateful children.

Christopher Strong ends when Kate realizes she’s pregnant, and rather than break up Clive’s happy home she decides to resume her flying career and break the high-altitude record, pulling off her oxygen mask right at the height of the stratosphere and crashing. You could nail a harsh anti-feminist reading on that (the “other” girl dies so the sanctity of the family can survive), but you would miss the point of Arzner’s mise-en-scene, which has been squarely against the trappings of old-fashioned family values since the beginning. Congratulating Forbes and Chandler on news of their impending marriage (now that he’s divorced), Hepburn says: “All this time you’ve done just as you pleased, not cared whom you’ve hurt, and it’s all come out fine.” Chandler won’t give Hepburn the same blessing, chiding her for acting completely innocent rather than coming clean about her infidelities. The only real condemnation we in the audience have for Hepburn’s character is that she gives up her real lost love, flying, for the dull histrionics of Colin Clive. When she learns she’s pregnant, she takes up flying again — the way a more domestic woman might take up knitting little booties (pink for a girl, blue for a boy). The beautiful art deco winged vixen statue that commemorates her death is what we close out the film on, not the trite familial bliss of Clive and Co. Death is not a moral punishment here, but a grand gesture of sacrifice. She leaves the rest of the cast stranded in their tepidness.

Adding to this effect is the possible queer reading, which is that Christopher Strong is not the dullard Clive character’s name, but androgynous Kate’s. She’s a soft butch lesbian going for the younger gamin, Helen Chandler (right, with Hepburn), and dying in the attempt to break the still unbroken land speed record of gay rights (a subtextual reading borne out by the fey mannerisms of Chandler’s lover, the foppish Forbes). If the pre-Code era still had its limits as far as free-thinking and taboo-smashing, at least it was brave enough to crash and burn in the attempts to stretch those limits. We could learn a lot from studying these films as we approach the new age of crisis economy and global meltdown. Just like the knee-jerk condemnation from the kids for their parents in Chrisopher Strong, we talk a good game, but in the end, how quick we are to run back to the familiar turf of domestic boredom, child worship, and marriage’s so-called sanctity.

It’s time we realize that this sanctity is an illusion and that rebelling against it only reinforces its apparent concretized authenticity. Even modern media — saturated with hardcore sex, swearing, and violence — validates and strengthens these values. Consider a film like Kissing Jessica Stein (2001), for example, wherein the central lesbian relationship is ultimately considered mere oat-sowing before the lead character settles down with some “proper” straight dude, or the films of Cameron Crowe like Almost Famous (wherein it’s “cool” to bring mom on a rock tour), or Juno — these “good” kids co-opt rebellious trappings with the understanding they’ll still come home and do what mom says once they’ve gotten it out of their system.

With so much underhanded conventionalizing, it’s easy to forget that once upon a time these social mores were being challenged and disputed, not by our parents but by our grandparents, the ones we think of as the most conventional of all. Perhaps with the help of these great pre-Code films we can once again soar above the clouds of petty morality and remember what true subversion is all about. We’ll know when we do, because censors will be on us like a Joseph Breen on a Mae West. What we need to remember is to not give a damn. We need to recognize that the weird submission we feel to a stern patriarchal command is just social conditioning. We shouldn’t blame the patriarch; blame the mechanism and learn to laugh off his stern puffery. Mae West never went down, no matter how many mediums they banned her from. Mae West is still subversive today, and thanks to the digital media, she’s still out there, tellin’ it like it is. It’s to our own demerit if we fail to listen closely.

  1. Stanley Cavell, Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006. []
  2. Molly Haskell, From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987, p. 379. []
  3. Todd Gitlin and Carol S. Wolman, “An Unmarried Woman: Review,” Film Quarterly, vol. 32, #1, Autumn 1978, p. 57. []