Harlow, Bankhead, yes, even patrician Norma Shearer “strayed” before the Hays Code ended their fun.
Feminist film historians usually focus on Warners and RKO as the prime exponents of the “bad girl” genre in pre-Code American cinema. It’s easy to see why. These studios cultivated a group of actresses – Barbara Stanwyck, Ruth Chatterton, Bette Davis, Ann Dvorak, Helen Twelvetrees, and others – who challenged then-conventional mores by enthusiastically enacting scenarios of female sexual dominance and enslavement, power-mongering and self-sacrifice, all with a distinctly “modern” air.
But Warners and RKO were not alone in pushing aside the repressions of earlier decades. In the early 1930s, M-G-M took the plunge into the female-centered melodrama, showing not only the typical domesticity-versus-romance conflict that dominated other studio playlists, but also – surprising for the richest, most powerful studio of the time – a class-based response to the stifling morals of the day.
Red-Headed Woman (directed by Jack Conway) generated enormous publicity, much of it hostile, because it dared to depict a lower-class slattern, played with gusto by Jean Harlow, who seduces her wealthy, so-called happily married boss. Her use of sex as a springboard to social and gender-role chaos is bluntly shown, and audiences were enthralled to see her breaking down class and sex barriers in one stroke by barging in on an exclusive country club for a make-out scene in a phone booth with her rich, respectable, married boyfriend.
In Red Dust, the jungles of “Indo-China” provide the atmosphere required to rid a middle-class Mary Astor of her bourgeois notions of romance. Exposure to a sweating, sensual Clark Gable pushes her headlong into a steamy romance.
Even films that are not exactly female-centered have surprising moments of challenge. As You Desire Me, a “sophisticated” literary project derived from Pirandello, startled audiences with a lingering upside-down kiss between Greta Garbo and a bald Erich von Stroheim. This suggests that audiences – men and women – expected portrayals of upfront female sexuality, regardless of genre or context, an idea verified by the presence of the sexually aware, even demanding female in films as dissimilar as The Mask of Fu Manchu and Blondie of the Follies.
In most of these films, the “bad girl” is bad because she rejects domesticity and motherhood and seeks, sometimes ruthlessly, sexual and class-defying thrills. Harlow specialized in such roles, and it would be hard to imagine her pushing a baby carriage down a tree-lined street. Her vivid assaults on middle-class morality appear not only in her starring vehicles, but even in a gangster film where she plays a small role as a sexy moll driven by economics: Beast of the City.
In John Ford’s Flesh, Karen Morley is pregnant and broke, ditched in Germany by her criminal boyfriend (Ricardo Cortez). Taken in by a simple-minded, sweet-natured wrestler (Wallace Beery), she marries him and pretends the baby is his. The film shows the vacillations in her personality (reflecting the audience’s realistic struggles in the same vein) between doing what’s “right” (domesticity, conformity, submission) and yielding to the lure of fleshly pleasures with her sexy but no-good boyfriend. The film plays with this conflict to the very end, even to the point of having Morley agree to Cortez’ demand that she influence Beery to throw a wrestling match. Typical of this period, Flesh shows Morley cheating on, then deserting, then attempting to corrupt her worshipful husband, finally driving him to kill her lover and end up in jail. While Flesh is in some ways Beery’s story – his progression from naive enthusiasm to an adult understanding of the world’s traps – what we remember most are Morley’s scenes of extreme agitation, as the effects of her inner conflict physically wear her down.
As with many of the films featuring the bad girl, most of the screen time is occupied by the problem, the moral lapse and the attractions of degradation. In Beast of the City, Harlow pulls a wavering policeman (Chester Morris) into the demi-monde of crime. In Red-Headed Woman, the same actress seduces the same actor from the safety of his upper-class life through her sheer sexual intensity. (In Beast, both characters are from the frustrated lower-middle class.)
The Bad Girl genre exists to examine class and sex roles and seeks to question (by showing class vacillations and amorality and uninhibited sexuality) and reinforce (by punishing these same things) class and sex relations. While the majority of such films highlight the degradations, an apotheosis is usually built in that will restore both class distinctions and the proper role of men and women. This typically involves either the rehabilitation (Faithless, Flesh) or the destruction (Beast of the City) of the female and sometimes (regrettably, the films seem to say) the male who has succumbed to degradation (Beast of the City). The celebrated ending of Beast is an orgy of masculine self-sacrifice, with order restored only by the killing of the lustful, rapacious female and the martyrdom of the two brothers, one lapsed then redeemed, the other righteous to the end.
Freaks showcases possibly the most bizarre revenge in film history against a too-powerful female: Olga Baclanova is attacked by pinheads and paraplegics and turned into a duck woman! Perhaps this special treatment was needed because her corruption of a midget (Harry Earles) bears an unpleasant resemblance to child molestation.
Probably the ultimate vampiric female in the 1930s M-G-M canon is Myrna Loy as the daughter of Fu Manchu in The Mask of Fu Manchu. While much of the imagery of this film still seems fresh today (the gleaming sets and wild electronic effects), the most powerful images are of Loy, looking exceptionally sleek and stylized, lingering over a nearly nude, inchoate Charles Starrett, as if she were blissfully drawing blood from his body. When her father (Boris Karloff) offers his daughter to a captured colonialist in exchange for directions to Genghis Khan’s grave – “yes, even my daughter!” he says – Loy smiles. Her death is hardly surprising in the context of the film or the demand for retribution against atypical women common to the era.
Red-Headed Woman is remarkable even in this context, in that no such moralistic ending occurs. The film’s final moments show Harlow, after shooting her rich husband, at the race track with her chauffeur-lover, laughing. This film brought the wrath of many “women’s groups” disturbed by the vision of the amoral female not only unpunished but financially and sexually triumphant. It was also a key film in bringing an end to cinematic permissiveness via the Hays Code.
M-G-M’s challenge was to excite audiences by presenting tableaux of economic and social chaos, with the attendant collapse of sex roles and norms, and then to reassert the validity of the class system and the proper roles for men (satisfied workers) and women (happy mother and wife) – even if the resolution involves the death of one or more of the parties. This schema would continue to be a staple of films, mostly unquestioned, until the distinctly anti-family melodramas of Nicholas Ray, Vincent Minnelli, Roger Corman, and others in the 1950s, when the question of women’s roles loomed so large that it could not be resolved within the confines of the film.