While I wasn’t initially going to include this film, I was watching TCM the other night, and learned some new information about it that made it a whole new film to me. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the film, but there are other films that I think deserve a little more attention. See, this film is everyone’s favorite film and, to a certain extent, this little piece of information that I learned on TCM is the reason why!
7) It’s A Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946)
Inspired by an unsuccessful short story called “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren in 1939, Frank Capra’s film was released with a great less of a successful response than originally anticipated. While some attribute that to its dark themes or non-linear narrative, it also was going against super patriotic films like Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946) , which definitely gave it a run for its money.
So how did this film make the jump to becoming one of the most loved films in all Christmas-film-history?
Simply put, the answer to that question is copyright issues and television.
The film, released in 1946, was guaranteed protection under standard U.S. Copyright Protection laws for 28 years. So when 1974 came around, the film came up for copyright renewal. Within that time period, the film was only allowed to be played with proper permission and through proper dispensations, lest the individuals who wanted to show the film get in trouble for copyright infringement.
However, when 1974 rolled around, Republic Pictures, the original copyright holder, dropped the ball and didn’t renew the copyright. This started a media chain reaction that caused the film to become as fundamental to the Christmas world as Apple Pie is to the US image.
Long story short, It’s a Wonderful Life became public domain and shown on just about every channel on television during Christmas time for many years. You couldn’t switch a channel without seeing Donna Reed’s face. If it wasn’t for this little “accident” of Republic’s (which was “fixed” a few years later, thus why it doesn’t get played as such a multi-channel orgy as it had previously), this film would not be anywhere near as popular.
A little bit of history and copyrights go a long way…
Joe Dante is one of the nicest and most knowledgeable guys you’ll ever meet in your life. From the first time he ever programmed a festival at the New Beverly in 2008 (discussed here by the inimitable Dennis at Sergio Leone & the Infield Fly Rule), I knew he was one of the “good ‘uns.” Realistically, I had known this since I was a kid, but I reserve judgement on someone’s person until I get a chance to meet them (if I get that good fortune- which is rare- but in LA…it happens). However, Joe is absolutely golden. But I really should’ve known that since this was the man who gave us Matinee (Joe Dante, 1993), a film that has a lightly-disguised William Castle-like character (and I’m a huge Castle fan) and is dedicated to the undying love of cinema. I also should’ve known this since I remember seeing Innerspace (Joe Dante, 1987) with my mom in the theater as a kid and thinking it was one of the coolest movies ever, adoring the Sam Cooke song, and thinking that is this was what movies were about, I wanted to see ALL OF THEM all of the time. And yes, I’m a huge fan of The ‘burbs (Joe Dante, 1989) as well. I was so very pleased to get to see that at the New Beverly a little while ago as well.
But, as we are all aware, the erudite Dante made a Christmas film. And it is not just any Christmas film, it is the Christmas film.
5) Gremlins (Joe Dante, 1984)
One of my friends is probably the ultimate anti-Christmas-film person. He’s down with the food, but the “happy happy joy joy” stuff and any kind of religiousness? Keep that the hell away from him. It’s just not his style. But he loves Gremlins. He really, truly adores this film like it was going out of style. And considering some of his other favorite directors are Tod Solendz, John Woo and Werner Herzog and he believes that Salo by Pasolini is a staple…this is saying quite a bit.
He’s not alone, however. Gremlins is widely considered a classic. And I think it’s generally because not everyone likes Christmas in its Joyful Portrayal. See, every bright room has some dark time, and to many people (myself included) the dark time is, in many ways, a great deal more interesting. In fact, if you were to take a look at the other “classic” Christmas films, they are all a bit dark, which leads me to question why we have so much trouble recognizing that. I mean, to be completely honest, It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946) is a film about a guy who wants to commit suicide. How cheerful a theme is that around holiday time?
Polish Gremlins poster. I love Polish posters.
A man I wrote about a few entries earlier, Bob Clark, has dipped into the “dark time” of the Christmas room twice, with Black Christmasand with A Christmas Story (Bob Clark, 1983). While the latter film is more comedic, it has more edge than a straight-up, feel-good comedy. Most of the film centers on the gun that the child-protagonist wants, and how his parents think that it will “shoot his eye out,” not to mention the rest of the dark things that happen to the young members of the cast. Are we supposed to injure children in Christmas films? Heh. Well, maybe in my kinds of Christmas movies. As long as they’re accompanied by the right balance that Clark gives us (which he definitely does, in Christmas Story– if you haven’t seen that one, see it).
Gremlins has monsters in it. And lord help me, I’m a sucker for a monster movie. I don’t care what season it is. And, more importantly, it has the significant interplay between human, monster, and sympathy. The things that will always get me. You put those things in a film, and more often than not, I’m YOURS. Then you add humor and a dark view of the holidays??? SOLD!! Gremlins has been on my list for these reasons and always will be. People can try to knock it, but they will always fail. In my mind, it is an essential. It wouldn’t be the holidays without it!
Whatever is funny is subversive, every joke is ultimately a custard pie… a dirty joke is a sort of mental rebellion.
When Susan Seidelman received a script entitled “Desperately Seeking Susan,” in 1985, it had already been floating around Hollywood for 4 years. When she saw the title, she knew that it was meant for her, practically sight unseen. The story, a screwball comedy with a feminist streak a mile wide, seemed almost too good to be true, especially considering who sent her the script, and who was already on board to support the film. Not only was the film’s content a powerful commentary on contemporary female identity, definitely unusual, but it was set to involve a female director (Seidelman), a female writer (Leora Barish), female producers (Sarah Pillsbury and Midge Sanford), two (at that point, uncast) female stars, and a female film executive (Barbara Boyle) who really fought for the production. For the time, that many powerful women involved in a single film production was almost unheard of. This was an incredible opportunity, and Seidelman answered their “want ad” with a resounding yes.
Susan Seidelman on the set of Desperately Seeking Susan
These days, what most people remember about Desperately Seeking Susan is not the multiplicity of ways that it subverts and reworks genres, nor the running commentary it gives on class and sexuality, but the fact that the film stars an extremely youthful and (at the time) barely known Madonna. Although Madonna is a crucial aspect of this production, I would like to present an analysis of the film that lays bare more than a mere “star vehicle” for Ms. Ciccone. I propose that Desperately Seeking Susan’s goal was to look at past film genres with strong female roles, and rework and “mesh” them into an entirely new kind of film; a film that was as much a new kind of “Woman’s Film” as it was a good old romantic comedy.
In 1972, a little bit over 10 years before this film was made, the Equal Rights Amendment was passed, guaranteeing women equal rights. That same year, sex discrimination was banned in schools and in Eisenstadt vs. Baird, the Supreme Court guaranteed that the right to privacy included the single person’s right to use contraception. The next year, Roe vs. Wade gave women the right to safe and legal abortion, while the year after that saw the ruling of Corning Glass Works vs. Brennan, which ruled that employers cannot justify paying women a lower wage just because that is what they got at the “going market rate.” These years and the next few saw huge leaps for women and the feminist movement. It is no wonder that this film, made in 1985, would choose to make such a bold statement about wanting to break free from the suburban doldrums, a loveless marriage, and a life lived for someone else in favor of a life that is fulfilling, exciting, and personally rewarding.
The appearance of Desperately Seeking Susan after an entire film decade that had been devoted to the exploration and celebration of masculinity could not have been a huge surprise, however. With a few exceptions like Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and a plentitude of underground experimental films, the 70’s film structure tended to focus on a cadre of young talented men, who were each expressing their own personal “vision.” The irony is that the explosion of feminism happened at the same historical moment, and it seemed to fall on deaf ears. Julie Christie notes, “What it seemed like to me was like boys had been let out of school. So it was like, ‘School’s out!’ so the energy was unbelievably high, and I think that is what characterizes North American filmmaking of the 70’s, is the energy. That inimitable American, male energy. And it’s fantastic, but it wasn’t a great time for women.” So, when an entire decade passed without recognition of the gender politics that were flying as fast at the bullets in Vietnam, women like Susan Seidelman decided that they had to bring their voice to the screen. Thus Desperately Seeking Susan was born.
It's a life so outrageous it takes two women to live it!!
Although Desperately Seeking Susan was criticized at the time for being “sheer nonsense despite the odd, forlorn laugh” and the plot laughed off as “outrageously contrived,” this film, which opened in March of 1985, made a very respectable amount of money on its opening weekend, and ended up as a big hit. The film tells the story of Roberta Glass (played by Rosanna Arquette), a bored and unhappy housewife from Fort Lee, New Jersey, obsessed with the personal ads, and Susan (played by Madonna), a carefree, somewhat promiscuous street-wise party girl, with a penchant for getting in trouble. After Roberta reads several messages in the paper to Susan from Susan’s lover/boyfriend Jim, Roberta’s curiosity gets the best of her, and she goes looking for Susan, using the personals as her trail. What she doesn’t know is that Susan has gotten mixed up in a criminal scheme that even she isn’t aware of, and Roberta herself becomes enmeshed in the same scheme. After Roberta purchases a jacket that Susan sells to a second-hand shop, and gets a heavy bonk on the head while wearing the jacket, everyone (Roberta included- amnesia works wonders-) thinks that Roberta is Susan. Meanwhile, Susan ends up searching for Roberta, because inside the cast-off jacket is a key, literally, to her whole life which she has left in a locker. The rest of the film tells the tale of their search for each other, a criminal’s search for the stolen goods that “Susan” (really Roberta) possesses, as well as Roberta’s eventual self-discovery (in more than one way), through the very strangest parts of New York City.
Much of the theoretical work that has been done on this film involves ideas of identity, self-discovery, desire and female spectatorship. However, they all seem to hit on one aspect in passing that seems central to the viewing enjoyment of this film: Desperately Seeking Susan is not a “new” film. It is a child of many genres. Be that as it may, it still adds a new element. As Jackie Stacey notes in her essay comparing All About Eve to Desperately Seeking Susan, the central aspect of Susan (like Eve) is that it involves a heroine “whose desires and identifications move the narrative forward.” Karen Hollinger, as well, has noted, “In many ways, Desperately Seeking Susan consciously revises conventions associated with earlier woman’s films.” While other classic genres may have had central female characters, it is not often that an entire film’s progression is dependent upon the woman’s perspective. Due to that factor, we can see that this is where Susan makes liberal use of the genre of the “woman’s film.” Like Mildred Pierce or All About Eve or a multitude of other films in this genre, Desperately Seeking Susan does the precise thing that Mary Ann Doane has suggested is a central aspect of the woman’s film genre: it “obsessively centers and re-centers a female protagonist, placing her in a position of agency…” By looking at the agency that is given to both female leads, we can see that the texture of the film was very much inspired by the desire to create a new film that would (and could) relate to contemporary women. Instead of the melodrama of the early women’s films, the makers of Desperately Seeking Susan replaced it with zany comedy and romance, thus bringing in yet another essential genre: the screwball comedy.
I would argue that the utilization of the female-character-as-driving-force serves as the glue to piece together a film that is essentially derivative of other genres, into a new film that is as self-conscious about its “quotations” as it is about its additive dimensions. However, the genre that is most present within the text of Desperately Seeking Susan is that of the screwball comedy.
Wes D. Gehring defines the screwball comedy of the 30’s and 40’s as possessing “five key characteristics of the comic antihero: abundant leisure time, childlike nature, urban life, apolitical outlook, and basic frustration (especially in relationships with women).” While, for the majority of this discussion, I would ask that Gehring’s definition be opened up to include the term “comic heroine,” his analysis is quite helpful. Comparing Gehring’s definition of the screwball comedy to Desperately Seeking Susan, not only do the creators of the film take pause to recognize the screwball comedy influence, but at the time of release, one magazine went so far as to write, “Like the screwball comedies of yore, it [Desperately Seeking Susan] places people in a highly improbable situation and requires that they consult their own sorely tested inner logic to find a way out.” The very fact that Susan came off as a screwball comedy to the naked eye is enough to link it to Gehring’s definition.
Seidelman’s film takes Gehring to an entirely new level, linking it to the strongly feminist discourse that is the backbone of this film. According to the definition, Roberta Glass fits Gehring’s description of the comic anti-heroine in the screwball, to a “T.” Roberta has an abundance of leisure time (she is a suburban housewife), is portrayed as very childlike (even her husband infantilizes her, patting her on the head, etc), exists within urban confines (the majority of the film takes place not in Fort Lee, New Jersey, but on the crazy city streets of New York), has no overt political perspective (except to remember her real identity, which has a slightly political undercurrent), and is in the thick of an utterly frustrating relationship with Des (played by Aidan Quinn) on one side and Gary (played by Mark Blum), her husband, on the other side.
However, unlike the comic anti-heroes of Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels or Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby, the idea of a female-centered screwball comedy is somehow revolutionary. All of the assets that we would come to expect out of a male protagonist in one of these pictures come with very different attachments for a woman. Desperately Seeking Susan somehow manages to subvert genre conventions, and flip them on their respective heads. For example, the “leisure time” that Roberta supposedly has, is depicted with a rather ironic twist. From the opening shots of Roberta in the beauty salon to her visit to New York City, she is using her leisure time under the auspices of pleasing someone else: her husband. It is not her leisure time; it is pointedly his.
Although Roberta clearly enjoys the luxury of the salon, an important section of the conversation there revolves around the fact that, while it is her birthday, she is concerned about how Gary will like her new haircut. Roberta isn’t too certain, as her look reveals. We can see Roberta straining against her confines, even here. The scene, opening up to the strains of a 1950’s girl band singing “It’s In His Kiss (the Shoop Shoop Song),” displays various women in various stages of being “beautified,” from leg-shaving, to nail-polishing, to hair-cutting. Susan Seidelman states,
Because the film is very much about identity, who somebody is on the outside versus who they want to be on the inside, we decided to open the film in a beauty parlour because that is so much about female identity, and appearance and transformation. I think in the original script the opening was set in a department store…and ultimately, in one of the many rewrites, it was changed to a beauty salon because I think the idea of being remade, which is what beauty salons are about…you go in being one person and you come out hopefully transformed into somebody else, is really the essence of what the whole movie is about.
Thus, amidst the highly feminized world of the salon and amidst reminders of all kinds of superficial beauty, we are introduced to our heroine. It is here that she does two things that solidly state her position in her world (which she reveals is not quite her world after all) and it is here that she begins to, as Seidelman discusses, transform. Initially, she relinquishes control of her haircut, because her sister-in-law, Leslie, and her hairdresser reassure her that, “He’ll love it.” However, it is at this point that she flat-out states her discontentment with her life. Sitting under the hairdryer, we watch as Roberta’s transformation begins.
She sighs, commenting on the love affair that she has been watching develop in the personal ads between two people named Jim and Susan (all the messages begin “Desperately seeking Susan”), “Desperate…I love that word…it’s so romantic…” To which her slightly horrified sister-in-law replies, “Everyone I know is desperate, except you,” and gestures at Roberta. Indignant, Roberta looks out from the hairdryer and says, “I’m desperate!” She is met with peals of laughter from Leslie, to which Roberta responds, “Sort of…” and looks dejectedly back at her newspaper. But the look turns into one that is almost akin to that of a stubborn child being told that they can’t do something: they’ll do it anyways, no matter the consequences. The next shot centers on Roberta’s fingers, holding a blood-red nail polish brush, circling the ad in the personals, with a very steady hand. Thus we have borne witness to the first stage of Roberta’s transformation and the beginning of her attempts to reclaim her own identity, from the people and the situations beneath which she has been living for a long time.
When she goes into the city the next day, Roberta’s husband asks her to pick up the car stereo for him, and remind the clerk that she is his wife, because they get a discount. It is almost as though Gary wants Roberta to remember, as she is leaving the stability of the suburban world for the chaos of New York. It seems that by saying this to her, he reminds her that she is his wife, and his property. However, this is where the whole situation begins to change. When she reclaims this leisure time as her own, and uses it to pursue Susan, she forgets the car stereo, and, upon arriving back in Fort Lee, timed perfectly to the chicken beginning its twirl around the rotisserie and her housewife-ly duties of synchronized cooking with Julia Childs, her husband inquires about the stereo. This is the point where we realize that Roberta Glass has begun to break free of that ownership. Wearing the jacket that Susan sold to the vintage store and Roberta bought right after, mixing eggs in perfect time to Julia, she reveals to Gary that she has forgotten all about the stereo. She has repossessed that leisure time, both sartorially and actually. It should also be noted that visually, as well, she is the one in control. She is the one the camera follows, and through the different settings there is an evolution. She moves from a location that deprives her of personal power and agency to one where she willfully commands it, based upon personal desire. The personal desire to follow Susan overpowers everything else. That desire is so powerful, that she forgets the car stereo, and with it, forgets Gary’s claim upon her, in order to follow her claim upon herself. We as viewers are drawn into this world, into this location from which Roberta Glass operates, wanting nothing more than for her to escape, and supporting her desires above all else. We are desperate for her to become that “desperate” that she says she is.
Throughout the rest of the film, we are shown a number of ways in which Roberta is breaking free of her stuffy, suburban housewife life. She hits her head while running from the criminal who mistakes her for Susan, after he sees her wearing the jacket that used to belong to Susan. What the amnesia does is serve as a catalyst for the formation of a new and more pleasing personal identity for Roberta. Having to confront the fact that she does not know who she is, Roberta must “find herself.” She thinks she is Susan, being in possession of all of Susan’s personal effects through the locker key she finds in the jacket pocket, not to mention having people consistently mistake her for Susan, as a result of the jacket.
As we have seen, from the very beginning of the film, Susan is Roberta’s polar opposite. She is sexually liberal, streetwise, and self-assured. More importantly, from what we can see, Susan is also a great deal happier than Roberta. Roberta’s amnesia and subsequent quest for her true identity while thinking (and acting) as if she were Susan, becomes our way of seeing that Roberta’s emancipation from her life lived for others can only be achieved through her own self-discovery, even if it is through someone else’s “identity.” How can she escape Julia Childs and a husband who basically ignores her? She must leave it all behind, and become someone else, even if it is not intentionally. As Karen Hollinger succinctly states, “Roberta’s temporary assumption of Susan’s identity as a result of her amnesia allows her to merge with her ideal and experience a psychological rebirth. She finds a new identity by introjecting the positive qualities she finds in Susan into her own personality.”
Frank Capra, a director of many screwball comedies, said that he used comedy to “warm people to my subject…I get them in the spirit of laughter and then, perhaps, they might be softened up to accept some kind of moral precept.” The creators of Desperately Seeking Susan utilized this same method. It is a very funny film, but the message behind it cannot be ignored or denied. The feminism that may not have seen the light of day in the cinema of the 70’s is vibrant and alive with Arquette’s Roberta and Madonna’s Susan. It is a disruption of the traditional view of woman as homemaker, and a forced recognition of woman as full-fledged person, unto herself. This commanded viewpoint was done, a la Capra, through the use of casual humor and relaxed laughter.
Andrew Kopkind noticed that Desperately Seeking Susan was a film that was definitely communicated in “classic Hollywood forms. Leora Barish’s script contains all the ritual elements of farce, even to the obligatory climax where all the significant characters arrive in the same room to sort out the confusion…[but] neither she [Roberta/Arquette] nor Madonna [Susan] is redirected to a conventional existence, which is the way farces usually end…it is unmistakably a woman’s-eye view…” The acknowledgement, then, is that this film, while standing on the shoulders of well-loved and received standards, is creating new standards of its own. Without changing the formula of what makes a screwball comedy pleasurable, Desperately Seeking Susan pulled a “Capra” and inserted some truly important things to think about, in between the laughs and the ridiculous nature of the plotline. And, after a decade of boys celebrating school being out, it was high time the girls hit the playground, and hit the playground they did.
A Decade Under the Influence. Dir. Richard LaGravenese and Ted Demme. 2003. DVD. Independent Film Channel/Docurama/New Video Group, 2003.
This is my second blog for the Jean Harlow Blogathon. While it does not concentrate solely on our lady of honor, it does concentrate on her era, and the time during which she was making films, in particular the film-making “odds” that she was up against. Enjoy!
Satan is ever seeking to convince people that the wages of sin is not death. Originally, he made that claim to Adam and Eve. Through the movies, he makes it again to our generation. Sin does seem to pay rich dividends in Hollywood.
-Dan Gilbert, Chairman, Christian Newspaper Men’s Committee to Investigate the Motion Picture Industry,
On May 17, 1934, the Chicago Tribune ran a small cartoon, entitled, “The Salacious Film Producing Company Debates Whether or Not to Get Worried.” It depicted five men and one woman crowded around a table, discussing a newspaper that one gentleman, in the chair marked “Salacious Film Producer,” is holding. The headline reads, “Nation Wide War Against Filthy Films.” Four men are drawn like stereotypical Hollywood executives- slightly balding, heavy-set, smoking cigars or a pipe, and wearing glasses. The fifth man seems to be the “Hollywood director type,” hair slicked back, a small moustache and a cigarette, short tight pants to just below the knee, and a short-sleeved shirt, open at the neck. The woman, dressed in a hat and stylish dress, with short hair, is standing just beside the director-type, with a cigarette in a holder. One of the executive-types is saying, “Why you’re one o’ the great educational influences o’ th’ country, Chief! Look what America was when you started educatin’ ‘em and look what it is today!” Another says, “Forget it Chief! Don’t Worry! These moral crusades soon blow over.” The woman states bluntly, “Wait till you get your ten million, Chief, then you can reform without losing a cent.” But the crucial remark is from the director-type. He asks, rhetorically, “Hain’t you giving the people what they want? Is it our fault they’ve learned to like it rare?”
Like it rare, indeed. This cartoon, published at a quintessential juncture in the history of Hollywood motion pictures, was a salient reflection of the situation in Tinseltown. The “nation-wide war against filthy film” mentioned, had been raging for over 10 years in different forms. It was only in 1934, however, right around the publication of this cartoon, that it had reached epic levels.
The battle had started in 1922, when multiple Hollywood real-life scandals like the “Fatty” Arbuckle sex trial and actor Wallace Reid’s drug addiction, had elicited a public morality outcry. At this point a trade protection organization, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA), was incorporated, and the film industry appointed Will H. Hays as director, because his “conservative affiliations and sterling public image spoke well of the industry’s intentions.”Hays began a program of self-regulation, but, unfortunately for them, that didn’t quite gel. Hollywood continued to be what a Catholic Church group deemed “the pest hole that infects the entire country with its obscene and lascivious moving pictures.” In 1927, concerned as ever with the problem of censorship, Hays met with studio executives from Fox, M-G-M, and Paramount, and they orchestrated the first set of guidelines for the film industry, simply entitled the “Don’ts and Be Carefuls” while Hays organized the Studio Relations Committee (SRC) to implement them. However, suggesting that people “don’t” or “be careful” does not a clean picture make, and the films continued to make American moral groups bristle. Finally, in 1930, the “Code to Govern the Making of Talking, Synchronized and Silent Motion Pictures” was born; authored partially by Irving Thalberg, vice president in charge of production at M-G-M, and Martin Quigley, a Catholic Lay person and publisher of the Motion Picture Herald. As Leonard J. Leff and Jerold L. Simmons wrote, “the Code nonetheless promised some changes in Hollywood. Not only were the proscriptions more comprehensive than the Don’t and Be Carefuls, but Colonel Joy [Hays appointee who read scenarios and scripts] would attempt real enforcement.”
The one thing that the PCA didn’t bank on was the effect that the Depression would have. The earlier Jazz Age of the twenties had people attending the theater in droves. Now, with unemployment at almost eight million Americans, the lush days were over, and the mounting East Coast pressure sent Hollywood a message straight from Darwin: those who produced runaway hits would keep their inflated salaries, swimming pools, and limousines; those who produced fizzles would join the soup lines…as attendance continued to slide, the cooperative spirit behind the initial success of the code dissolved.
A multitude of things have changed in the last years since the Code, but the one thing that has never wavered is what sells. The same things that lure audiences to the movies in 2011, ensnared them to the screen in the early 1930s. Those who made films in 1930 knew about the restrictions. But they had a new code- the aphorism “sex and violence sells” was exactly what they followed, and if one were to look at the films that were produced at that time, they followed that code religiously, much to the distress of Will Hays, and his newly appointed public relations man for the Production Code, Joseph Breen.
Some films of the time include such titles as Two-Faced Woman, Sinners in the Sun, She Had to Say Yes, Night Nurse, Safe in Hell, I’m No Angel, Ladies of Leisure, The Greeks Had a Word For Them, Public Enemy, and Female. Clearly these were not what the PCA had in mind. But Hollywood pushed ‘em through, regardless. Sometimes, the racier the title, the better it was, even if it wasn’t particularly applicable to the plot. And the plots? They weren’t exactly Apple Pie and Mom. To the left of you, ladies and gentlemen, I give you drug addiction and alcoholism. To the right, we are offered rape and prostitution. Dead ahead of us, we can see all sorts of murder and criminal activity. Adultery, pregnancy out-of-wedlock, these were the subject matters dealt with in the films of the early 30’s.
On the other hand, these films are some of the most fascinating ones to come out of Hollywood since its inception, 100 years ago. There are a veritable plethora of reasons why these films are so provocative and interesting. However, the one thing that a multiplicity of films had during this time that they didn’t have again until possibly recently (and even that is arguable) is an exciting and unapologetically powerful location for women. Mick LaSalle, in his luminary work on women in the pre-Code era, writes,
The best era for women’s pictures was the pre-Code era…before the Code, women on screen took lovers, had babies out of wedlock, got rid of cheating husbands, enjoyed their sexuality, held down professional positions without apologizing for their self-sufficiency, and in general acted the way many of us think women only acted after 1968…That’s why the Code came in. Yes, to a large degree, the Code came in to prevent women from having fun. It was designed to put the genie back in the bottle- and the wife back in the kitchen.
While there are many other reasons why the Code became strictly enforced in 1934, LaSalle’s estimation is not entirely faulty. This time period offered a type of role for women to play that, to this day, is still unusual. Cascading from the social changes in the 20’s for women, the right to vote, signature fashion changes, and the prevalence of more women going to college and entering the workforce, these films sought to reflect the emergence of power within “the weaker sex” by providing them with a wider assortment of icons and stories in an industry that soon limited their roles to those of less self-sufficient heroines. Although there is a multitude of instances of powerful female roles in the forties and beyond, they never quite had the same taste and free spirit attached to them as they did during the time before the Code of 1930 became an undeniable reality.
In addition to this, the Pre-Code era, due to its plethora of interesting roles for women, gave many actresses their start. In fact, many women began in Pre-Code films, established a certain “character” and became famous for that, even after the Code was enforced. One of these such women was Jean Harlow. While she was, quite literally, a short-lived actress, the persona that she established during her early films was one that followed her throughout her career. While she wasn’t always fond of it, it was one that she played often and played well.
Her first film, Hell’s Angels (1930), had her playing Helen, a character who as David Stenn notes, is “less a character than a caricature, a one-dimensional vamp who smokes, drinks, wears low-cut dresses, and seduces any man at hand.” (6) While she wasn’t lauded for her performance, it was still a case of a woman who was out there, doing what she wanted to because she wanted to. Her subsequent films took this and ran with it, with much better results. Such great results, in fact, that she became a superstar within the M-G-M stable.
Her next installment within the Pre-Code ranks was Public Enemy (1931), with James Cagney. A thorn in the side of people like Will Hays and Joseph Breen, this was a gangster film; a genre they were very much not in favor of. Once again, Harlow turned on the sultry charm and plays the gangster’s love interest. Even within the first few scenes that we meet Harlow in this film, we are keyed into the fact that she is very much a sexually charged and interesting figure. Not at all like the milque-toast, mealy-mouthed women that were generally being displayed on the screen at the time.
While she did several other films that reflected her Pre-Code “ness” (Red Headed Woman, Beast of the City, Red Dust), it was actually the film that established her as a cinematic icon that also encoded her as a woman of some kind of independence and strength. In Platinum Blonde (1931), Harlow plays a character that, while seeming to undermine the virility of the male protagonist in the film, is actually quite a significant role as a female. While this film is, undoubtedly, prototypical Capra fare, pitting the poor against the rich, major class dissection, and an eventual outcome in favor of the underdog (the lower/poor class), Harlow’s character is no schlub!
The primary plot point in Platinum Blonde is that the character of Stewart “Stew” Smith (Robert Williams), while having initially fallen in love with and agreed to marry Anne Schuyler (Jean Harlow) does not like what the marriage entails. Multiple references are made within the film to show how “imprisoned” Stew feels in the situation that he, himself, has gotten himself into (birds in cages, sock garters as symbols of constriction). His principal argument is that Anne is holding him within a set of circumstances under which he has no agency.
While this film seems to run as typical Capra-fare, it also seems to run as a kind of unintentionally subversive Pre-Code parable. The scandalous idea of being “kept” was generally reserved for out-of-wedlock, and almost solely relegated to “kept women.” But what if this concept extended itself to marital relations? And even better yet, what if the one doing the keeping were a woman? While the structure of the film still favors the character of Stew (most Capra films were male-centered, the women were well-fleshed out), it is quite fair to say that Anne’s character, and the power that she possesses within Platinum Blonde was not regulation or code of the day.
Within marriage during that time, agency was not something that belonged to the wife. Platinum Blonde seeks to turn the tables, if just a little. While it is not the main point of the film (class struggle being the center), looking at the character of Anne is important. Stew went into the marriage willingly. He was in love and wanted to marry her. Sure, she had money. But he knew that going in. There was, most certainly, a power switch that took place within the diegesis. Anne became the central “pants-wearing” figure of the household. Stew wanted to get out, as he wanted his independence. The great irony of the film is the gender issue. Once again, we can look to Mick LaSalle’s discussion of women in Pre Code films having Great Positions of Power. Looking at later films, we see women trying to break free of loveless marriages or ones in which they are being kept inside a “gilded cage.” Capra’s Platinum Blonde is one in which the woman is the figure who holds the key. Is Anne Schulyer an evil character? No, not even close. Is she close to the characters that Jean Harlow played in other films of the time? In fact, no. She is actually a great deal richer (pun intended) in character and her dominating presence gave her a stardom that went beyond the huge publicity campaign that Howard Hughes had organized around the film. Jean Harlow became best known as the Platinum Blonde, due to an aesthetic feature that was started in this film, however the character in this film helped launch a career that soared (albeit briefly) to heights that she never dreamed she would reach. By playing the rich Anne Schulyer, she “kept” her power in Hollywood, even if at the end of the film she “lost” Stew.
What Anne lost with Stew, Harlow gained in stardom, Platinum Blonde (1931)
On July 1, 1934, the amended Production Code went into effect. As a combined result of the formation of the Catholic Legion of Decency, who threatened a nation-wide Catholic boycott of the movies and accused the industry of “faking observance to the Code,” and Joseph Breen’s new more stringent leadership, what was once just a set of guidelines to be ignored, became a fact that could not be denied. Ten days later, the Production Code Administration (PCA) officially opened for business, and it was at this point that Mr. Joseph Breen had ultimate authority on the output of the Hollywood studios. This authority was secured in three ways: first of all, no picture could be made without script approval from Breen and the PCA. Second of all, it could not be released if it was not endowed with Breen’s “seal of approval.” Lastly, if any company tried to release a film without a seal, God help them, no MPPDA theater could play it. And so, Hollywood changed. But not without leaving its pre-Code mark forever emblazoned on the annals of the cinema.
One of the more potent examples of a film that exemplified what the Code sought to ban, yet what LaSalle says is one of the crowning points of pre-Code cinema, is a film called Female starring Ruth Chatterton and George Brent.
This film, released on November 11, 1933, was a mixed production package. Initially slated to direct the film was German-born immigrant William Dieterle, later known for such titles as The Devil and Daniel Webster, and The Life of Emile Zola. However, on August 9, 1933, Edwin Schallert of the Los Angeles Times reported, “William Dieterle, who was directing Female, Ruth Chatterton’s picture, has been taken ill, and will be replaced by William Wellman.” Wellman, an extremely prolific director, well-known for his work during the pre-Code era, went uncredited for his work on this picture, as did Dieterle, although, according to some sources, Wellman did direct at least 17 scenes in the picture. Brian Cady accounts that upon Dieterle’s illness, “the film was taken over and completed by William Wellman using cameraman Ernest Haller. At that point Warner Brothers decided the lead “boy toy,” George Blackwood, was not up to the job. They replaced him with Johnny Mack Brown and brought in Michael Curtiz who ended up re-shooting half the movie and gaining the final directorial credit.” Final directorial credit went to Curtiz, but with three very prominent directors working on this film, it is clear that the production was more than a little chaotic.
Pre-production seemed to share the same bed. No less than three different articles of the time name Barbara Stanwyck as the leading lady. The Los Angeles Times, for example, quoted in their report of up-coming Warner Brothers productions that “Female, starring Barbara Stanwyck, from the sensational novel by Donald Henderson Clarke” was set to start production soon. However, the next thing you know, Miss Stanwyck has changed her mind. Edwin Schallert writes, “What’s one woman’s poison is another’s meat. And that’s curious in this instance. Barbara Stanwyck didn’t care for the picture Female, which looks as if it will be Ruth Chatterton’s next. Miss Stanwyck was at one time scheduled for the film, but is understood to have successfully opposed doing it.”
The image of Stanwyck and the image of Chatterton within Hollywood were quite different. To make that shift from one actress to another, must have involved some very interesting negotiations. Judging by past works, the role was definitely more of a Stanwyck vehicle. Chatterton, an older actress, was already well-known for Broadway roles, and stage success. Considered to be a very “classy” actress, a role like this was a slightly odd one, but it seemed to work.
Female, based on a controversial book by Donald Henderson Clarke, tells the story of Alison Drake, a hard-hitting businesswoman who runs her own automobile manufacturing business. The film opens with a shot of a business meeting, and a man speaking. The way it is constructing, it seems obvious to the viewer that the man speaking is a powerful figure, if not the head, of this company. Guess again. As soon as he is done speaking, the camera falls on Chatterton, who, upon opening her mouth, makes it abundantly clear who, figuratively, wears the pants around the business. She is all business, no-nonsense, and strong. She can handle multiple phone calls on multiple phone lines, while discussing important matters with her employees, and giving instructions to her secretary. Alison Drake, however, does have a soft spot: good-looking men. We learn, quite quickly, however, that it is not quite romance that she’s after, when she invites these employees up to her house for dinner to discuss “business.” Miss Drake plies the oblivious gentlemen with vodka, “like Catherine the Great” comments one of her servants, and then proceeds to have her way with them. Later, if at work they express any kind of romantic attraction, she quickly dispatches them to another branch of the company- in Montreal. Then one day, she meets her match- a man who does not cave to her seduction. After a very rocky progression between the two, during which he proposes and she practically laughs at the proposal, Alison finally decides that perhaps love and marriage are in the cards for her. She goes and finds her man, who had left town, and they make up, leaving us to infer the standard happy ending.
Alison’s nightly escapades and general characterization did not go unnoticed by censors. James Wingate, one of the censors at the time, wrote to Warner Brothers, horrified. He states,
It is made very plain that she has been in the habit of sustaining her freedom from marriage, and at the same time satisfying a too-definitely indicated sex-hunger, by frequently inviting any young man who may appeal to her to her home and there bringing about a seduction. After having satisfied her desires with these various males, she pays no further attention to them other than to reward them with bonuses. And in the event that they become importunate, she has them transferred.
Mark Vieira notes that, “Warner Brothers told Wingate that Chatterton’s antics would be adjusted, but made no changes.” Gee, that was a big shock in 1933. Not only were the censors unhappy, but also the very making of this picture went against the “Formula” that Will Hays tried to implement in 1924, which “discouraged the adaptation of disreputable plays and novels.” Donald Henderson Clarke’s novel had already been the subject of an obscenity lawsuit. The New York Times reported that “a hearing on the charges brought against the Vanguard Press, book publishers, of 100 Fifth Avenue, by the Society for the Suppression of Vice was adjourned…the Society alleges that Donald Henderson Clarke’s “Female” which was published by the concern, is obscene.” This film was definitely objectionable to all censoring bodies involved, and just after 1934, became one on a list of films to recall and never show again, care of Joseph Breen, and his post-1934 authority.
In the beginning of the film, a girlfriend asks Alison if she’s ever going to fall in love. Alison laughs. “It’s a career in itself. It takes too much time and energy. To me, a woman in love is a pathetic spectacle. She’s either so miserable she wants to die, or she’s so happy you want to die.” Her friend responds, “Aren’t you ever going to marry?” To which Alison quickly retorts, “No thanks, not me. You know a long time ago I decided to travel the same open road that men traveled. So I treat men the exact way they’ve always treated women.” The surprised friend says, “You definitely don’t have much respect for men.” To which Alison says, “Oh, I know, of course for some women men are a household necessity. Me? I’d rather have a canary.” This speech places Female into that category that Mick LaSalle discusses, about women in the pre-Code films coming into their own. He calls Female “role-reversal stuff, very entertaining” but he also notes that Chatterton’s character “predictably…fall[s] in love with the one guy she couldn’t push around.” The strength and characterization that this film exhibits is probably the reason why almost every review compared Chatterton to Mae West, an extremely prominent and successful star of the pre-Code film era. In fact, West almost invented it, with her witticism and beyond-controversial antics and storylines.
Reviews at the time called the film “a sort of discussion of the dangers of feminism and a defense of woman’s place as homemaker” and complained “one knows, moreover, that Miss Chatterton will eventually capitulate with a loud bang. It will be, oh, such a melting capitulation. It happens per rote” I would argue, however, that the way she orchestrates the romance throughout the film, still places Alison Drake in more of a position of power than anything else. Sure, Jim Thorne would not fall under her spell of seduction- at first. She still devises the entire situation, and she makes it happen. Even at the end of the film, where some reviews note disappointment that she gives up her job, and gives in to the “normal” wife-and-mother-type role, she only says that to Thorne, in the car. At that point, however, they are driving to where she must have a meeting with very important businessmen. To me, this paradoxical situation only proves the power of this character more so, pointing out her ability to manipulate any situation to her advantage.
Alison Drake and Ruth Chatterton were not dissimilar. They were both powerful women, who placed high importance on their careers, sometimes to the disappointment of the men they were involved with. Chatterton was already a highly established stage actress by the time she got to Hollywood. Almost 40 years old, by Hollywood standards, she was even a little bit “past her prime” when she was playing roles like Alison Drake. She was a play-producer and aviatrix, and later became a fairly well-known novelist. It is not unusual, after all, that she was chosen for this part, after Stanwyck bowed out. What can be seen from this is that the role of Alison Drake was made vibrant by the personality and character of Ruth Chatterton.
Pre-Code films have recently become a popular area of research, over the last few years. There have been several books and even some documentaries made about the existence of, and circumstances surrounding them. This “unearthing” of these documents is integral to our appreciation of the rest of film history, but most importantly the image of women in film history. In regards to his work on the subject, and his book, Mick LaSalle said that he believes that “the real audience for this subject is young women… Young women are amazed by these films because it reassures them that they’re not some kind of a modern-day anomaly.” It’s nice to have that reassurance.
 Vieira, Mark A. Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publishers, 1999.
 The National Catholic Welfare Conference, cited in “The Legion of Decency.” Commonweal 18 May 1934.
 Leff, Leonard J. and Jerold L. Simmons. The Dame in the Kimono: Hollywood, Censorship, and the Production Code from the 1920’s to the 1960’s. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990.