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Women Who Broke All the Rules in Pre-Code Hollywood

Pre-code era Hollywood was this brief blip in the American film industry’s history between the widespread adoption of sound in motion pictures – aka talkies – in 1929 and the mandatory implementation of the Motion Picture Production Code censorship enforcement guidelines, most commonly known as the Hays Code, in 1934.

This era of film is known for presenting movies that were not nearly as censored as the films that were produced post July 1934. Now, these movies weren’t necessarily ‘anythng goes’ as there were still some censorship policies in place, but during these several years, it wasn’t uncommon to see themes such as sex, drugs, homosexuality, mixed-race relationships, and a whole slew of other controversial topics presented on the motion picture screen.

During this period, films were a lot freer to be exploitative, sophisticated, sensational, and risque. After the Hays Code became enforced, Hollywood abruptly changed. What was once considered to be appropriate in the pre-code era was significantly toned down during the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood. Lovers always ended up getting married, criminals got punished for their ‘wicked deeds’, and women returned back to their traditional gender roles.

Needless to say, Pre-Code era was a significantly more exciting time to be a woman in Hollywood. It was also a much more titillating time to be an audience member. Filmgoers, whether they would admit to it or not, were fascinated by watching Pre-Code bad girls like Mae West, Jean Harlow, Barbara Stanwyck, and Kay Francis break all of the rules that supposedly kept society civil, safe, and unblemished. Pre-code Hollywood has thus maintained this forbidden allure in the years that have gone by since the Hays Code showed up and changed everything.

This scandalous time in film history showed off a very different side of early 20th-century society that is often overlooked by those that aren’t in the know. Nudity was commonplace, sex was depicted in ways that would make most alive back then blush, and ladies like Mae West weren’t afraid to speak their minds. Simply put, Pre-Code era was essentially what Hollywood always wanted to be before getting fitted with a ball and chain.

If you find this chapter in Hollywood history to be as fascinating as we do, keep watching to learn how some of the most prominent actresses of that time broke all the rules and looked fantastic doing it!

Mae West – The First Big Hollywood Sex Symbol

During the Great Depression, Hollywood was dealing with economic turmoil just like every other industry. Studios were running out of cash after making purchases of large theater chains and paying enormous salaries to their stars.

Besides MGM, who still seemed to be doing relatively alright, all the big-name studios like Paramount and RKO were bleeding money. While the news reports claimed that prosperous times were just around the corner, the box office and it’s shrinking sales said otherwise.

Suddenly a quarter of the nation was unemployed, and millions of people had exhausted their savings.

To try and entice people back into theaters, studios knew that they had to offer moviegoers something pretty enticing. In the early 30s, Hollywood unloaded it’s secret weapon against the warnings of a group of men known as the Studio Relation Committee, who were desperately trying to help the industry self-censor.

This ace up Hollywood’s sleeve was Mae West. From her earliest days in vaudeville to becoming a notorious sensation on Broadway, West was a self-made woman who carved out her own path unapologetically.

The first play that West wrote, Sex, opened on Broadway in 1926 and ran for 375 performances before being abruptly shut down by the police. West ended up getting charged with indecency and ‘corrupting of the youth’ charges and was sentenced to ten days in jail. She served 8 before being released on good behavior, but West was anything but good.

Mae West embraced her bad-girl image and wasn’t afraid to shake things up with her controversial views. Her subsequent forays into stage writing would be equally scandalous. Take her play The Drag, for example. That production never made it to Broadway, but it featured a plot that explored the world of homosexuality culminating in this big colorful Drag Ball scene. A modified version of the production entitled Pleasure Man featuring a heterosexual lead was eventually debuted in October of 1928. Despite the tweaks to it’s script, the entire cast and crew were arrested after just one performance.

Mae’s next play, Diamond Lil, which also hit the stage in 1928, would come to define her for decades to come. Set in a hisorical setting of the 1890s, the play presented the audience with material that they would feel more comfortable with. As such, it became West’s biggest stage hit. Regardless, the SRC took offense to it’s material and placed it on their ‘banned’ list.

In 1932, West stole the screen from George Raft in the gangster comedy film Night After Night. The film was a huge hit, which was great for Paramount but left he SRC feeling nervous. Following the success of that film, Paramount began producing a film adaptation of Diamond Lil. This led to the SRC going into full-on panic mode.

They insisted that the movie’s title be changed to avoid the inevitable protests that would take place when comparisons would be made to the stage play it was based on. Heeding their advice, Paramount rebranded the film as She Done Him Wrong. The film went on to make $2 million at the box office in less than two months, thus pulling Paramount out of Bankruptcy.

West’s next film, I’m No Angel, advocated for sexual freedom, featured West’s excessive hip movements, and was dripping in deliciously off-color one-liners This era of West’s film career was nothing short of sensational. Mae came to define a period that depicted women unrestrained by traditional mores.

Unfortunately, by the time of her fourth film, It Ain’t No Sin, the curtain was closing on the Pre-Hay’s Code era. The emerging Production Code Administration ended up chopping that flick to pieces, leaving it a total mess by the time it hit theaters.

West’s next 8 films over the following thirty-plus years were comparatively mundane comedies that relied upon the audience’s nostalgia for her previously provocative, unexpurgated work.

If you’re enjoying this video so far, take a moment to give it a like and subscribe to the Facts Verse channel. Stay tuned to learn about several other Pre-code bad girls that broke all of Hollywood’s rules.

Jean Harlow – The First Blonde Bombshell

Like Mae West, Jean Harlow was known for playing bad girl characters and was one of the premier sex symbols of the Pre-code era. She was famous for her ‘Laughing Vamp’ screen persona and was frequently seen flaunting her sexuality in an uninhibited fashion that drew the ire of most conservative critics.

She got her start in Hollywood working as an extra in 1928. In 1930, she rose to prominence after appearing in her sexy role in Howard Hughes’ film Hell’s Angels. Overnight, people across the nation dyed their hair platinum blonde to match her iconic look.

Her subsequent film roles capitalized on her image as being a smart aleck floozy typically with a heart of gold. While she’s now seen as being one of the legends of this era in film, Harlow had a rocky start in Hollywood. She had the looks, but her acting wasn’t quite up to par in the beginning.

Throwing herself into her work and studying hard to improve her acting chops, Harlow’s efforts paid off when she was signed to a long-term contract with MGM in 1932. And after producer Paul Bern fought to cast her in Red-Headed Woman, Harlow was transformed into a superstar.

That film role coupled with her follow-up in Red Dust earned Harlow the reputation for being one of the sexiest and funniest women in Hollywood. Even though her films would become cultural touchstones, she quickly found herself embattled in censorship fights.

In 1934, after the Hay’s code was mandatorily enforced, Harlow was no longer able to express herself as freely as she once did. She went from being a woman who shunned wearing underwear to essentially becoming just a diminished shadow of her formerly edgy self.

No longer allowed to be as provocative as she had been, in post-code films like Hold Your Man and Girl from Missouri, Harlow was relegated to more traditional female roles. Just a few years later, Harlow suddenly died of uremic poisoning in 1937.

Norma Shearer – The Fiercely Determined Star

This Canadian-American actress was active from the early days of film in 1919 to 1942. Especially during the pre-code era, Shearer often played feisty, sexually liberated ingenues.

Shearer achieved fame despite having many obstacles to overcome in her early life. She knew from an early age that she wanted to be a star but after moving to New York City with her Mother after her father’s family business went under during World War I, both Florence Ziegeld and D.W. Griffith told her that her dream of stardom was never going to materialize.

Pushing these criticisms aside, Shearer doubled down on her efforts and eventually landed a series of minor roles in B-films. Eventually, she caught the attention of MGM. After appearing in several hit films alongside Monta Bell, Shearer became one of the studio’s biggest moneymakers.

After MGM implemented sound into their features in the mid-1920s, Shearer’s acting career boomed. In 1930, she was given the lead role in The Divorcee, stealing it away from Joan Crawford after commissioning a photoshoot with photographer George Harrell that showed her lounging around sexily in kimonos while amplifying her legs.

Not only did that film show that Shearer could be sexy, but it also proved to be a significant turning point in talkies. For the next several years, Shearer was one of the biggest sex symbols in Hollywood, but after the Hays Code was enforced, her career was never quite the same.

Barbara Stanwyck, Kay Francis, and Joan Blondell

Barbara Stanwyck’s career spanned more than 60 years, but her Pre-Code era offerings and public image were nothing short of groundbreaking. She got her start as a Ziegfeld girl in 1923 at age 16. In 1927, she landed her first lead role in the Broadway hit production Burlesque.

After establishing herself as a Broadway star, Barbara began acting in talkies in 1929. After appearing in Frank Capra’s 1930 romantic drama Ladies of Leisure, Stanwyck starred in films such as 1931s Night Nurse, 1933s Baby Face, and the 1933 controversial feature Tea of General Yen.

Stanwyk had the looks to melt hearts while rocking an attitude that made her fit right in during the Pre-code Hollywood era.

Kay Francis was considered to be the queen of the Warner Brother’s lot between 1932 and 1936. She was one of the highest-paid actresses of her day and was frequently presented in leading roles.

Francis found great success in risque roles in films such as Trouble in Paradise and Jewel Robbery. Her sultry, seductive voice, witty attitude, and smoking hot looks made her immensely popular with audiences. Off camera, Francis spent most of her time having affairs with both men and women. Just like the women we’ve already touched on, Francis embraced her sexuality and didn’t care what anyone thought of her.

Unfortunately, in the post-code era, Francis quickly fell from grace and was branded as box office poison. From then on out, she was demoted to mainly supporting roles.

The last pre-code Hollywood rule breaker we’re going to discuss, Joan Blondell, got her start in the vaudeville scene. After winning a beauty competition, Joan started a film career, establishing herself as one of Warner Brothers’ pre-code staples.

She was often seen in wiseacre, sexy roles and appeared in more than 100 films and television shows. She was most popular in the 1930s but by the 1940s after the Hay’s code had been enforced, she had lost much of her allure. She continued to act for the remainder of her life, but primarily in smaller, supporting roles.

Well that’s about all the time we have for this one, but we’d love to hear from you. Did you know that Pre-Code Hollywood was so proactive or did you think that the late 1920s and early 30s were a pretty conservative era for film? Let us know in the comments.

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As always, thanks for watching! We’ll see you soon with more content covering some of your favorite Hollywood stars, films, and television shows.

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