Pre-Code Prime Cuts: Women-Led Films at Cinema Rediscovered

Cinema Rediscovered Movie Essay - Baby Face

One of the central threads of this year’s Cinema Rediscovered in Bristol was a focus on Pre-Code Hollywood cinema, and in particular films led by women. These are roles in which female protagonists continuously fuck around, doing whatever they so please. Once the Hays Code began to be properly enforced, however, many of these raucous pictures slipped out of popular view, with Hollywood forced to abide by unimaginative moral codes. Of course, many of the best filmmakers were able to circumvent such rules regularly and with great pleasure (without the Hays Code, would we still be talking about Billy Wilder?), but that flowering of chaos remains a hugely entertaining part of film history.

I caught three out of five films in Cinema Rediscovered’s Pre-Code program, all gloriously remastered, and was struck by the timeless and contradictory nature of these movies that happily embrace moral grey areas with abandon. (A parallel season on European directors and actors — “When Europe Made Hollywood: From Sunrise to High Noon” — also included plenty of films that could have made it into the Pre-Code segment.)

Jewel Robbery (William Dieterle, 1932) — in which Baroness Teri (Kay Francis) is robbed by a man (William Powell) in a jewelry store and then spends the rest of the film lusting after him — is a case in point. Whether the woman’s envisioning of the robber as a gentleman thief is genuine chemistry or simply a Stockholm Syndrome fantasy projection is left ambiguous. Francis — whose protagonist has an elegant, debonair quality that aligns with her name — pairs gloriously well with Powell, both exuding European sophistication despite hailing from Oklahoma City and Pittsburgh, respectively. 

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Cinema Rediscovered Movie Essay - Jewel Robbery

Underneath the light fleet-footed comic antics (and weed gags!) is a Cinema Rediscovered film that beckons the audience to cheer on Francis in all her adulterous behavior. Indeed, a last-minute breaking of the fourth wall fairly explicitly spells out that this is also a film about how we as audiences are so readily comfortable with using cinema as an opportunity to walk on the wild side, using all the glamorous tricks of the Hollywood Golden Age trade.

But where Jewel Robbery is all light touch and Mittel-Europan dash, Red-Headed Woman (Jack Conway, 1932) packs a lot more cut into its humor. Starring Jean Harlow as a hustler who uses every trick in the book (especially sex) to gain financial advantage and social status (much like freelance film critics, minus the sex), it’s a gloriously frank work about sex and how to wield it that also digs into class hypocrisy: Harlow’s working-class status is held against her by the extended networks of those she inveigles her way into, and Jewel Robbery frequently plays with the contradiction of her breaking up a happy marriage for her own gain and the fact that she’s knowingly playing rich businessmen for the fools they are. Harlow digs her teeth into the raw, nasty edges of her character without embarrassment.

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Cinema Rediscovered Movie Essay - Red-Headed Woman

And yet for all of Red-Headed Woman’s edge, it’s trumped in that department by Baby Face (Alfred E. Green, 1933) — which was screened at Cinema Rediscovered in its uncensored, restored version. Given that the controversy around Baby Face was so strong that it kicked the Hays Code into gear, it’s perhaps not too surprising that the film remains so stark. For every bite Harlow takes out of the men around her, Barbara Stanwyck (in a major early role for her) takes a bigger one. The differences between the censored and uncensored versions are key; a cobbler who encourages a working-class Stanwyck to take to the big city and stake her claim is a voice of moral reason in the censored version when he was initially a Nietzsche-reading autodidact who encourages her to use men for her own gain. Also, the final scene, in its censored version, punishes Stanwyck for her sexual impropriety when the initial version lets her off the hook (albeit in a somewhat sappy way).

Stanwyck is cold, calculating and yet utterly bewitching in Baby Face — it’s no wonder she remained in the public eye for so long with her easy ability to switch between glamorous stardom and studied acting. An early scene (again cut from the censored version) depicts Stanwyck in a cargo train carriage, seducing a man with promises of sex, simply with a long stare and a gentle turning down of a lamp. It’s all the suggestion that’s needed (though evidently too much for the censors), and the entire first act is a remarkable depiction of poverty for American cinema of the time, which even during the Great Depression tended to lean on the glamour and escapism. If Red-Headed Woman is frank about sex, Baby Face is an open book, again cutting into the lazy hypocrisy and callousness of the many men who cross paths with Stanwyck and continually try to punish her for their infidelities.

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Cinema Rediscovered Movie Essay - Baby Face

Of course, men punishing women for their sins is in many ways precisely what the Hays Code did, imposing moral judgements on artists based on patriarchal and conservative thinking. It’s a redundant statement to exclaim just how progressive these Cinema Rediscovered films look today, with their stories of female sexual desire/empowerment, lack of moralizing and weed gags. Progress is no straight line. What appears as explosive back then now looks quaint; what appears explosive today was common parlance back then. But there’s a certain reading of film history today — usually framed through a basic representational lens — that presents everything as a direct upwards line of progress, that we’re persistently doing things better than we did the year before, which also has the habit of wiping out previous gains instantaneously. 

Authorship and agency from years before suddenly collapses when faced with such a reductive reading of film history, which also posits another interesting question. Pamela Hutchinson — who co-curated this Cinema Rediscovered strand with Christina Newland — spoke at 2021’s event about framing film not through the director’s possessive apostrophe, but of others. These are all distinctly the films of their lead actresses: Kay Francis’ Jewel Robbery, Jean Harlow’s Red-Headed Woman, Barbara Stanwyck’s Baby Face. Classily directed though they all are, nobody is saying Dieterle’s Jewel Robbery, Conway’s Red-Headed Woman or Green’s Baby Face. How much cinematic historical amnesia is tied into that haggard old idea of the director/auteur, itself a predominantly male figure throughout film history?

Fedor Tot (@redrightman) is a Yugoslav-born, Wales-raised freelance film critic and editor, specialising in the cinema of the ex-Yugoslav region. Beyond that he also has an interest in film history, particularly in the way film as a business affects and decides the function of film as an art.