All September long, TCM is shining the spotlight on those films made during the illustrious years of 1929-1934, the saucy and seductive era we call “pre-Code.” In the days prior to codified morality on film, writers and filmmakers were free to tell the stories they thought their audiences would accept, and these films often defy the stereotypes that mainstream audiences visualize when they conceptualize classic film.
In pre-Code Hollywood, sex and seduction drove plots and defined characters. Women and men knew what they had, and weren’t afraid to flaunt it. It was an open, expressive time for film, and a time to push the social envelope and challenge audiences to analyze those things outside their comfort zone.
At the height of the pre-Code era came Red Dust (1932), a story about an American rubber farmer (Clark Gable) in Indochina who is torn between a stable relationship with one woman, and a steamy affair with another. One woman is a prostitute, and the other a refined lady of the city.
Think you know which one is the stable relationship, and which is the steamy affair?
The film forces the audience to rethink pre-conceived notions of morality and goodness by switching expected characterizations of women. In this film, it is Jean Harlow’s character of the prostitute Vantine who represents core, upstanding virtue. Though she is a lady of the night, she strives to maintain her standards and dignity when the cards are stacked against her.
Early in the film, after a passionate night with Dennis, the rubber farmer offers her money without a word of judgment. Here we learn two things: though Dennis has just spent the night with a prostitute, he holds his head high the next morning and does what he feels is right. He holds core values and does not shame or feel shamed. We also learn that Vantine is more than just your average prostitute. She yearns for sincere love and a stable partner. When Dennis offers Vantine the money, she sweetly refuses, letting Dennis know that she enjoyed the evening with him.
Mary Astor’s character, a classy, ladylike woman named Barbara, soon arrives in Indochina with her husband, who is to work as an engineer on the rubber plantation. Dennis is attracted to Barbara, and sends her husband away on a long trip whereupon he begins to seduce her. Dennis is so enamored with Barbara that she persuades her to leave her husband for him, but he soon has a change of heart when he learns just how much her husband loves Barbara. Dennis pretends never to have loved her, and Barbara, in a rageful moment, shoots him. When her husband runs in, they simultaneously cover their relationship and provide Barbara an alibi by saying that Dennis had tried unsuccessfully to seduce her. The film ends with Vantine sitting by Dennis’ side on the bed, reading him bedtime stories.
This gray moral area and complex characterization of a female character is common in pre-Code cinema, but becomes far less so when one examines movies released from late 1934 on. The modification of the Hays Code in July of 1934 signified a major shift in the portrayals of women on film, and erased once and for all any gray moral area that may have existed prior to the Code’s enforcement. The Hays Code clearly stipulated that there should be no doubt as to where morality existed and where it did not, especially in regard to women, spelling out a clear message for the audience and leaving little room for speculation or analytical thought. In response to these new rules, filmmaking itself experienced a massive upheaval after the enforcement of the Code, and a new cinematic technique developed. In order to make the movies they wanted to make, screenwriters, directors, producers, and actors had to come up with subtle ways to trick the censors and make the film’s message as clear as it could be. The result was the biting innuendo, suggestive costuming, and creative use of props and dialogue that make up the landscape of post-Code cinema.
A movie like Red Dust, however, is a hallmark of the pre-Code era, and would have been nearly impossible to make had it been attempted just a few years later. We’re lucky that it was made when it was.
See you next time!