Pre-Code Vixens, Dames and Broads: Part 1, The Modern Girl

This article is one in a series on the Pre-Code films—and this one focuses on the depiction of women during this period–and terms like dames, broads and vixens were common at the time. Unlike women in the later 30s and through the 1950s, women in these earlier films defy the dull stereotypes of ladies–and many certainly were not ladies! Today, most folks seem to be under the impression that sex wasn’t invented until the 1960s–at least in films. But, in the wild and crazy days in Hollywood during the late 20s and early 30s, a lot of very shocking plots made it to the big screen. Even today, some of the films are quite shocking–with women sometimes depicted using nudity, violence, sexual promiscuity, abortions and language that might surprise the casual viewer. For fans of Pre-Code films, however, these sometimes steamy films are exciting and well worth finding today. Some of the best are on DVD and Turner Classic Movies frequently shows these films–so you have no excuse not to try a few.

There are two main sorts of dames in these old films. One is the woman who enjoys men and isn’t the least bit apologetic or ashamed of her sexuality. The other is a schemer who literally sleeps her way to success and happiness–which is a type that I’ll be addressing in my next installment. This type might enjoy sex, but it’s all a tool to use for her own advancement. The first type, however really likes sex.
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The first type are very interesting as these women not only have premarital and extramarital sex…they enjoyed it! Further, they didn’t need a marriage or even proposal of marriage…just a willing man who interests them.

One example is Three on a Match–a super-exciting and sensationalistic film. Vivian (Ann Dvorak) has every reason to be happy–a loving husband, a beautiful child and money. But she is bored–and heavy drinking and sleeping around are her keys to excitement. Eventually, her decline into this life is so severe that she loses custody of her child. Soon, her latest boyfriend has a scheme to kidnap her child and threaten to kill it unless the husband pays. This leads to one of the craziest and thrilling finales I’ve ever seen where Vivian somehow summons the courage to do the right thing–and you have to see it to believe it.

This type of woman in Three on a Match is horrid, wild and obviously bad. However, there is another sort of promiscuous woman–the so-called ‘modern girl.’ This woman loves a man, or men, but just doesn’t see a need to tie herself down with marriage. She loves the guy, at least for now, and wants him. Bette Davis played such a lady in Ex-Lady. Although she has no interest in marriage and would rather just sleep with him, she finally consents to marry when her boyfriend when his family insists. However, he turns out to be a horrible and unfaithful husband, so she takes a lover herself!

In The Animal Kingdom, Tom (Leslie Howard) and Daisy (Ann Harding) are living together when the film begins. Eventually, Tom leaves in order to marry another woman. Soon he is bored and broken by a loveless marriage, so Tom leaves his wife to move back in with Daisy–and she welcomes him! And, they live happily ever after.

The message you get from these and other similar films is that marriage is a bit old fashioned and dull. Sure, it might be good for some folks, but a sophisticated woman needn’t worry about a formal marriage contract. And, if you want to take a few men out for a test drive, so to speak, then that’s quite alright and natural. Are there more similar films? Yes, gobs of them. And, if you remember my article about the film Madame Sin, you also learn that if a man strays, it’s up to his wife to vamp him and keep their sex lives fresh–much like the woman you’d see in these films about cohabitation.

I am neither condoning nor condemning these sorts of depictions. I do think they present a much more realistic view of women than you’d see in the 1940s and 50s, as these women were more often than not depicted as asexual–completely or nearly completely devoid of sexual desire. Sure, they were pretty but they were not in any way interested in sex. Are there exceptions? Well, film noir movies did create the notion of the ‘femme fatale’–the woman who uses sex appeal to destroy men. But this isn’t the same and whether or not they’d ever sleep with anyone is left very vague. It’s certainly not in these Pre-Code films. These women are out to have a good time–like it or not.

By Martin Hafer