Pre-Code Vixens, Dames and Broads: Part 2, the Scheming and Conniving Tramp!

In one of my recent articles, I discussed how women were surprisingly portrayed in the wild and crazy days of the Pre-Code era (roughly 1930-mid 1934).  Despite our impressions today that sex was pretty much invented in films in the 1960s, don’t you believe it!  During the Pre-Code days, Hollywood produced an amazing number of films that would shock folks today with their frank exploration of sexuality.  Films that advocated or at least took a judgment neutral position on pre-marital sex, cohabitation, extra-marital sex and even abortion were common!

Of all these films about sexuality, my favorites (and probably the favorites of most Pre-Code fans) are those that focus on a conniving tramp.  While this term seems pretty harsh, it IS accurate.  These women are different from many of the Pre-Code women because they are much more obvious in their love of sex as well as the use of it to get them what they want out of life–fun, excitement, power and money!  These women are pretty amazing to watch and they remind me of a great bit of dialog from one of Mae West’s films.  When a hatcheck girl see’s Mae and her enormous jewels, she exclaims “Goodness, what beautiful diamonds”–at which point Mae responds with “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie!”.  Such are the tramps of the Pre-Code world!

If you’d like to see one of these amazing films, there are a couple that I strongly recommend you see–though there are certainly others (such as Platinum Blonde) which have similar themes.  Here are brief overviews of two of these movies:

Baby Face–A-

This is one of the most daring and important of the so-called “Pre-Code”. Unlike some Pre-Code films that occasionally dabbled in subjects that would have never been allowed after 1934-5, this film fully immersed itself in a very sordid yet entertaining plot from start to finish. The conventional morality of the late 30s and 40s was definitely NOT evident in this film, as the film is essentially about a conniving woman who sleeps her way to the top–and with no apologies along the way. This woman both enjoyed sex and used it on every man who could help her get rich!
The film begins with Barbara Stanwyck working in her father’s speakeasy. In addition to being her boss, he is also her pimp and encourages her to sleep with a local government official so that they’ll allow the illegal bar to operate with impunity. While not especially clear here, it appears as if Daddy has been renting his daughter’s body out to a variety of men for a long time. However, after nearly being raped and attacking this man by breaking a bottle of beer over his skull, Barbara has had enough and heads to the big city. It seems that she’s tired of seeing nothing for all her hard work and is determined to make use of her body to make herself rich!
Despite the Depression, Barbara uses her sexual charms and quickly gets a job at a huge mega-bank. She starts out at a pretty menial job as a file clerk, but in the space of what seems like just a few weeks, she sleeps her way from one job to another to yet another–until she is sleeping with the head of the bank and his future son-in-law!!! This all ends in tragedy, but Babs doesn’t seem too shook up over the deaths of these two men. In fact, some time later, she is able to insinuate herself into the life of the new CEO and once again she’s on top (perhaps in more way than one).
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Now so far, this is a wonderful movie because it was so gritty and unrepentant. Barbara played a 100% sociopath–a woman with no morality and no conscience–just a desire to squeeze as much out of life as she could no matter who she hurt in the process. However, the brave writers and producer “chickened out” at the end and thought it important to tack on a redemptive ending–hence my giving this movie an A- instead of a higher score. Considering that this woman was so evil and conniving, her change of heart at the end was a major disappointment and strongly detracted from the film.

Red-Headed Woman–A+

This film is highly reminiscent of Baby Face (1933), as both films are about a sociopathic dame who uses sex to capture rich “sugar daddies”. However, of the two films I definitely prefer Red-Headed Woman because Jean Harlow stayed true to her awful character from start to finish AND in an unusual twist, it seems that being that horrible and conniving clearly pay off in the end!!!  While sleazy “Pre-Code” films similar to this abounded in the early 30s, this film is one of the few of them that doesn’t have an awful ending that somehow implies that the path of righteousness is the best one after all!

Jean Harlow plays a conniving girl who decides she must have nice-guy Chester Morris as her husband because he is so rich and powerful–this certainly is no love match! However, he’s already married, so Jean spends much of the film trying to destroy this marriage–which she ultimately does. Then, after marrying Morris, she is so insatiable in her appetite for both sex and power, that she makes a play for a much older and not particularly handsome Henry Stephenson. Usually Stephenson played a nice and often fatherly sort of character in films, but here, like all the other men, he is not immune to Harlow’s brazen sexuality. He begins sleeping with her–not knowing she’s also getting it on with her chauffeur! Jean’s character is truly sexually insatiable.

Unlike Barbara Stanwyck’s evil character in Baby Face who is also pretty much a conniving tramp, Jean is more of a nymphomaniac and often uses lousy judgment in pursuit of passion and this leads to her undoing…at least for a while. Now here is where this film rises above the Stanwyck film, as Jean is never really punished for all her wickedness–making it a much more entertaining movie. When confronted for her many adulteries, she responds by shooting Morris and yet she gets away with even this!! You see, in the very end, several years later, she is seen in France with a rich old sugar daddy once again–complete with race horse and chauffeured limo. This alley-cat apparently always lands on her feet!!

As perhaps the ultimate and most entertaining example of Pre-Code excess I can think of, I strongly recommend this film,…just not for your kids. And, if you like this, try watching a few of the films which feature a man in the same sort of role.  John Gilbert’s Downstairs–a film that is very similar but stars a man as the conniving, promiscuous jerk, is also well worth seeing!  Additionally, Warren William made his career out of playing lascivious jerks–and I plan on doing a follow-up article just on this amazing man and his lurid Pre-Code films!

By Martin Hafer