“A thing happened to me that usually happens to men!” – the un-hidden women in pre-code film

Madeleine Pulman-Jones

In 1931, in a back-lot-oriental apartment in Paris, Russian flyer Alexis (Ramon Novarro) declares to glamorously mysterious spy, Mata Hari (Greta Garbo), “I love you as one adores sacred things.” A routine compliment in melodramatic Hollywood parlance, but Mata Hari’s response is perhaps less commonplace. “What sacred things?” she asks. “God… country… honour… you,” he replies. “I come last?” she pushes, “You come first. Before anything.” He replies. He shows her his apartment, including the candle he keeps burning day and night in front of an orthodox icon. Before he can make love to her, Mata Hari asks that all the lights in the apartment be put out, insisting that he blow out the candle in front of the icon before she will let him come near her. The light of the candle casts dancing shadows across his youthful face in high-contrast black and white, “forgive me,” he whispers, and blows out the candle.


(Source – http://www.garboforever.com/Film-25.htm

Two years later in a back-lot-bohemian Parisian apartment in early 1933, friends George (a youthful Gary Cooper) and Thomas (Frederic March), a painter and playwright respectively, receive a visit from Gilda (Miriam Hopkins), a young commercial artist they met on the train. She is the epitome of what came to define the heroines of Screwball Comedy in 1930s Hollywood. She is petite, blonde, striking, viciously witty and independent. They are both smitten with her and have been pursuing her independently for days. What differentiates this scene from a million other love-triangle scenes in Classical Hollywood cinema, is that Gilda has not come to choose between her two suiters, but to inform them that she has decided that she wants both of them. The following rapport ensues:

GILDA: A thing happened to me that usually happens to men! You see, a man can meet two, three, or even four women and fall in love with all of them, and then by a process of… interesting elimination, he’s able to decide which one he prefers. But a woman must decide purely on instinct, guesswork, if she wants to be considered nice. It’s perfectly alright for her to try on a hundred hats before she picks one out –

TOMMY: But which chapeau do you want Madame?

GILDA: Both.

The scenes from Mata Hari, dir. George Fitzmaurice, and Design for Living, dir. Ernst Lubitsch, respectively, exemplify the sensibility of what has come to be known as “Pre-Code Hollywood.” In 1934, the Motion Picture Production Code or the “Hays Code,” as it came to be known in reference to Will H. Hays, president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, was enforced. The end of the 1920s had presented the already audacious films of the silent era with a new toy – sound, and a new purpose – the Great Depression. The freedom given to directors and scriptwriters by witty and suggestive dialogue opened up new possibilities for the humour and subversion that depression audiences craved. That censorship would be enforced to tame these films was almost inevitable, and what was clearly so shocking at the time was the agency and sexual status being afforded to women in these films. The code aimed to censor and restrict “indecency” in Hollywood cinema. Among the things banned or advised against in the code were any form of nudity, interracial and extra-marital relationships. In short, it was implicit in the new dictates of the code that the sexual freedoms of women be suppressed onscreen. The prelapsarian freedoms of pre-Hays Hollywood as detailed above were over.

It often strikes modern viewers as strange that the female protagonists of Hollywood films made pre-1934 are more empowered than many of their modern-day counterparts. The fierce independence of wartime heroines played by stars such as Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Katharine Hepburn are cemented in Hollywood’s collective consciousness, but their earlier incarnations who championed a more subversive form of female empowerment were denied a place in Hollywood legend.

The two women in the aforementioned films embody the two main categories into which women fell in pre-code films. Garbo’s performance as Mata Hari is emblematic of a host of other characters, many of which played by Garbo herself, who revel in opulence and use their mystery and sexual status to manipulate men. Garbo’s Mata Hari is in many ways the archetypal “vamp.” By contrast, Miriam Hopkins’ Gilda is an independent “modern” woman who uses her wit and intelligence to subvert gender norms. Hopkins’ Gilda is the epitome of the then nascent screwball heroine. In examining these two archetypes I might as well have chosen Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express (1932) as my vamp, or Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night (1934) as my screwball heroine. The performances in question, though particularly shocking and evocative, are not what is essential to this study in general. What makes watching pre-code cinema today so surprising is that these archetypes which ought to restrict the portrayal of rounded, real women, often engender multi-faceted and complex portraits of women.


Mata Hari, set in Paris in the middle of the first world war, follows Mata Hari, a spy and mistress to Russian General Serge Shubin, as she falls in love with Alexis Rosanoff, Russian pilot from whom she then is asked to steal government information. When Shubin finds out that she is about to leave him for a younger man, he calls the head of the French spy bureau to inform on her, but she shoots him before he can mention the pilot’s name so as to save him from disgrace. She is eventually executed by firing squad for murder and treason. The film, at face value a superficial Hollywood melodrama, features expressionistic lighting and futuristic costumes almost worthy of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. However, what is still more modern than its expressionistic lighting and avant-garde costumes is its depiction of female empowerment.

Though the narrative remains traditional in the sense that it culminates in the reformation of Mata Hari and her execution for treason, she is always in control of her interactions with men. Empowered and unafraid to fight for what she wants, Fitzmaurice never portrays Garbo’s Mata Hari as anything less than fully in control of her self-presentation and her emotions. As in many Hollywood films, pre or post-code, the female protagonist is punished at the end of the film for her earlier transgressions. Looking at this ending within the film’s historical context, this is unsurprising. However, the presentation of Mata Hari’s subversion is apparent less in details of plot and more in visual representation. The way in which Mata Hari’s head, sheathed in a gold headdress, glimmers like the head of the Virgin Mary as she lies beneath the icon in Rosanoff’s room. The powerful simplicity of her black gown and sleeked back hair before her execution. These images are not those of a submissive, traditionally feminine heroine. Coupled with Garbo’s natural magnetism and androgynous beauty, Mata Hari lies firmly outside the confines of the traditionally feminine object of the male gaze. Less than five years later, the sexual liberties of Fitzmaurice’s Mata Hari would be unimaginable.


More light hearted yet in many ways more shocking is Ernst Lubitsch’s Design for Living. Adapted by Ben Hecht from the Noël Coward play of the same name, Design for Living’s story of a ménage a trois was deemed so scandalous that it was banned in 1934 after the enforcement of the Hays code, and was only made widely accessible when it was released on DVD in a Gary Cooper box-set in 2005. One could easily make an argument for Ernst Lubitch being the premier filmmaker of 1930s and early 40s Hollywood. Having emigrated from Berlin at the beginning of the 1920s, Lubitsch made a name for himself making sophisticated comedies. He was revered to such a degree that his subtle style became known “The Lubitsch Touch.” Though he made what are arguably his two most brilliant films after the code, Ninotchka (1939) and To Be or Not to Be (1941), Design for Living is his most daring and exciting film, and quite possibly the most subversive of the era.

Making a film about a ménage a trois alone would have been shocking, but what is so unusual about the film is the agency it affords its female protagonist. It is Gilda who proposes she live with Tommy and George, just as it is Gilda who sets up the ground rules for their life together, “no sex – it’s a gentleman’s agreement!” she exclaims as the three shake hands. Of course this agreement doesn’t last for long. Gilda ends up flitting from one man to the other, unable to make up her mind about who she loves best, destroying the boys’ friendship in the process. Ultimately they reunite as a trio, with George and Tommy rescuing her from the boring husband she married in an attempt to forget them. The final shot of the film of three of them sitting together in the back of a taxi cab has become somewhat iconic – first Gilda kisses George, then Tommy, then they shake hands again on their “gentleman’s agreement,” fade to black.

On the surface, Gilda’s intellectual status compared to the boys is more conventional. In the same scene in which Gilda suggests the three of them live together, she declares that she is going to devote herself to the improvement of their work, she says:

“We’re going to concentrate on work. Your work. My work doesn’t count. I think both you boys have a great deal of talent, but too much ego. You spend one day working, and a whole month bragging. Gentlemen, there are going to be a few changes. I’m going to jump up and down on your ego. I’m going to criticize your work with a baseball bat. I’ll tell you everyday how bad your stuff is till you get something good, and if it’s good, I’m going to tell you it’s rotten till you get something better. I’m going to be a mother of the arts.”

While declaring that her work “doesn’t count,” she simultaneously asserts her own intellectual prowess and her confidence in her judgement, embracing maternal patronage as a source of empowerment. Perhaps this is all we could hope to expect from a film of the period, but at any rate, Gilda’s prioritisation of the boys’ work is not simply submissive. Just as Mata Hari’s independence and power shines through the oppressive Hollywood tropes of exoticism and sexism, Gilda’s intelligence and intellect is covertly expressed through humour and glamour.


We cannot say with the certainty of a Hollywood “fade-to-black” that women were uniformly and consistently portrayed as liberated in pre-code Hollywood. What we can do is identify a kind of proto-feminism in this bubble of cinema history and an exciting subversion that allowed for the portrayal of more rounded women. These women, unlike those of today’s Hollywood output, were not hampered by years of censorship and societal pressures – cinema was a blank canvas for the 30s’ “new woman.” Whether or not we can wholeheartedly endorse these films as feminist, their female protagonists are tantalizingly glamourous and empowered in a way we, unfortunately, are not accustomed to watching in today’s mainstream cinema.

(Image sources: http://www.doctormacro.com/index.html

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: