Positive Female Portrayal in Pre-Code Sound Films

Paper by Derek Tilton.

The topic of women in film has always been an interesting topic to discuss among film critics, film advocates, and other film enthusiasts. In film, women, and the female characters they portray, have a harder time being represented positively in film than men do for a countless number of reasons, with many of them being rooted in the enforcement of the Production Code and due to societal norms of a large part of the 1900s. But, what about films, specifically sound films, made before the Production Code was enforced? Did those films portray female characters positively and with feminist characteristics? Sound films, also known as “talkies,” that were made before the Production Code was enforced portrayed women positively and with feminist qualities (extremely so by standards set in the 1920s and 1930s, and decently so by today’s standards). The feminist qualities and overall positive representation of women can be seen in films like Baby Face (1933, directed by Alfred E. Green) where the main female character is able to think and live on her own without ever searching for a man, and in films like She Done Him Wrong (1933, directed by Lowell Sherman). Feminism in early sound films is relevant today because many films in modern times struggle to show feminist qualities and proving that Pre-Code sound films from the 1930s had female characters that were portrayed positively and with feminist qualities would show that not only does Hollywood have a long way to go in portraying positive and feminist female characters, it also has not improved female representation since these Pre-Code sound films were made.

One film that has an important positive portrayal of a female character that has feministic qualities is the film Baby Face (1933), directed by Alfred E. Green. In the film, the “Pre-Production Code [film] has [Barbara] Stanwyck bartending at a speakeasy, then literally sleeping her floor by floor to the top of a N.Y.C office building” (Maltin 74). Barbara Stanwyck’s character, Lily Powers, is introduced as a character with feministic qualities from the get-go; Lily isn’t dreaming about or looking for a man to marry and she has goals about what she wants her life to be like rather than just hoping that one day the right man will come along and provide for Lily. At the beginning of the film, Lily Powers’ character is revealed to have been used for sex by her father’s bar patrons in order to keep the place where Lily and her father work afloat. After Lily’s father dies, Lily (who is unfazed and not sad about her abusive father’s death) takes the advice from an older friend of hers and decides to take on life in New York City. The scene where Lily Powers gets advice from a friend of hers, a cobbler who admired Friedrich Nietzsche, was highly controversial when shown to the Production Code, and even though the code wasn’t enforced during this time, they demanded that the speech be altered. In the original speech, the cobbler tells Lily that she should go to a big city somewhere and use men in order to get what she wants since Lily will soon be a woman going through a male-dominated workforce and society in order to get money to live now that her father is dead. This scene, and the speech that she hears from her friend, inspires Lily to act independently and think about herself in order to get a better life than the life she had beforehand, something that was and still is considered to be a feminist way of acting and thinking.

After the scene where Lily talks to her friend, she embarks on her journey to New York City, taking along her female best friend, Chico. Lily decides to find a job at Gotham Trust, a bank company located in New York City in order to pay for her rent at her new home. However, Lily takes the cobbler’s advice well and has sex with various men in order to get what she wants, from having sex to get a free ride to NYC to having sex with the vice president of Gotham Trust in order to be taken care of and get lots of money. Back in the 1930s, many people thought that Lily Powers’ way of achieving money and power were immoral, and her character as a whole was controversial when released to the public. But, in accordance to feminism today, what Lily Powers was doing wasn’t as immoral as people in the 1930s thought it was; in fact, many of Lily Powers’ actions could be considered feminist by today’s standards. Lily Powers was taking her own action in what happened with her life; what job she would take, what people she would associate with, etc. Lily was never looking for a man’s approval or the right guy to marry, but was instead just looking for the best way to provide a nice lifestyle for her and her friend Chico. Lily never took any orders from a man on how to live her life and instead proved herself to be a woman who could easily get power in a male-dominated workforce. Most importantly, though, is that Lily Powers always established herself as an independent person who knew what she wanted and knew how to get it, especially without the help of a man (she used men to help gain what she wanted, but she never relied on them).

Another interesting and important display of Lily Powers as a positive female character that has feminist qualities can be seen in Lily’s relationship with her friend Chico. Chico is Lily’s best friend, and is also an African-American woman. At the beginning of the film she works for Lily’s father’s bar, just like Lily does and after Lily’s father dies, Lily decides to take Chico with her to NYC. While Chico is unfortunately portrayed with some stereotypes of black people at the time (her job was always to be Lily’s maid and she was portrayed as being a little slower than the rest of the characters), her relationship with Lily is surprisingly feminist for the 1930s. Lily is loyal to Chico as a friend, and always keeps a relationship with Chico while Lily works her way up at Gotham Trust. Lily never talks down to Chico throughout the entire film and always has normal conversations with Chico about what’s going on in the film. When Lily ends up gaining more money due to sleeping her way to a better job at Gotham Trust, she hires Chico to be her maid. Many of Lily’s “suitors” question why Lily wants Chico to be her maid, with many of them saying that they can get better maids and that Chico is generally a slow person. But, Lily always defends Chico. Lily always states that wherever she goes, Chico will go, and that if the other people in her life don’t like that, well then too bad. Lily’s loyalty and positive friendship with Chico, a black woman, helps identify Lily’s character as being a character with feminist qualities due to Lily not being racist and/or derogatory towards Chico for being a black person, and instead treating Chico with the same amount of respect and dignity that she would treat any one of her other friends (in fact, throughout the film, Lily shows more respect for Chico than she does for the men that she sleeps with in order to gain power and money). While Lily and Chico’s relationship would not be considered idealistic by today’s feminist standards, their relationship was very feminist in the 30s when the film was released, and some qualities of the relationship, such as mutual respect for each other and loyalty towards each other, could be seen as feminist in the modern day due to the characters showing and representing a form of female empowerment by trusting each other.

Another film that was important in positive portrayals of female characters with feminist qualities was the film She Done Him Wrong (1933), which was directed by Lowell Sherman. The film stars Mae West, “a notoriously risqué stage comedienne, a master of the wisecrack, and the double entendre” (Lewis 112). In the film, Mae West plays Lady Lou, a 1890s barroom singer who absolutely loves the diamonds all her male suitors give her. Many men in the film crave Lady Lou’s attention, and many of the main characters, including Gus, Lady Lou’s boss, Dan Flynn, a rival of Gus’s who wants to take over Gus’s barroom and take care of Lady Lou, and Chick Clark, a man who is in love with Lady Lou so much that he stole diamonds for her and went to jail for it, among other men make plenty of promises and give Lady Lou many diamonds in order to please her. In the film, Lady Lou is the center of attention at all times; she’s smart, she’s funny, she’s independent, she’s in charge of her own life and she makes her own money (and lots of it). Lady Lou ends up learning about a scandal involving Gus, the man providing diamonds for her during the time of the film, and has to deal with other men in her life that want to be with her, including Chick Clark, Lady Lou’s former significant other who escapes from jail to make sure that Lady Lou isn’t cheating on Chick with anyone else. Near the end of the film, after all of her suitors are either arrested or killed for illegal crimes that were committed (or in Dan’s case, for being in the wrong place at the wrong time), Lady Lou finds real love with Captain Cummings (played by a young Cary Grant), the man who arrested Gus and appeared frequently throughout the film before.

Lady Lou’s character is a positive portrayal of women and is an extremely feministic character. It’s clear right from the get-go that Lady Lou’s character is smart and independent, among many other positive qualities. Lady Lou is unabashedly raunchy and flirtatious, telling multiple men to “come up and see her sometime” with no shame whatsoever (in the film’s context, “coming up and seeing Lady Lou sometime” is Lady Lou’s invitation to having sex with the man she’s saying that line to). “West’s onscreen persona was gutsy and sexy: she was best known for her racy double entendre jokes that suggested she was a sexual free spirit who was untethered to any one man, be it father or husband” (Benshoff and Griffin 227). In the film, it’s abundantly clear that Lady Lou doesn’t need a man; she’s made a fortune off of her singing career and using her charm and good looks to make men fall in love with her and provide for her. The fact that Lady Lou doesn’t need a man to succeed in life and made her fortune on her own accord makes Mae West’s character incredibly feministic, as it shows that a woman can achieve great success by herself and without help from anyone, especially from a man.

There are plenty of other reasons that Lady Lou can be considered a feministic character besides the fact that she was able to make her own fortune without needing or wanting a man. For one, Lady Lou’s unabashed flirtatiousness and the double entendre jokes that she told made it clear that Lady Lou was not afraid to talk about sex, have a lot of sex, and be the first person to initiate sex with a man. All of this shows that Lady Lou was incredibly feministic because she didn’t wait for a man to ask her to make love to her; Lady Lou took charge of her life and what she wanted to do with it. It shows that Lady Lou, and by proxy other women, could be flirtatious and talk about sex with other people and not be chastised for it. Lady Lou’s incredible wittiness, clever jokes, smart double entendre jokes, and quick-thinking skills also helped mold Lady Lou’s positive portrayal of a female character, as it made Lady Lou appear to be one of the smartest people in the world, smarter than any of the men in the film. Mae West’s portrayal of a woman who wasn’t afraid to talk about sex, didn’t need a man in her life to marry or depend on, was quick on her feet and great at problem-solving, and who made her own money and chose what to do with her life made a character that I would consider to be a feminist icon. Lady Lou’s character is one of the few female characters in cinema who was quick, smart, independent, talented, self-sufficient, funny, appealing, unabashed, and beautiful all in one, a character that women could look up to and learn that they could be just as independent and successful as without needing a man.

Other portrayals of women in She Done Him Wrong were neither negative nor positive portrayals of women. The portrayals of characters such as Rita, one of Gus’ partners-in-crime, and Sally, one of the girls Gus’ convinces to become a prostitute for his monetary gain, weren’t positive nor negative. Both characters had individual personalities and had end-goals, but both were minor characters in the film. Although a conversation with Lady Lou and Rita early on meant that the film passed the Bechdel Test, a test that measures how feminist a movie is in a specific way. The test requires that two named female characters communicate with each other and talk to each other about something other than a man (Alison Bechdel, “Testy”). The test exists because many films surprisingly don’t pass the test, but She Done Him Wrong does pass it, further cementing the fact that the movie is both feministic and has feministic characters.

In conclusion, both Baby Face and She Done Him Wrong help cemented the idea that women in Pre-Code sound films were portrayed with a positive and decently feministic quality, especially compared to films made during the Production Code era. Baby Face’s protagonist, Lily Powers, showed that her character was positively portrayed and feministic by showing that she didn’t need a man to achieve success and gain money in her life. She presented her feministic qualities by showing that she was an independent woman who didn’t need a man to help get what she wanted. She Done Him Wrong’s protagonist, Lady Lou, showed women that they could achieve success, fame, and riches without a man’s help, as well. But, Lady Lou also showed women that they could be smart, independent, funny, witty, flirtatious, and more and still be well-loved by everyone, all without needing a man in their lives. Lady Lou showed that women didn’t have to obey traditional gender roles and that they were allowed to talk about sex and be smart, quick-thinking, and witty. The fact that women in Pre-Code sound films are portrayed positively and with more feministic qualities than many films that have followed since, including films being made today, shows that Hollywood really needs to step up and improve their representation of women in film, and that Hollywood has a long way to go before truly being equal.

Works Cited

Bechdel, Alison. “Testy.” Dykestowatchoutforcom RSS. Alison Bechdel Blog, 8 Nov. 2013. Web. 23 June 2016.

Benshoff, Harry M., and Sean Griffin. “Women in Classical Hollywood.” America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies. 2nd ed. Malden, MA, USA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. 227-28. Print.

Kehr, Dave. “A Wanton Woman’s Ways Revealed, 71 Years Later.” The New York Times. New York Times, 9 Jan. 2005. Web. 22 June 2016.

Lewis, Jon. “1930-1934: The Studios Resist the Code.” American Film: A History. 1st ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008. 112-17. Print.

Maltin, Leonard. “Baby Face.” Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide: 2009 Edition. New York: Plume, 2008. 74. Print.


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