Sleeping Your Way To The Top

#13 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Chester Morris and Jean Harlow in Red-Headed Woman

One of the most popular pre-code storylines was that of a beautiful young woman who seduces unsuspecting men in a calculated effort to raise her station in life by becoming his well-kept mistress.  If the gold digger is clever enough and persistent, she may even find herself a rich man’s wife.

In Baby Face, Barbara Stanwyck is deliciously calculating as Lily Powers, a woman who begins life ruthlessly exploited by men until she turns the tables and learns to use men to get what she wants.

It’s a great film, and no one could’ve played it better than Stanwyck.  Her deep, non-nonsense voice and the cold look in her eyes tells you these poor saps never had a chance.

The film opens in her father’s seedy speakeasy, where Lily serves beer to shirtless and sweaty men who constantly manhandle her.  Her father takes money from a man for sex with Lily, and it’s clear it isn’t the first time.

The whole film is worth watching just for the opening scene.  No shrinking violet, Lily fends the men off with cutting remarks and even smashes one overzealous john over the head with an empty beer bottle.  Still she cannot escape the grim circumstances of her life.

When her father dies in an accident, Cragg, an elderly cobbler and her only male friend, encourages her to use her beauty and looks to gain power over men.

She moves to the city and gets an office job by sleeping with the boss’ assistant.  Soon she’s moved up to the boss, then his boss, and then his boss.  The movie uses a great visual of showing the outside of the office, tracking higher and higher up the building as Lily literally “sleeps her way to the top.”

Barbara Stanwyck

While Lily Powers is motivated by desperation, the Red-Headed woman’s Lil “Red” Andrews is simply after mischief.  

It was a role Jean Harlow was born to play.

Harlow’s career began with Howard Hughes, playing Helen, the promiscuous girlfriend of Roy in Hell’s Angels.  Fame grew as she played highly sexual mob molls, most famously in The Public Enemy.

But Harlow found her stride in Red-Headed Woman, her first headlining role.

Unlike Baby Face, Red-Headed Woman is played as burlesque, an outrageous farce of the gold digger trope.  Red is a shameless maneater, going as far as to lock her prey in a room with him so he can’t escape her seductions.

The tone suited Harlow’s style perfectly.  Harlow was a young, curvy, beautiful woman who oozed sex.  But her voice didn’t match her body—you expect a husky seductive tone, like Stanwyck, or Lauren Bacall, or even Jessica Rabbit.

But when she talks, she sounds more like a gum-cracking truck stop waitress. 

There’s a playfulness to her sexuality that previewed the screwball comedy.

And in the hands of the right screenwriter, that combination is magic.

Unfortunately, F. Scott Fitzgerald was not the right screenwriter.  The famous author did not have nearly the success in Hollywood as he had as a Great American Novelist.  Writing scripts takes a very different skill set than writing novels, and very few can master both.  The novelist has complete freedom over the world and is the sole voice (at least until his editor sees the first draft).  The novelist has a comparatively long time to complete the work and fewer structural rules.

In contrast, the screenwriter (especially in the 1930s) worked under tight deadlines, sometimes writing or rewriting scripts over a weekend.  There is constant feedback from multiple sources, a strict structure, and the work of many writers is ultimately cobbled together to form the finished product.

For a legendary novelist like Fitzgerald, it can feel like a major demotion.

So for all his literary brilliance, Fitzgerald could not capture the humor and wit producer Irving Thalberg wanted for Red-Headed Woman, and he called in Anita Loos, his ace in the bullpen that could always get the job done.

Anita Loos

Anita Loos could do it all.  In her long career, she worked on over a hundred film scripts.  She also wrote for Broadway, as well as having multiple fiction and nonfiction works published.

She had a particular talent for writing the sexual innuendo-laced female dialogue that Thalberg wanted for Red-Headed Women.

Once Loos fixed the script—which was really a complete rewrite, Thalberg knew it had a winner.

Red-Headed Woman is a zany delight, filled with physical comedy that borders on slapstick and a script that zings as Red steals away one husband before going after another, and falling in love with a third.

The best part?

She gets away with it.  

No moment of repentance, no promise to change her ways, no seeing the light through true love.

Instead, we see Red in the back of a limousine, with the rich husband who bankrolls her lifestyle and the man she loves chauffeuring the car.

Who says a woman can’t have it all?

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.

Down Hollywood’s Primrose Path

#8 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Part II: A Toothless Code

We’ve been having fun, haven’t we?  In the first part of this blog, we’ve watched Garbo at her best—seducing unwitting men to their doom in Mata Hari, overcoming her fallen woman past in Anna Christie, and succumbing to a romantic death of doom in Camille.  We’ve watched a young swashbuckling Clark Gable sail the high seas in Mutiny on the Bounty, and delighted in Joan Crawford and John Barrymore’s double entendres in Grand HotelDracula and Frankenstein scared us out of our wits, and King Kong had us reaching for the popcorn.

Audiences in the 1930s were having fun too.  Lots of fun.  Hollywood had made the successful transition from silent pictures to talkies, and audiences were addicted to the movies.

But not everyone was having fun.  Some people didn’t like these movies.  

Who couldn’t like these movies?

Martin Quigley, for one.

Quigley published the Exhibitor’s Herald, a movie industry trade paper.  He was a Catholic, and he was concerned about the sex and violence portrayed on the silver screen.

But let’s back up a moment.  We’ll get back to old Quigley and the Catholic crusade against Hollywood in a minute.

The story of movie censorship is a long and winding road.

If you believe movie censorship was a mistake, Mutual Film vs. Ohio was the original sin.  In this 1915 case, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that films were merchandise and not art, and thus were not protected under the free speech amendment.

This paved the way for state and local censorship boards.  Eight states had censorship boards:  Florida, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetes, New York, Ohio, Virginia, and (I’m sorry to say) Pennsylvania.  There were dozens of local boards.

A state employee watched movies all day (what a job!), searching for objectionable content.  The Supreme Court’s ruling gave these boards complete authority to cut scenes from films at will, without any approval from filmmakers. 

And cut they did.  Their decisions were capricious and inconsistent.  Kansas, a dry state, cut out any scenes of drinking.  Ohio cut anything that could have a negative impact on young minds.  Maryland was particularly touchy about disrespect of the law.

They mercilessly cut key scenes necessary to basic plotlines.  They could—and often did—butcher a film to the point where it did not make sense to its audience.  

It wasn’t ideal, but Hollywood could deal with regional censorship boards.  

The threat of federal government censorship, however, was terrifying.

Because the racier the film, the better it did at the box office.

Federal censorship was a threat to the bottom line.

Re-enter Martin Quigley.  Quigley believed that the state censorship boards were not enough, that there needed to be a uniform code of conduct from the studios.  It wasn’t enough just to cut out the worst bits—care should be taken to make decent, clean films that would portray good morals.

And all films should be suitable for children.

Quigley wasn’t alone—increasingly loud complaints and boycotting threats came from the Boy Scouts, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, and the International Federation of Catholic Alumnae.  

Something had to be done.

So when Quigley came to William Hays, director of the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association, with a draft of rules he’d written to govern the production of movies, Hays was all ears.

Hays convened a committee of studio executives, including Irving Thalberg, head of production at MGM.  Thalberg worked with Hays’ staff and Quigley’s allies to further revise the code of conduct.

Details were hammered out, concessions were made, and on March 31, 1930 Hollywood announced The Production Code.

The code prohibited (among other things), profanity, nudity, excessive violence, illegal drugs, white slavery, interracial relationships, and lustful kissing.  

Martin Quigley, movie killjoy

All the ingredients of a great movie.

The studio heads announced their intentions to the press, patted themselves on the back, and went back to Hollywood and kept right on making the same “filthy” films.

Because although the Hays Office had good intentions, they didn’t have ultimate authority over films, and by then the studios were in a war to recover the rapidly declining ticket sales as the Great Depression settled across the country.

Pollyannaish stories of morality were not going to get desperate people back into theater seats.

Audiences wanted sin.

Hollywood was going to give it to them, code or no code.

Thus began a four year battle between the studios and the reformers, a battle that the reformers would ultimately win in 1934, when Hollywood began strictly enforcing the code that would strangle filmmakers for the next thirty-four years.

During the next series of posts, we’ll explore that battle and the best of the pre-code films.  These are films made from 1930-1934, those four deliciously sinful years between the development and strict enforcement of the code.  

Irving Thalberg—who had helped write the code—went back to MGM and made The Divorcée, starring his delightful wife, Norma Shearer.

The Divorcée was decidedly not the type of film Quigley had in mind for enriching young minds.

Jerry (Shearer) and Ted (Chester Morris) are the perfect modern couple.  They’re desperately in love, drink and dance with their circle of glamourous friends, and Ted is supportive of Jerry’s demanding career.

Then Ted has a one-night stand.  He insists it was meaningless (all evidence confirms this) and implores Jerry not to wreck their perfect life over it.  He leaves for a business trip, confident he has smoothed things over with his wife.

But when Ted returns to find that Jerry has, as she says, “balanced their accounts” by having her own meaningless fling, things go sideways.

In the best scene of the film, the couple has a knock-down-drag-out fight where Jerry skewers Ted’s hypocrisy.  

“Loose women are great, but not in the home, eh Ted?” she thunders.

Finally, she delivers her killer exit line:

“So look for me in the future where the primroses grow and pack your man’s pride with the rest. From now on, you’re the only man in the world that my door is closed to.”

(I like to imagine old Martin Quigley with his head in his hands over that one.)

Ted can’t forgive her affair, and Jerry can’t forgive his double-standard, and to the surprise of all their friends, this golden couple ends up in divorce court.

Jerry spends her days as the life of the party as Ted sinks deeper into drinking and depression.  Inwardly Jerry is as bad off as Ted, and their shared misery telegraphs the deep love they still share.

Will they be able to forgive and find their way back to one another?

This is a fantastic film, made ninety years ago and yet the story of a progressive couple that cannot live up to their own ideals is as relevant as ever.

The film was nominated for Best Picture, and Norma Shearer won a well deserved Best Actress Oscar.

Watch it tonight.  Have your morals corrupted.  You won’t regret it.

There’s nothing Martin Quigley can do to stop you.

*Source: Sin In Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood, Mark Vieira

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.