Themes: classic Hollywood, cinema, filmmaking, female representation, fashion and glamour
Analysing the impact of the Production Code on the pre-code film, Baby Face (1933) with the film, Stella Dallas (1937), produced during the enforcement of the Code.
What was the Production Code?
The rise of Hollywood scandals that grew in the late 1920s and early 1930s – from William Taylor’s countless affairs, to Fatty Arbuckle’s rape and murder charges – influenced Hollywood’s bad reputation. With great fear that scandals would increase and censorship may come from Washington itself, the enforcement of the “Dont’s” and “Be Careful’s” were created in 1927 by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA). However, these guidelines were poorly formatted and were not the law, hence heavily ignored by filmmakers. This four-year period became known as the pre-Code era.
It wasn't until a Catholic administrator for the MPPDA, Joseph Breen, heavily enforced the Production Code in 1934, rousing various opinions and impacting the Hollywood film industry. The Code set about maintaining respectability within Hollywood and was greatly evident through the concept of compensating 'moral values' which impacted the creativity of filmmakers both in a negative and positive way. Not only did the Code seek to change the way stories were portrayed on screen but also the way women were represented within the 'fallen women' genre, impacting the aspirational gold digger trope. Moreover, the Code enabled negative themes, such as 'class rise' to be modified through the use of glamour.
In understanding just how severe the Production Code impacted these factors within Hollywood, the pre-Code film, Baby Face (1933) and post-Code film, Stella Dallas (1937) provide essential comparisons during a short period.
The Code impacted filmmaker's creativity
Films created during the pre-Code era largely consisted of sexual innuendos, violence, or were politically rousing. The enforcement of the Code in 1934 offered a ‘blueprint’ for creatives; particularly screenwriters. From this, it became crucial for scripts to consist of simple structured storylines that were easy to follow. Concepts where love ended in marriage or crime ended in arrest allowed for the compensation of moral values. For example, a film may show the rise of the violent gangster but he must never succeed, portraying the policeman as always victorious. These structured storylines allowed studios to mass produce films, therefore increasing profits for the industry. The film, Stella Dallas (1937) shows this formulaic plotline, as Stella must suffer the consequences for marrying a man for wealth and using his suffering for her own needs. Because of her 'moral wrongdoing', she must eventually fall. The only people who succeed in Stella Dallas are the victims of the narrative: her husband, Stephen, and daughter, Laurel.
Stella (Barbara Stanwyck) must watch on from outside as her daughter gets married
Because of the structured storylines, cinema became extremely conservative and predictable. Angered filmmakers found it hard to create their own visions on screen. Violence, prostitution, crime, sexual behaviour, homosexuality were all factors that were encompassed within American society during the Great Depression, and without them being evident within cinema, films did not best reflect society at the time. Instead, films highlighted perfect realities where good always outweighed the bad. Brevet (2011) states that the Production Code allowed filmmakers to “evolve a new ‘code’, which traded starkness for subtlety.” In other words, filmmakers came up with different ways to get their messages across to audiences without having to shove it down their throats. Doherty (2009) argues that ‘Breen did allow creativity to flourish’ as filmmakers worked around strictly prohibited content and explored symbolism through the use of the mise en scene. During this time, films began to depict sexually-inspired set decor and sexual innuendos were spoken within dialogue. Almost everything depicted on screen had a double meaning that only the audience could pick up on if they watched closely.
In particular, the ending of Stella Dallas (1937) can be viewed in two different ways. Firstly, it is Stella who does wrong by wanting to become somebody she isn’t, and therefore like in many Code films, she must suffer the consequences of boasting about having 'class' in front of the more respected, wealthier social class. Or secondly, Stella makes the ultimate sacrifice by continuing to live a poor life, but ‘knowing that her one love, her daughter, is living comfortably.’ (Foster, 2016). Stella is therefore not a bad person but instead the true heroine of the film.
On the other hand, the pre-Code film, Baby Face (1933) features multiple sexual innuendos. Although the film never states that the protagonist, Lily, is a prostitute it can be assumed that that is exactly her job; the way she dresses, speaks, and the way her father insists she stay back in the speakeasy with strange men – implying she will have sex in exchange for money. More so, each time Lily 'sleeps' her way to the top, the camera pans up the exterior city skyscraper, stopping at each level to convey the act of sexual intercourse.
The representation of women in cinema was impacted
Before the Code and during its implementation, there was an increase in the 'fallen woman' genre, depicting the corrupt and aspirational, gold digger. During the Jazz Age of the 1920s audiences saw a new image of a woman; one who rises to success by using men through her promiscuity, seductiveness, and insatiable nature. These gold digger films often began with women at their lowest, living in a working-class town with no chance of going anywhere. With poverty and economic hardships at their doorstep, these women had very little to succeed, thus they used their femininity and looks to rise up in the world, ultimately becoming gold diggers who preyed on wealthy men in order to support them. These films were popular amongst the masses as they reflected a heightened reality. For example, films that were set in a low-class context with the sole purpose of the protagonist trying to make something of themself were inspiring to those who wished to better their own position in life.
Baby Face (1933)
As previously referred to, Baby Face (1933), one of the most notorious films of the pre-Code era, sparked mixed reviews amongst audiences. Fans loved the main character’s charm and smarts but conservatives such as the MPPDA and the Catholic Legion of Decency saw the film as indecent since these female characters were capable of going against the norms of society. In the film, Lily, the protagonist, is a working-class girl. She is rough and funny and knows exactly what she needs to do in order to advance her social and financial status within the world. One by one she sleeps with countless men, slowly climbing the ladder of success, becoming wealthier and more lavish.
However, Lily knows who she is, what she wants, and is determined to get there. In a way we could describe Lily as a feminist: powerful, strong, and smart, knowing what she needs to do to make a better life for herself whilst constantly challenging the patriarchy. She lets no man stand in her way and is willing to rise above the stereotypical white businessman to succeed on her own, like many of these gold digger women of the time. Lily’s father was a man who controlled her life making her use her body for sex and his own advancements. After his death, she seeks refuge from the cobbler, where she soon learns that she can use her sexual power over men for her own benefit. Shipman (1982) states that these gold digger films ‘offer a pungent and mainly truthful account of America at a low point in history,’ (p. 242) ultimately reflecting a struggling society dreaming to benefit from their lower-class roots, particularly hardworking women. Eventually, Warner Bros had to abandon these types of films as they glamourised crime. Therefore, various endings were adopted to reflect morally right choices and actions, just like Lily in Baby Face (1933) who ends up back where she started.
These films depicted women as a way of conveying ethical lessons; sometimes illustrating the differences between right and wrong or sin and redemption; as well as conveying ideas about deception, class, exploitation, adversity, and retribution, building on themes common in earlier literature. The enforcement of the Code in 1934 and onwards saw a decrease in the number of promiscuous, sexually charged gold digger characters represented on screen.
Pre-Code films often had far more defining and emotionally challenging roles for women compared to that of the post-Code era. Juxtaposing Barbara Stanwyck’s character of Lily in Baby Face (1933) with her character of Stella in Stella Dallas (1937), there is a clear dichotomy between the two personalities. Stella is more conservative than the sexually driven Lily. Lily’s ultimate goal is to better herself, whereas Stella’s aim shifts from bettering herself to satisfying her daughter. However, it’s films like Stella Dallas (1937) that capture a strong, powerful woman, set amongst the backdrop of a studio adhering to the Code. The maternal melodrama essentially focuses on the triumph of the gold digger, Stella, who is the unsung hero, letting go of her daughter, allowing her to have a better life. She takes the ultimate sacrifice, leaving Laurel to live comfortably whilst Stella continues to live a poor, destitute life. As Foster (2016) states, it is women like Stella who undermine society with their “disruptive acts of maternal heroism.”
Stella Dallas (1937)
Portraying class rise through glamour
There is a distinct connection between the fallen woman genre and the use of architectural design and glamour represented within these films. Jacobs (1997) claims that the design of the fallen woman film had a specific narrative function: ‘It represented metaphors for modernity, where architectural modernism was associated with the "new" woman, with independence, sexual promiscuity, and feminine self-indulgence’ (p. 55). Glamour was a means of disguise, a facade in which women could pretend to be someone they were not, a wealthier version of who they were. These glamour films reflected the ‘rags to riches’ concept or Cinderella stories, where lavish gowns replaced old clothes symbolising ballroom dresses and vehicles represented carriages; wealth moving women into upper-class lifestyles. The use of glamour was portrayed frequently and outlandish during the pre-Code era. Lily’s transformation scenes in Baby Face (1933), sparked negativity. At first, her appearance in the speakeasy was dishevelled and flousy, but as the film progressed she acquired fashionable garments, expensive jewels, and eccentric apartments all from using men.
Lily’s transformation from a lower-class woman to a woman of status and wealth, is evident within this mise en scene. Her fashion, jewels, and house continue to become even more eccentric as she moves up in the world. Even her African American maid, Chico, undergoes a transformation progressing from wearing dull uniforms to far more opulent maid outfits. These transformation scenes posed huge threats for the Studio Relations Committee, as everything the woman gained was from an exchange of sex and money. According to Jacobs (1997), screenwriter, Lamar Trotti in 1932 stated that "with them [the gold diggers] prostitution has become a fine art, with beautiful jewels, and all the comforts of life as the rewards of their activities” (p. 62). Industry censors went out of their way to eradicate scenes where women used sex for money however, they were unable to change the way visuals were displayed. Censors believed that these visuals showcased positive metaphors of sexual bargaining, attractive to female audiences at the time, something morally wrong which justified unlawful sexuality.
Lily's costumes become more elaborate and glamourous the more men she sleeps with. Baby Face (1933)
The depiction of class rise is evident through the use of fashion and glamour within these Hollywood films. Jacobs (1997) states that ‘this representation of class rise borders on the fantastic,’ where a unique power is attached to lavish items of clothing, almost as though it defines the characters ‘class identity and moral standing within society’ (p. 58). The ideal of the class rise corresponded with sexuality which censors and reformers found disgusting. The heroine was always a phony who gained her notoriety by sleeping around, eventually acquiring wealth, and thus needed to be humiliated publicly to prove a point. However, Jacobs (1997) continues to argue that the ‘downward trajectory of the fall was replaced by a rise in class.’ (p.11) This is evident within the original ending of Baby Face (1933), where Lily loses her husband to suicide, which is seen as her ultimate fall, however, she still obtains all of her fine luxuries and her elite class status.
Filmmakers were wise in incorporating glamour as a way of revealing themes and notions within the production design, emphasising indirectly what couldn't be shown. They continued to do so after the Code was implemented, specifically in Stella Dallas (1937). The use of glamour and fashion is used to portray Stella as a silly and unfashionable woman. At the beginning of the film, Stella is a working-class girl who dreams of becoming wealthy and privileged, describing the rich like “people in the movies” and hoping to someday be a part of that society. The underlying message in the film is that a mother cannot move up in the world, but her children can. This is evident through her daughter, Laurel, who can acquire wealth and fashionable attire through her bourgeois father, Stephan. Although Stella claims she has “stacks of class” she will always be a lower-class woman who can never progress to a higher status. Her oppressed roots are made prominent through her bad behaviour with her gambling friend, Ed Munn, and dowdy style and mannerisms. Because of this, the film ‘punishes Stella by turning her into a ‘spectacle’ produced by the upper class, disapproving gaze,’ (Kaplan, 1987). This is achieved through the use of over-the-top, theatrical clothing, considered ugly to the average woman. Glamour helped to create a means of visualising the ultimate ‘fall’.
The establishment of the “Dont’s” and “Be Careful’s” of 1927 did very little to prevent the 'morally wrong' content Hollywood was producing at the time. The Code impacted the creativity of Hollywood filmmakers as they had to think around the strict guidelines in order to get their ideas across to audiences, often compensating wrong actions undertaken by characters with what they rightfully deserved. The portrayal of women changed significantly during the pre-Code era and after, which saw a decrease in the sexually voracious gold digger and a rise in the maternal motherly figure. Finally, the representation of glamour depicted class rise in a negative way and thus changed accordingly to the Code’s regulations.
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