Movies Before the Production Code aka the Time When Hollywood Knew How to Portray Women

Norman Shearer in ‘A Free Soul’ (1931)

Talking about a ‘minority’ only interests a minority. That said, if your curiosity and open mind lead you to this page, and if you are interested in the History of Cinema, the documentary below should make you happy. Here is a chance to have a look at a rarely evoked subject: the depiction of women in films in the PreCode era.

During the few years movies boomed before the Production Code kicked in, women roles managed to evolved at a fast pace, pushing boundaries in stories and being depicted as complex characters going through as many changes as women in real life were going through.

What happened?

So, how come, in 2013, we keep marveling when a man manages to write an interesting female character, or when a woman tells a story that touches more people than ‘just women’? When did women stopped being half of the human equation to become the sweet prize or the obnoxious obstacle in a man’s journey?


The Production Code happened…

One of the reason why we, today, struggle to write women as something other but a limiting cliché, is the censorship that ruled Hollywood for almost 40 years (1930 to 1968) and set the tone as to what a woman should or shouldn’t be, so morale would prevail. That was the birth of The Production Code, a set of guidelines that every Studio had to follow in the United States and that later became the Film Rating System as we know it today. Four decades is a long time of brain washing and poor storytelling and, when you’ll watch Complicated Women: Movies Before the Production Code below, you’ll see that in the short time of freedom they were allotted, actresses found the space to push boundaries in ways that might be today referred to as ‘subversive’ (see first quote) but really feel exciting and inspiring.

illegal abortion in 1934…

Complicated Women: Movies Before the Production Code

Complicated Women… is a 55 minutes documentary from 2003 that shows the evolution of women as characters in movies from the Pre Code era. It is absolutely fascinating to see the variety of roles women had during the few years between the end of the silent era and the Production Code time. The spectrum of subjects that were tackled in a time with so many limitations as to what you could show on screen, and the way you could film them is astounding.

Narrated by Jane Fonda, this documentary is an absolute must-watch to understand where the American film tradition comes from, where films were heading before censorship arrive and where it could go, now that we can do pretty much anything we want. Whether you have trouble imagining women being more than what they seem to be now, or you feel frustrated and wants to feel more challenged, this crash course reviewing the major films that were released Pre-Code will undoubtedly sparkle your imagination and hopefully inspire you.

The Flame Within (1935): a story of a woman who leaves her successful career to marry a man who disapproves of a woman working.

Stay until the end, that talks about the shift that happened after the Code was reinforced, thanks to Joseph Breen and the Catholic Church, and how women went back to become virgin housewives forever and ever.

*Happy Ending*

thanks to @FilmmanCineMix

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