Pre-Code. The forbidden era where anything goes. Wonderfully risqué, daring and freeing, Pre-Code is a goldmine of genres, thoughts and attitudes, all rushing to get their point across before the enforcement of the Hays Code in 1934. Red-Headed Woman (1932) and Baby Face (1933) are two of the era’s most iconic films and they are strikingly similar in many ways.
In Red-Headed Woman (dir. Jack Conway), Jean Harlow plays Lil Andrews, a secretary who will do anything to move up the ladder and make a better life for herself. She seduces her boss Bill Legendre (Chester Morris), breaks up his marriage, then marries him, has affairs, becomes a social pariah in the high society she desperately wanted to a part of, then does it all over again. She uses sex to get what she wants and she doesn’t care what anybody thinks.
In Baby Face (dir. Alfred E. Green), Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck) does exactly the same. Brought up in the rough part of town, pimped out by her father (!) to the male customers of his speakeasy, Lily just wants to get away from it all and start a new life. She and her maid and friend Chico (Theresa Harris) – her truest and longest relationship – head for New York City, where Lily begins to use her sex appeal and prowess to get ahead.
What I love about these films – and indeed most films of the Pre-Code era – is how frank and brutal they are. Both Lil and Lily shamelessly use sex to get what they want and what they want is a better life. The life they deserve. The life they were denied. They refuse to spend their ‘whole life on the wrong side of the railroad tracks’, in Lil’s words. So they use men. They use men and they use their own bodies. It’s not commendable and you could argue that it’s morally wrong, but it’s understandable. We are meant to root for them as they go about their journey. We are on their side. Neither of these women ever had a lot, so why shouldn’t they go get it? In Lil’s case, we don’t get to see much of her beginnings like we do with Lily, but we can imagine they couldn’t have been that much different. She made up her mind a ‘long time ago’, she says to her best friend Sally (Una Merkel). Just like Lily. In Baby Face’s opening sequence, we walk into her sleazy, disgusting world: a speakeasy run by her father, where she has been sexually exploited by dirty men since she was 14. She’s angry, she’s bitter, she’s sick of it all and she won’t stand for it anymore. Can you blame her?
In hindsight, both of these characters are a couple of badasses. And they were quite progressive. Sure, it’s not an overwhemingly positive portrayal, but that’s the thing with Pre-Code. It is simultaneously progressive and old-fashioned. Well, it had to be, it was the early 1930s. It is glorious, though. It’s raw, it’s honest, it’s challenging and it’s out in the open. Tastefully, of course.