“There is Nothin’ Like a Dame:” Female Stardom and Performance in Pre-Code Cinema

A new series at the Museum of Modern Art focusing on the films of fourteen actresses brings a fresh angle to pre-Code Hollywood.
Olympia Kiriakou

Part-Time Wife (1930)

A “dame” is another word for a woman, but not all women are dames. Embodying both the vibrancy of the Jazz Age and the cynicism of the Great Depression, dames are fast-talking, sassy, and with a hard shell to match. Dames populate the world of early-1930s Hollywood cinema, personifying the socio-economic politics and (relative) gender progressivism of the decade. An upcoming MoMA film program entitled “Dames, Janes, Dolls, and Canaries: Woman Stars of the Pre-Code Era” explores the idea of the pre-Code Hollywood dame in all of her multitudes. Organized by film writer and historian Farran Nehme along with Dave Kehr and Olivia Priedite, the program showcases an array of talent from popular early-1930s actresses like Madge Evans, Mae Clarke, and Nancy Carroll, focusing specifically on stardom, femininity, and performance. Through this dive into the representation of gender in the pre-Code era (1929 to mid-1934), we can begin to understand the overlapping influence of politics and morality on virtually all aspects of Hollywood cinema. The early-1930s were a period of aesthetic and narrative liberation in Hollywood film production, and perhaps no one benefitted from that uninhibited style more than Hollywood actresses.

The creative leeway filmmakers were afforded during the pre-Code era was a direct result of a lull in industrial regulations and societal mores. By the 1920s, growing calls from conservative groups and religious organizations to “clean up” the movies put the Hollywood studios on notice. Due to a 1915 Supreme Court ruling known as the “Mutual decision,” films did not have the freedom of speech protection guaranteed under the First Amendment. As a result, studio executives were wary that should they ignore the external pressure to reform, the federal government might create a national censorship law, thus potentially interfering with their film productions and bottom lines. In response, studio executives and their trade organization, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, penned a list of guidelines called the “Don’ts and Be Carefuls,” which outlined wide-ranging prohibited and cautionary topics including profanity, sex, and violence. In 1930, these guidelines were streamlined into the Production Code, but it was not until July-1934 and the formation of the Production Code Administration (run by staunch Catholic, Joseph Breen) that the industry began to uniformly self-regulate the style and content of their films. Pre-Code cinema was therefore the manifestation of an industry on a precipice, affording filmmakers the space for relatively uncompromising stylistic and narrative expression.

As Nehme’s comprehensive program notes make clear, the name of the MoMA series is a play on the era’s slang. “Dames,” “Janes,” and “Dolls” were all 1930s colloquialisms for women, while “canaries” is another word for female singers and chorus girls, both of which are recurring character types in pre-Code cinema including Ruth Taylor (Mae Clarke) in Night World (Hobart Henley, 1932). The program title also cleverly alludes to the sense of female sexual and ideological freedoms that were able to flourish in pre-Code cinema. In the early ‘30s Hollywood churned out a plethora of meaty roles for young actresses that were fairly unencumbered by the era’s constricting morality, allowing filmmakers to explore such topics as class and social status in Young Desire (Lewis D. Collins, 1930), sex work in Her Man (Tay Garnett, 1930), and adultery in The Kiss Before the Mirror (James Whale, 1933). 

The Kiss Before the Mirror (1933)

Pre-Code dames are often defined by their independence and forward-thinking ideology. These women are not frequent inhabitants of stuffy drawing rooms or expansive country estates; the pre-Code dame is a city girl who is at home in speakeasies, the theater, or boarding houses, all environments that connote the fast-pace of modern urban life. With these locales as their backdrop, early-1930s films gave permission for their heroines to be complex and even contradictory: they could test the waters in love, sex, and relationships, and were given the chance to make mistakes without uncompromising moral condemnation. The pre-Code dame is not a shrinking violet: she commands any space she enters with vigor and a salty vocabulary that would make her Victorian grandmothers blush. She possesses the flamboyant spirit of the 1920s flapper, and this is perhaps one of the reasons why actresses like Clara Bow and Bebe Daniels, both of whom personified the decadence of the Jazz Age, were able to maintain their career momentum well into the early-1930s. But unlike their flapper predecessor, the pre-Code dame’s psychological makeup is also acutely informed by the Great Depression. The economic malaise that paralyzed swaths of U.S. society imbued a toughness and disillusionment into her worldview. Pre-Code women are often characterized by their class and social status (or lack thereof), and in turn, they possess a deep-rooted sense of self-preservation necessary to survive in such an interminably dark world.

In a film like Bad Girl (Frank Borzage, 1931), Dorothy’s (Sally Eilers) spur-of-the-moment marriage to Eddie (James Dunn) proves to be more than she bargained for. Poverty and an unexpected pregnancy put a strain on their already fragile relationship, and both begin to resent their situation. In a poignant scene that conveys Dorothy’s psychological anguish, she stares off in deep contemplation while Eddie toils over a washboard in their kitchen sink. Overwhelmed by the prospect of caring for a child she cannot afford, Dorothy mindlessly fiddles with a shirt sleeve and admits, “I don’t want a baby any more than you do.” The sorrow in her voice belies her innermost feelings: it is clear that she does want the baby, but not in their current circumstances. Eilers plays this scene with just enough restraint to express the disappointment and guilt brimming just beneath the surface. Reluctantly, Dorothy and Eddie come to terms with the fact that they must sacrifice their personal ambitions and way of life just to give their child a fighting chance. 

Bad Girl (1931)

Sally Eilers’ career trajectory is typical of many pre-Code actresses. She rose to fame as a WAMPAS Baby Star in 1928, later appearing in Mack Sennett’s silent slapsticks such as The Campus Vamp (1928) and Matchmaking Mamma (1929), both co-starring Carole Lombard and Daphne Pollard. In the early ‘30s she had made a name for herself as a frequent star in Hollywood musicals like The Show of Shows (1930) and Broadway Babies (1931), snappy comedies like Hat Check Girl (1932) and Westerns like Clearing the Range (1931), the latter co-starring her first husband, Hoot Gibson. 1931 proved to be a high point in Eilers’ career: in addition to Bad Girls, she made seven other films in a variety of genres, attesting that her stardom had both bankability and range. The sheer number of films Eilers appeared in during a short span of time made her a popular figure at the time, but that iconicity is perhaps one of several reasons why she and some of her peers found it difficult to secure lead roles as the decade went on. By the mid-1930s changing cultural tastes and the Production Code’s strict regulations put a strain on certain actresses’ star personas; these women no longer  “fit” in with the new style and texture of post-1934 Hollywood. Eilers’ blithe, uncompromising modernity became synonymous with the temperament of early-1930s Hollywood, but her screen persona was, in many ways, incompatible with a Code-era sensibility.

Sally Eilers is just one of fourteen actresses featured in the MoMA program, several of whom like Madge Evans, Leila Hyams, and Helen Twelvetrees are stalwarts of pre-Code Hollywood. But apart from some finger waves and lip rouge, these women share very little in common in terms of their screen personalities, lifestyles, or star images. It is precisely that variety that highlights the plurality of performance styles and personas that populated U.S. cinema screens in the early-1930s. Some actresses like Dolores Del Rio and Barbara Stanwyck—featured in Birds of Paradise (King Vidor,1932) and The Bitter Tea of General Yen (Frank Capra, 1933), respectively—enjoyed prosperous careers in film, theater, and television, and managed to adapt themselves alongside changing cultural tastes well into the 1970s (for Del Rio) and 1980s (for Stanwyck). Meanwhile, others like Nancy Carroll and Genevieve Tobin, had tremendous (albeit brief) career success. Often a combination of personal, cultural, and industrial factors contributed to the pre-Code actresses' career declines—for example, Elissa Landi’s mismanaged star publicity or Nancy Carroll’s reputation for being “difficult” to work with. 

Unlike Eilers, Nancy Carroll began her career on the stage, appearing in such Broadway productions as Mayflowers and Big Boy, also co-starring Al Jolson. Her theatrical background enabled her to make the swift transition to film in the late 1920s, and she appeared tailor-made for Hollywood stardom: her versatility, wholesome beauty, and charming screen aura made her one of the most popular actresses of the pre-Code era (notably too, she received more fan mail than any of her peers). In 1928 alone, she starred in eight films including Easy Come, Easy Go with Richard Dix, and by 1930, she earned her first and only Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for her performance in The Devil’s Holiday. Nevertheless, Carroll’s meteoric rise to fame could not quell negative publicity about her alleged unsavory on-set behavior, and word of her short-temper and ego quickly spread throughout Hollywood. George Murphy, Carroll’s co-star in Jealousy (1934) and I’ll Love You Always (1935), was once quoted as saying, “she was potentially one of the great stars but she never quite made it…she seemed to enjoy making others uncomfortable.” Despite her star power and box office appeal, Paramount released Carroll from her contract in 1933. Unfortunately, Nancy Carroll’s swift career decline often overshadows conversations about her stardom and films. As we interrogate conventional narratives about film history, it is only appropriate that we begin to reevaluate the veracity of Carroll’s “uncooperative” reputation: was she difficult, or was she unfairly maligned by an industry and culture that, historically, viewed headstrong women as a threat? Perhaps with time and further investigation, Carroll’s star narrative will be set on a different path. Nevertheless, like Eilers and her contemporaries, she made an indelible mark on early-1930s cinema, and her performances in films like Follow Thru (Laurence Schwab and Lloyd Corrigan, 1930) added depth and dimension to the public’s conception of pre-Code womanhood.

Nancy Carroll

In addition to the diverse group of actresses, the curators have also made a concerted effort to include a healthy mix of both well-known and rare pre-Code films. Happily too, many of the films included will be shown in 35mm. The Wild Party (Dorothy Arzner, 1929) and One Hour With You (Ernst Lubitsch with George Cukor, 1932) may be beloved by pre-Code devotees, but their inclusion in this series will undoubtedly offer fresh perspective and context to otherwise familiar stories. Other films have either seldom been shown in theaters, or have marginal reputations that have been impacted by inaccessibility and cultural neglect. The inclusion of Lupu Pick’s silent thriller, Das Panzergewölbe (The Armored Vault)(1926), is a particularly rare delight. The MoMA program marks only the second time it will ever be screened in New York (the first being at the 55th Street Playhouse back in November 1928). 

An equally elusive film is Part-Time Wife (Leo McCarey, 1930), whose status has been negatively affected ever since nitrate deterioration claimed two reels. Nevertheless, what remains is a charming proto-screwball comedy featuring Leila Hyams and Edmund Lowe as a married couple teetering on the brink of divorce. Jim (Lowe) and Betty (Hyams) separate because he spends too much time at work, but they reunite by the end of the film, in part, due to their mutual love of golf. Part-Time Wife follows the “re-marriage” storyline that is typical of the screwball genre, and the film is very much in the same vein as McCarey’s late-30s comedies like The Awful Truth (1937) and My Favorite Wife (1940). In fact, McCarey seemed to like this narrative formula so much that in an interview with Peter Bogdanovich in the 1960s, he revealed that two or three of the scenes in The Awful Truth were actually “paraphrases of identical scenes” from Part-Time Wife.

The Hollywood pre-Code era was like the honeymoon period before the industry’s arduous marriage to moral rigidity. The aesthetic and ideological dynamism that distinguish this period of commercial U.S. filmmaking is a poignant reminder of the insidious and often fraught relationship between art, culture, and politics. “Dames, Janes, Dolls, and Canaries: Woman Stars of the Pre-Code Era” is an opportunity to explore that early-‘30s cultural sensibility through the lens of Hollywood stardom and femininity, and the cinematic boon that the relaxed moral climate engendered for actresses. Hollywood cinema from this era crackles with an electric energy of a lightning bolt in a late-summer storm, and that reverberating spirit can only be matched by the charm and vitality of the pre-Code dame. 

Dames, Janes, Dolls, and Canaries: Women Stars of the Pre-Code Era is showing February 1 - 19, 2022 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

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Pre-CodeMae ClarkeSally EilersMadge EvansLeila HyamsHelen TwelvetreesDolores Del RioBarbara StanwyckNancy CarrollLulu PickLeo McCarey
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