It’s International Women’s Day and what better way to celebrate than looking at some famous female heroes of the pre-code – early 1930s – cinema.
Many people have this misconception that the films of yesteryear were sexist. That women would scream as they were scooped up from a monstrous beast or could only succeed if they fall in love. Only a strong burly man could save them from their loose morals or the evils of the world.
For some movies in every decade, this is true. Hollywood has, and for now, tends to be a misogynistic racket run by drug-addled producers and manic directors trying to poke and prod their actresses into submission.
The pre-code era, itself, was far from perfect, there was still room for women to succeed. The starlets that hit the silver screen and the characters they played had intelligence, sexuality, and, well, gumption. As they hitched up their stockings to hail a ride, or spoke solely in innuendos, they lit up the celluloid with their intellect and wit.
Recently on this site, I looked at the truly incredible Dorothy Arzner – the only female director working during the time period. But I’d also like to celebrate ten of my favourites actresses of the time.
Joan Blondell (1906 – 1979)
Blondell was a vaudeville star who would become best known for her wise-cracking work with Warner Bros. Her wide-eyes and sass made her a staple whilst also appearing alongside friend Glenda Farrell in many movies. She caused quite a stir in the 1930s as she posed partially nude for a publicity photo. However, her work has made her unforgettable throughout the decades, and audiences nowadays will best recognise her as the diner waitress Vi in Grease.
Must Watch: The Greeks Had A Word For Them (1932}, The Public Enemy (1931,) Gold Diggers Of 1933…..(1933)
Barbara Stanwyck (1907 – 1990)
Stanwyck is most famously known for her work in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944.) However, even before then she was making a splash in ground-breaking films. She became a star in Frank Capra’s Ladies Of Leisure (1930) whilst her work in Baby Face (1933) saw her become an icon. In the latter, her character uses her sexuality to rise to the top – leave no man the same. Stanwyck was breathtaking in everything she did.
Must Watch: Ladies of Leisure (1930,) Night Nurse, Baby Face
Norma Shearer (1902 – 1983)
Norma. Shearer. Here is an actor who could slice you up with a look one minute and seduce you the next. She’s still celebrated today as being a feminist pioneer, playing characters who owned their passion and life. In The Divorcee (1930), Shearer gives such as devilish look to the camera when deciding to cheat on her unfaithful husband that you’ll melt with excitement. Her iconic performance in this role earned her an Academy Award.
Must Watch: The Divorcee (1930) Smilin’ Through (1932), Private Lives (1931)
Jean Harlow (1911 – 1937)
It’s always funny to me that Jean Harlow was considered the ultimate ‘Blonde Bombshell’ when one of her most famous roles was playing a red-head. Harlow was best known for her comedic talent whilst also being an utmost vamp. Her popularity was so huge that she’s still thought of as one of the biggest stars of the time. The great tragedy is that we didn’t get to see more of Jean Harlow, who died at the young age of 26. However, the movies that we’re left with keep her tenacity and spirit alive.
Must Watch: Red-Headed Woman, Hell’s Angels, Hold Your Man
Mae West (1893 – 1980)
My first dabble with West was a drag-queen’s (iconic) exaggerated performance on RuPaul’s Drag Race with incensing innuendos, bawdy behaviours, and sensational sexual appeal. Turns out it was pretty spot on. Although West had a lovely light-heartedness to go with it all, she filled the screen with her enormous and unique personality. West often played opposite Carey Grant but she was the only legend in those films.
Must Watch: Night After Night (1932), She Done Him Wrong (1933,) I’m No Angel (1933).
Marlene Dietrich (1901 – 1992)
Hailing from Berlin, Germany, Dietrich was perhaps one of cinema’s most iconic players. Dietrich broke barriers when it came to female expression in the big screen, especially in Morocco (1930) where, dressed in a white suit, she kisses another woman (in a role that earned her only Oscar nomination.) Unforgettable, Dietrich would work as a humanitarian up until her death.
Must Watch: Morocco (1930), The Blue Angel (1930) Shanghai Express (1932)
Kay Francis (1905 – 1968)
You’ll never forget the first time you’ve seen a Kay Francis film. There was something so immensely brilliant about her. She’d lure you into the story and the script, dazzling you with her acting. I am not the only who thinks this. In fact, during the pre-code era, Kay Francis was the top female star and the highest paid actress with Warner Bros. It was a much deserved title for her.
Must Watch: Strangers In Love (1932), The House on 56th Street (1932), Trouble In Paradise (1936)
Sylvia Sidney (1910 – 1999)
An absolute queen. While her future films would give her the most critical success, you’ll not forget any of her performances in the pre-code time. With eyes and a smile that lights up the frame, Sidney was simply stunning. One of her most iconic roles saw her engage in a battle of wits with her hapless husband in Dorothy Arzner’s Merrily We Go To Hell (1932).
In later life, she would feature in Tim Burton films Beetlejuice (1988) and Mars Attacks! (1996).
Must Watch: Merrily We Go To Hell (1932,) Street Scene (1931,) City Streets (1931)
Miriam Hopkins (1902 – 1972)
Whilst some of her roles were often considered risqué, Hopkins was incredible in everything she did – and she did everything. From the sorrow-filled tale of a rape victim to a woman who falls in love with two men, Hopkins made statements with her performances. She would also notably feature in several Ernst Lubitsch films including Trouble On Paradise (1932) with Kay Francis.
Finally, and most importantly, she was a horror icon in Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde (1933), playing (tremendously) the unfortunate Ivy.
Must Watch: Dr. Jekyll and Hyde (1931), Design For Living (1933), The Story of Temple Drake (1933).
Claudette Colbert (1903 – 1996)
You may have read before that Colbert is one of my favourite actors. With striking black hair, and round eyes Colbert has so much talent; a natural delivery and chemistry with nearly everyone she’s been on screen with (especially with Hopkins in The Smiling Lieutenant (1931)) Whether she’s bathing in ass milk, showing some ankle to stop a car, or singing about underwear, Colbert graced us with so many impeccable performances.
Best Pre-Code Films: It Happened One Night (1934), The Sign of the Cross (1932), Honor Among Lovers (1931)
This is just a selection, a highlight if you will, and I’ve focused on actors who are my favourite. I’ll be back every Monday for more on these fantastic women. In the meantime, leave some of your favourites in the comments below…!
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