Department of Theatre and Film
Ladies They Talk About
By Sara Lawrence
On July 13, 1934, the threat of a boycott by the Catholic Church prompted the Motion Picture Industry to self-enforce a code of decency that had been adopted four years earlier:
The presentation of evil is often essential for art or fiction or drama. This in itself is not wrong provided that evil is not presented alluringly. Even if later in the film the evil is condemned or punished, it must not be allowed to appear so attractive that the audience's emotions are drawn to desire or approve so strongly that later condemnation is forgotten and only the apparent joy of the sin remembered (excerpt from The Motion Picture Production Code).
This article in the code, directly targeting women, marked the end of the independent, sexy heroine on the cinematic screen. This Motion Picture Production Code, also known as the Hayes Code, strictly forbade sinful acts on screen that were commonly produced prior to the code such as adultery, illicit sex, and nudity. Calling these sinful acts evil; the Motion Picture Production Board prohibited their being used as a means of gain or amusement when the outcome would be rewarding. The production board was able to turn the pre-code heroine into the villainous femme fatale that would later be remembered in the Film Noir period.
The period between 1930 and 1934 is known as the pre-Code era. During this time, "women dominated the box office. On screen, they took lovers, and babies out of wedlock, explored their sexuality, got rid of cheating husbands, and held down professional positions without apologizing" (Complicated Women). After the Production Code was enforced, especially after World War II, the women of this period, with their independent and forward thinking, posed a threat to the homestead and the patriarchal society.
Coined by the French, the term Film Noir means 'black cinema'. Film Noir was a popular cinematic movement in Hollywood between the years of 1941 and 1958 that not only referred to the dim cityscape backdrops and shadowed alleyways, but also the dark and sordid motives of the characters. Among these characters was the femme fatale, or "deadly woman", who used sex as a means to manipulate the male character and eventually lead him to mutual downfall.
The fatal woman of Film Noir embodied the angst that men felt toward the women taking their places in the workforce during World War II. Because of this, in Film Noir, the independent woman was punished and often killed for her attempt to alter the hierarchy of gender in American society.
The power of the woman in Film Noir was channeled through wickedness. The only way she was able to control her own destiny and have the authority to do so was by being evil; with the other alternative being dominated by the hero. In order for the femme fatale to escape this patriarchal repression she had to bring down male society. The only way out was through murder.
Even though the pre-Code woman and the Film Noir femme fatale are recognized as being from two distinct eras of film, they have many similarities, which help to establish the argument that these women are fundamentally the same. In both pre-Code and Film Noir the women are independent of their male co-stars. Their main characteristics were beguiling men to their advantage then dropping them when they proved of no more use and achieving gain through cunning and immoral behavior. However, the difference between these two time periods is not that the women have changed but that the scripts have been edited to manipulate the audience into seeing one figure as the heroine and the other as the deadly femme fatale.
Barbara Stanwyck's pre-Code character Lily Powers from Baby Face (1933) and Jane Greer's Film Noir character Kathie Moffat from Out of the Past (1947) is an example of how two female characters are very similar. In Baby Face , Lily worked her way from the ground floor of a New York City bank to marrying the bank's president, George Brent, sleeping her way up the corporate ladder, one man at a time. She used men in her machinations for the specific advantage of getting what she wanted. When she reached her goal, she moved on. She drove men to commit suicide, social ruin, and pitted father against son-in-law for her affections. In Out of the Past , Kathie continually goes back and forth between Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) and Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) depending on the greatest advantage offered her. She causes them to double-cross each other, and is responsible for ending both men's lives. Both female characters use men as a means to an end. However, Lily Powers is able to get away with her wickedness, where Kathie Moffat is unable to escape her ultimate destruction.
Another example that connects the women of pre-Code and Film Noir is Jean Harlow's Lillian Legendre from Red-Headed Woman (1932) and Barbara Stanwyck's Phyllis Dietrichson from Double Indemnity (1944). In Red-Headed Woman , Lil convinces her boss, Bill, to divorce his wife and marry her. After they are married, she has an affair with a businessman and later with the chauffeur, Albert. In the climax of the film, Lil and Albert laugh as she shoots her rich husband at a racetrack. In Double Indemnity , Phyllis seduces insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) into helping her kill her husband for his money. After the murder, the plan begins to fall apart. Their crime leads to the ultimate destruction of both characters as they kill each other because of distrust and disdain. In both films, the woman has an affair and kills her husband however, in pre-Code, Lil is able to literally get away with murder without a trace of remorse or punishment beyond the incident. In Double Indemnity , Phyllis not only is portrayed as the ultimate villainess, but in the end, she is killed as an example for her actions.
A third parallel theme that runs between pre-Code and Film Noir women are their anti-matrimonial views. In pre-Code, it is portrayed in the film Design for Living (1933). In the movie, Miriam Hopkins' Gilda Ferrell enters marriage after a ménage à trois only to find marriage, by comparison, very dull and boring. Her husband is only interested in making business deals, and their social life is shown revolving around a party where the main attraction is a game of twenty questions. At the end of the film, Gilda leaves her husband and goes back to her life of sin. In Film Noir, the femme fatale is also against the sanctity of marriage. This is one of the reasons why she poses such a threat to the post-war nuclear family. Marriage meant being controlled by the domineering husband, and the only way for the femme fatale character to escape the situation was to resort to murder. This theme can be found in Film Noirs such as The Lady from Shanghai (1947), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), and Double Indemnity .
Before the Production Code was enforced, the message throughout many of the films was pro-independent woman. However, once censorship came and the threat of the woman infiltrated the minds of men after World War II, she became the villain; someone who threatened to destroy the very structures of society, and the order of the family. Patriarchal society, while in charge of censorship could not allow a woman to overthrow the very foundations of America, and so they made the independent woman the villain. At her roots, she is the same woman as her forerunner in the pre-Code. However, society placed within her a wickedness that threatened the male dominance, and so, due to her self-determination, her boredom with convention, and her anti-marriage views, the independent and sexy woman of Film Noir was punished and given two alternatives: to conform and be submissive to male dominance, or be killed. In Film Noir, women were killed off for the basic reason that they would not conform, and chose to die rather than to be controlled by their male counterparts. Pre-Code and Noir can be defined as being very distinct from one another, yet it is evident that traces of the pre-Code woman can still be identified in the femme fatale, refusing to die out. Society and the censors may have changed, but the freedom that once thrived in pre-Code is never forgotten.