Today, as part of the Jean Harlow Blogathon, I will discuss how the Production Code affected MGM’s Red-Headed Woman (1932, directed by Jack Conway and starring Harlow), a vice film of the pre-Code era. It is an interesting case study, which illustrates the extent of Code activity during the earlier period. Even though the Production Code was not officially enforced until 1934, Red-Headed Woman underwent many revisions ordered by the Studio Relations Committee and was, in fact, heavily affected by the Code. The following write-up is based on one of my recent essays, in which I discuss the treatment of both Red-Headed Woman as well as Warner Bros.’s Baby Face (1933).
The Motion Picture Production Code, also known as the Hays Code after Will Hays, was the set of censorship guidelines that governed the production of the majority of movies released by major American studios between the years 1930 and 1968. Every story considered, script written and film produced was subjected to a thorough cleansing by industry censors before reaching the screen. The Code was a form of self-censorship on behalf of the film industry. It was created to rehabilitate Hollywood’s image after a series of notorious scandals and keep away the involvement of federal censorship. The Code marks the beginning of Hollywood’s “Golden Age”; it began with the birth of the Code – and ended with its demise. The Production Code was an integral part of the studio production system.
The pre-Code era spans the duration of four years: from March 31, 1930, when the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) formally pledged to abide by the Production Code, until July 2, 1934, when the MPPDA empowered the Production Code Administration to enforce it. During the pre-Code era compliance with the Code was a verbal agreement and it was supervised by the Studio Relations Committee (SRC), which Hays created to implement the guidelines. The SRC worked closely together with the studios to remove material that would offend censors and thus potentially harm the studios’ financial investments. It should be noted that in 1930 neither Hays nor the SRC had authority to order a studio or a film-maker to neither remove material nor ban a movie from being screened.
Pre-Code Hollywood did not generally adhere to the strict regulations on matters of sex, vice, violence and moral meaning forced upon Classical Hollywood Cinema after 1934. Indeed, it is commonly argued that little censorship activity took place during the pre-Code era because compliance with the Code was a negotiation between the SRC and the studio in question.
The Great Depression and the decline of cinema attendance during the 1930s lead the studios to seek profit by new ways, and the films containing racy and violent content resulted in high ticket sales. Vice films, also called “sex films” by the censors, were hugely popular during the period. The films feature aggressive and heavily sexualised female protagonists generally of two kinds: the bad girl or the fallen woman. Although the Production Code was adopted in 1930, it is widely understood that it was most often ignored by the film-makers and studios during the pre-Code era, and the embrace of sex, violence and vice in the content of the films made during the period can be read as a testament to that. The producers viewed the Studio Relations Committee as advisory and saw state censorship boards and other censors as a minority effort, not as representative of mainstream America.
Red-Headed Woman stars Jean Harlow as Lillian ‘Lil’ Andrews, a young woman who targets her rich, married boss, Bill Legendre Jr. (Chester Morris) – and any other male – for social and financial advancement. In the film Lil breaks up a marriage, has multiple affairs, pre-marital sex and attempts to murder Bill by shooting at him. At the end of the film she gets away with all of this without any form of punishment, and ends up living in luxury in Paris. Even Bill refuses to prosecute Lil despite her having moved on to a more powerful man by the time of the shooting.
Richard Maltby notes that the difference between Red-Headed Woman and previous examples of the vice film is that it lacks any sense of melodrama and provides a comic rather than melodramatic conclusion. The ending certainly is a strikingly unusual feature in the picture, considering the time it was made in. The film also features heavy drinking, brief nudity and blatantly sadomasochistic elements. Red-Headed Woman was a box office success and not only ensured the commercial viability of Harlow’s upcoming releases but also resulted in Hays’ fear that other studios would feel themselves obliged to imitate and outdo each other in competing for the sensational element with future cinema releases.