The Most Scandalous Women in Pre-Code: Part 1

One of the great things about Pre-Code is the women, who exhibit all sorts of shocking, outrageous, and scandalous behavior. The more I thought about the most scandalous women of the Pre-Code era, the more I was able to name – the list was practically endless. So, in the interest of time and space, here is just the first in a series of the most scandalous women of this great period of filmmaking.

Lilly Powers: The ascent to the top for this baby face is complete.

Lilly Powers: Barbara Stanwyck in Baby Face (1933). Lilly literally sleeps her way to the top. And just in case we don’t understand what she’s doing with all these men, the camera gives us a series of shots of her office building, climbing ever higher after each conquest.

Jerry Martin: Norma Shearer in The Divorcee (1930). When Jerry learns that her hubby of three years has had an affair, she embodies the notion that “turnabout is fair play” and has a fling of her own. And when he balks, she tells him, “From now on, you’re the only man in the world my door is closed to!”

Vivian Revere: Ann Dvorak in Three on a Match (1932). Despite a devoted husband and a cute-as-a-button son, Vivian is bored to distraction. When she meets a charming gambler, she runs off with him, taking her son along for her descent into a life of debauchery and drugs.


Just another job for Gilda in "Safe in Hell."

Gilda Carlson: Dorothy Mackaill in Safe in Hell (1931). First off, Gilda is clearly a prostitute. Then, when she encounters a repugnant “customer” from her past, she knocks him out with a bottle and sets his room on fire. Well, not on purpose, but still.

Alison Drake: Ruth Chatterton in Female (1933). President of an automobile company, Alison puts business before love, but she doesn’t shirk from satisfying her physical passions with her young employees – and when they become too attached, she dispatches them out of town.

Jan Ashe: Norma Shearer in A Free Soul (1931). Jan is a free spirit who demonstrates just how free her spirit is when she dives headfirst into an affair with a sexy but ruthless mobster – even though she is engaged to be married.

Lil pulls out all the stops to get her man in "Red-Headed Woman."

Lillian Andrews Legendre: Jean Harlow in Red-Headed Woman (1932). We get a telling glimpse into Lil’s scandalous nature in the first few minutes of the film. Trying on a new dress in a boutique, she’s warned by the saleslady that the dress is see-through. “I’ll wear it,” Lil decides. Need another example? Later, when she gets slapped in the face by her married lover, she laughs heartily, telling him, “Do it again! I like it — do it again!”

~ by shadowsandsatin on June 26, 2011.

6 Responses to “The Most Scandalous Women in Pre-Code: Part 1”

  1. so much love for all three of these characters.

  2. It’s interesting to look at Norma Shearer’s pre-Code and post-Code career – Pre-: she’s playing smart, sophisticated society women who take a walk on the wild side (and who wear gorgeous clothes); Post-: she’s playing moms or virgins. Which side do viewers prefer?

    • For my money, there’s nothing like Norma’s Pre-Code work. I absolutely loved her in The Women, but Mary Haines doesn’t compare to her characters in The Divorcee, A Free Soul, Let Us Be Gay, and my all-time favorite, Private Lives!

  3. Agree, they don’t make em like they used to.

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