“Come on baby, what are you afraid of?”: The Bad Boy Gangster Was the Femme Fatale of 1930’s Pre-Code Cinema

Clark Gable and Norma Shearer in A Free Soul (1931)

Sandwiched between the silent movie Vamp and the Femme Fatale of 1940’s film noir, is the Bad Boy Gangster, who swaggered and strutted his way over the morally ambiguous terrain that was pre-Code Hollywood film.  But make no mistake: pre-Code movies belonged to the ladies, or to put it more accurately, the New Woman.

WW1 changed everything – but its aftermath changed women in particular. The carnage of “the Great War” had depleted the number of eligible young men and the expectations that a young woman had previously taken for granted – a husband, children and a home – now seemed less likely for many. Becoming an independent “working girl” (whether that meant working in a dress shop or cleaning houses) was not a choice – it was a necessity. The independence didn’t stop there. By the end of 1922, almost all of the Canadian provinces had granted women the right to vote (it would not be until 1940 that women in Quebec would be granted full suffrage). In the USA, the 19th Amendment, ratified on August 18th and certified as law on August 26th of 1920, technically granted women suffrage although the fight for the right to vote was far from over for Black women in America.

In 1918, Marie Stopes’ controversial best selling book Married Love or Love in Marriage openly discussed methods of birth control, and it wasn’t just married women who read it. However it wasn’t until the economic depression of the 1930s that birth control gained wider acceptance. In his brilliant book The Great Depression 1929-1939, Pierre Berton writes that “after 1930 it began to be obvious that ignorance of birth control methods was causing hardship among the poor, who couldn’t afford large families. Deaths from illegal abortions, many self-induced, were on the rise.” As a result, the United Church formally endorsed birth control in 1936, with Rev. John Coburn stating that “every child had the right to come into the world wanted.” In Ontario, Canada, birth control advocate and social worker Dorothea Palmer, who was arrested – and later acquitted – in 1936 for canvassing the homes of impoverished mothers and asking them if they would like information on birth control, publicly stated that “a woman should be master of her own body. She should be the one to say if she should become a mother.”

Working girls. Voting rights. Birth control. The first wave of the women’s revolution coalesced with a new phenomenon: the movies. Mary Pickford. Clara Bow. Josephine Baker. Joan Crawford. Suddenly working class girls had something other than a man to pin their dreams on. Thanks to the validity of the movies and their wildly popular female stars, make-up was no longer “just for prostitutes” – plenty of “nice” girls now rouged their lips and painted their faces. Skirts were shorter and morals were looser…well, sort of.

Our Dancing Daughters (1928), a silent movie that was wildly popular with teenage girls and young women, drew up the esoteric rules for “The New Woman”: Yes, she can wear lipstick and short skirts, hell she can even dance the Charleston in her underwear as Joan Crawford does in the film. The New Woman can drink, smoke, ride in cars with boys and even kiss them if she pleases – perhaps she may even do a little more than kissing but, the movie warns, she must not do too much more – she must not go too far. In this tale of three flappers, Ann (Anita Page) is slutty and dishonest about it. Beatrice (Dorothy Sebastian) is slutty but she’s honest – repentant and remorseful even. It doesn’t matter. They are both doomed – Ann to a drunken fall down a spiraling staircase which ends in her death and Beatrice to a life of marriage with a man who despises and mistrusts her. Only Diana (Joan Crawford) comes out the winner: the good girl who only looks bad; the girl who is secretly as chaste as she is sexy. Geez, it’s like dancing on a tightrope.

Enter the 1930s and the bad boy gangster.

It’s no coincidence that many of the era’s most charismatic and compelling men, such as Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney, pictured here, got their start playing gangsters in pre-Code film. They were of the few who could hold their own against red hot firecrackers like Glenda Farrell and Jean Harlow.

On film, the gangster gave the New Woman a safe way to explore her sexuality – blamelessly and with absolution.

“You’re the first really exciting man I’ve ever met,” Jan (Norma Shearer), the daughter of a defense attorney tells dangerous mobster Ace (Clark Gable). She later proclaims him “a new kind of man in a new kind of world” but she might as well be referring to herself. When she breaks off her engagement to nice guy polo player Dwight (Leslie Howard), she states with resolution, “I just don’t want to get married…I don’t want life to settle down around me like a pan of sour dough.” The movie makes no secret that Jan – visibly naked under her fancy gown – and Ace become quickly involved in a purely sexual relationship. Shearer and Gable are like two big cats circling each other but Shearer is clearly the alpha: “C’mon,” she purrs in the film’s famous and most sensual scene as she sinks seductively into a sofa, “put ’em around me.” Gable, obligingly, crawls on top of her. “Don’t women ever want to talk?” he asks in frustration at one point. “Men of action are better in action,” she replies with a knowing smile, “they don’t talk well.”

In the visually dazzling crime drama Midnight Mary (1933), impoverished nice girl Mary (Loretta Young) meets hardened gangster Leo (Ricardo Cortez) while sitting outside on the steps of her rundown tenement building. “Hey, sugar!” he winks at her and Mary moves slowly and seductively towards the camera as though being pulled by a string but – her smile tells us this – she is being pulled willingly. In the next scene she’s in his lap in the back of his car, her skirt hiked up, kissing him passionately. The jiggling movement of the automobile suggests they will do more than kiss. The next shot shows Mary standing above Leo on the tenement steps; he gazes up at her lustfully, his hand caressing her lower leg. The camera focuses on Leo’s face, his gleefully lascivious smile, and Mary’s leg. “Come on, baby,” he leers. “What are you afraid of?”

In pre-Code movies, the men – whether they were laborers or sugar daddies – beg and barter for sex. Not so the gangster. The bad boys of pre-Code cinema have a sexual prowess that their law abiding counterparts can only dream of. After all, who but James Cagney could walk out on a lustful and sexy dame like Jean Harlow (as he does in The Public Enemy, 1931)?

In the Code era world of film noir that would follow, it would be the woman – the femme fatale – who would sexually entrap the nice guy protagonist. They would both pay the consequences but only she would pay with her life. In the crime dramas of the pre-Code era however, it is only the man – the bad boy gangster – who must be punished for debauching the morals of the good girl – and, like his femme fatale successor, his punishment is death.

In A Free Soul, Ace (Gable) seals his fate when he threatens to “spread it all over town” that Jan (Shearer) is “not fit to marry anyone” (in other words, she’s not a virgin). Her still smitten fiancé (Leslie Howard) shoots Ace in the heart in the back office of Ace’s speakeasy to protect Jan’s reputation. Being a “good boy”, he immediately calls the police to turn himself in. Of course, he is acquitted – in the movies of the early 1930s, sullying the reputation of a respectable and, notably, upper class lady is worse than committing murder. The ending of A Free Soul kind of reminded me of Fatal Attraction (1987), in which the housewife of a lawyer shoots and kills the career woman/femme fatale that her husband had a one-night stand with. That the killing happens in a bath tub is not subtle: she is cleansing her All American family of this sexually liberated intruder. Both A Free Soul and Fatal Attraction unwittingly present the problematic social and sexual anxieties of their respective times.

Mary (Loretta Young) takes matters into her own hands in Midnight Mary. When Leo threatens to kill the nice-guy lawyer whom Mary has fallen in love with, she picks up a gun and, with jazz music pumping in the background, shoots him point blank. The nice guy then becomes her counsel, helping her to avoid the electric chair. In Midnight Mary, love doesn’t just save the bad girl’s soul, it saves her life.

No one who has watched James Cagney shove a grapefruit in lovely Mae Clarke’s face in The Public Enemy can disagree with the argument that the gangster movies of the early 1930s were often misogynistic but taking a closer look at these films reveal that the gangster was often used as a conduit for the “nice girl” protagonist – and vicariously her audience – to explore her sexuality freely and to push against the strict moral boundaries of her society. It wasn’t her fault – the gangster made her do it!

Written by Heather Babcock, 2022

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