By Heather Babcock
Like many women, I was inspired and empowered by the Me Too movement but it also brought back a lot of painful memories. Most of us have probably encountered a “Harvey Weinstein” at some point in our professional lives – I know I have. This type of sexual predator lurks not only in Hollywood but in any environment where there is a power imbalance, which is most workplaces. So whether you are a waitress, a poet, a sales clerk or an administrative assistant, you learn to acquiesce. You learn quickly not to say anything because he’s “the boss”, “the big cheese” or he’s friends with so-and-so who is “really important” and besides, maybe you totally misunderstood and who do you think YOU are anyway?! So you shut up and the silence strangles you. People like Harvey Weinstein do what they do because they know they can do it – they know that we live in a society that values money and status above kindness and integrity. They believe that their wealth and position entitles them to do what they want to whomever they want and what is worse they know the people around them believe this too.
Today, the working class and the working poor rarely see their lives represented on the big screen but this was not always the case. As I have stated here before, during Hollywood’s Pre-Code period (1930-1934), movies that came out of the Warner Brothers studio catered to a working-class audience. It is therefore not surprising that many of these films addressed sexual harassment in the workplace with a bluntness and honesty that is rarely seen in Hollywood movies today. (It must be noted that, according to author David Thomson in his fascinating 2017 book Warner Bros: The Making of an American Movie Studio, Harry Warner rebuked actors who sexually harassed secretaries.)
“I related to shop girls and chorus girls, just ordinary gals who were hoping,” said Joan Blondell, one of Warner Brothers’ most prolific stars. “I would get endless fan mail from girls saying ‘that is exactly what I would have done, if I’d been in your shoes, you did exactly the right thing.’”
Blondell plays a hotel maid in the romantic comedy/crime drama Blonde Crazy (1931). In one scene, a lecherous salesman asks for towels and then tries to grab her. Blondell pushes him away and angrily stuffs his merchandise – the pearls of a broken necklace – down the back of his pants. She gives him a swift sucker-punch in the butt before bolting from the room. Although the scene is played for laughs – and the laughs are at the salesman, not Blondell – her character’s frustration is palpable.
Workplace sexual harassment is presented with much more gravity in William A. Wellman’s Night Nurse (1931). In the film, the incomparable Barbara Stanwyck portrays an idealistic rookie nurse who discovers that the children she has been hired to take care of are being starved to death by their alcoholic mother’s lover (played by a young Clark Gable). The police and the head doctor refuse to help her so she must save the children on her own – with a little help from the friendly neighborhood bootlegger (Ben Lyon). Night Nurse (1931) is the epitome of Pre-Code Hollywood and illustrative of the cynicism that many Americans were feeling at the time toward authority figures and Prohibition (the bootlegger saves the day!). But it also serves as an example of the real life violence and harassment that nurses and Personal Support Workers (PSWs) experience on a daily basis (today, Stanwyck’s character would probably be called a PSW rather than a nurse). In one scene, a friend of her wealthy employer grabs and forcibly kisses her. In another, Gable’s character literally twists her arm and then punches her. For most of the film, her nurse uniform invites both ridicule and sexual come-ons. If you think that incidents like these only happened in the 1930s or in the movies, think again. In 2017, an Ontario Council of Hospital Unions poll found that 68% of nurses and PSWs across Ontario had experienced physical violence on the job at least once during the year and that 42% had experienced sexual harassment and assault. And those were just the incidents that were reported. Watching Night Nurse (1931), I had the sinking feeling that many nurses and PSWs today would sadly relate to the violence and harassment faced by Stanwyck’s character. Night Nurse (1931) was released eighty-eight years ago – when was the last time you saw a Hollywood movie about a Personal Support Worker? Continue reading “(Not So) Safe in Hell: The Working Class Heroines of Pre-Code Hollywood”