Pre-Code Hollywood was a term coined by film historians to describe the era of American cinema from 1930 to 1934, when the Production Code, a set of moral guidelines for film content, was not strictly enforced by the studios. This allowed filmmakers to explore themes such as sex, violence, crime, drugs, and social issues that would be taboo for many years afterwards. Some of the most prominent stars of this era were the actresses who played bold and complex characters, who challenged the stereotypes of femininity and morality. In this article, we will look at the top 10 actress of the Pre-Code Hollywood era, who left an indelible mark on film history.
What is Pre-Code Hollywood?
The term Pre-Code Hollywood refers to the period between the introduction of sound in films in 1927 and the enforcement of the Production Code in 1934. The Production Code was a set of rules that regulated the depiction of sex, violence, crime, religion, and other topics in films. It was created by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), a trade association that represented the major Hollywood studios. The code was based on a list of "Don'ts and Be Carefuls" that was drafted by Martin Quigley, a Catholic publisher, and Father Daniel A. Lord, a Jesuit priest.
The code was officially adopted by the MPPDA in 1930, but it was not enforced until 1934, when Joseph Breen, a former journalist and public relations agent, became the head of the Production Code Administration (PCA), a new agency that had the power to review and approve films before their release. Breen was a strict and conservative censor, who imposed his moral views on the films he reviewed. He banned or cut scenes that showed nudity, adultery, homosexuality, interracial relationships, drug use, profanity, blasphemy, and violence. He also enforced positive portrayals of religion, law enforcement, marriage, and family.
Before Breen's reign, however, filmmakers had more freedom and creativity to express their artistic vision and reflect the social realities of their time. The Pre-Code era was marked by the emergence of sound films, which opened new possibilities for dialogue, music, and sound effects. It was also influenced by the Great Depression, which affected millions of Americans and created a demand for escapist entertainment. The Pre-Code films were often gritty, realistic, and daring, depicting themes such as poverty, crime, corruption, sex, and violence in a frank and unflinching way. They also featured strong and independent female characters, who were not afraid to pursue their desires and ambitions.
The Pre-Code era produced some of the most memorable and influential films in Hollywood history, such as All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), Scarface (1932), King Kong (1933), Duck Soup (1933), It Happened One Night (1934), and many more. It also launched or boosted the careers of some of the most talented and charismatic actors and actresses of all time. In this article, we will focus on the top 10 actress of the Pre-Code Hollywood era, who made a lasting impression on film audiences with their beauty, talent, and personality.
The Top 10 Actress of the Pre-Code Hollywood Era
In this section, we will introduce the top 10 actress of the Pre-Code Hollywood era, who dazzled the audiences with their performances and personalities. These actresses were not only beautiful and talented, but also brave and bold, who took risks and challenged the norms of their time. They played a variety of roles, from comedians to villains, from heroines to vamps, from socialites to outcasts. They also had diverse backgrounds and stories, some coming from humble origins, some from foreign lands, some from show business families, some from self-made careers. They all had one thing in common: they left a lasting legacy on the screen and on film history.
Here are the top 10 actress of the Pre-Code Hollywood era, in no particular order:
Mae West: The Queen of Wit and Double EntendreMay West was an American actress, singer, comedian, screenwriter, and playwright who became one of the most popular and controversial stars of Hollywood in the 1930s. She was known for her witty and suggestive dialogue, her breezy sexual independence, and her lighthearted bawdy double entendres, often delivered in a husky contralto voice. She once quipped, "I believe in censorship. I made a fortune out of it."
Mae West was born Mary Jane West on August 17, 1893, in Brooklyn, New York. She was the eldest surviving child of Mathilde Delker, a corset and fashion model, and John Patrick “Battlin' Jack” West, a prizefighter and private investigator. She began her acting career as a child star in vaudeville productions, and later moved to the stage in New York City. She wrote and starred in several plays in the 1920s and 1930s, such as The Ruby Ring, Frisco Kate, Clean Beds, Sex, The Drag, Diamond Lil, and The Constant Sinner. Some of these plays were banned or raided by the authorities for their scandalous content.
In 1932, West moved to Los Angeles to begin a career in the film industry. She made her film debut in Night After Night (1932), where she stole the show with her famous line, “Goodness had nothing to do with it.” She then wrote and starred in her own films, such as She Done Him Wrong (1933) and I'm No Angel (1933), which featured her iconic character Diamond Lil and her frequent co-star Cary Grant. These films were huge box office hits and saved Paramount Pictures from bankruptcy. They also attracted the attention of the censors, who objected to West's risqué humor and sexual innuendo.
In 1934, the Production Code Administration (PCA), headed by Joseph Breen, began to enforce a strict set of moral guidelines for film content. West had to tone down her dialogue and modify her scripts to comply with the code. She still managed to make some successful films, such as Belle of the Nineties (1934), Klondike Annie (1936), Go West Young Man (1936), Every Day's a Holiday (1937), and My Little Chickadee (1940), where she co-starred with W.C. Fields. However, her popularity declined as her style became less edgy and more formulaic.
After World War II, West retired from films and focused on other ventures. She wrote books and plays, performed in Las Vegas and London, appeared on radio and television shows, and recorded rock and roll albums. She also had a long-term relationship with Paul Novak, a bodybuilder who was 30 years younger than her. She continued to work until her death on November 22, 1980, at the age of 87. She died of complications from a stroke at her apartment in Hollywood.
Mae West was one of the most influential and original actresses of all time. She challenged the conventions of Hollywood and society with her unconventional looks and personality. She created a unique persona that combined comedy and sexuality in a playful and provocative way. She was also a pioneer in women's empowerment and self-expression. She once said, "I'm no model lady. A model's just an imitation of the real thing."
Barbara Stanwyck: The Versatile and Powerful Star
Barbara Stanwyck was an American actress who had a long and successful career in film and television. She was known for her versatility and her ability to play a wide range of roles, from femme fatales to working-class heroines, from comedians to villains, from socialites to outcasts. She was also admired for her strong and realistic screen presence, her professionalism, and her work ethic. She was nominated for four Academy Awards, won three Emmy Awards, and received an honorary Oscar for her contribution to the art of screen acting.
Barbara Stanwyck was born Ruby Catherine Stevens on July 16, 1907, in Brooklyn, New York. She had a difficult childhood, as her mother died when she was four and her father abandoned the family shortly after. She was raised by her older sister and various foster homes. She dropped out of school at 14 and worked as a telephone operator and a fashion model. She also developed an interest in acting and dancing, and joined a traveling theater troupe. She made her Broadway debut in 1926, and soon became a star with her performance in the hit play Burlesque.
In 1929, Stanwyck moved to Hollywood to pursue a career in films. She made her film debut in The Locked Door (1929), but her breakthrough came with the Frank Capra-directed Ladies of Leisure (1930), where she played a party girl who falls in love with a wealthy painter. She quickly established herself as a leading lady in various genres, such as drama, romance, comedy, and crime. Some of her most notable films from the 1930s are Night Nurse (1931), where she played a nurse who uncovers a murder plot, Baby Face (1933), where she played a woman who uses her sexuality to climb the social ladder, Stella Dallas (1937), where she played a self-sacrificing mother who gives up her daughter for her happiness, and Union Pacific (1939), where she played a railroad worker who helps build the transcontinental railroad.
In the 1940s, Stanwyck continued to show her range and talent in films such as The Lady Eve (1941), where she played a con artist who falls for her mark, Ball of Fire (1941), where she played a nightclub singer who hides out with a group of professors, Double Indemnity (1944), where she played a wife who plots to kill her husband with an insurance salesman, Christmas in Connecticut (1945), where she played a columnist who pretends to be a domestic goddess, and Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), where she played an invalid woman who overhears a murder plan on the phone.
In the 1950s, Stanwyck's film career declined, but she found new success on television. She starred in her own anthology series The Barbara Stanwyck Show (1960-1961), for which she won an Emmy Award. She also starred in the western series The Big Valley (1965-1969), where she played the matriarch of a ranching family, and the miniseries The Thorn Birds (1983), where she played a wealthy landowner who has an affair with a priest. She also appeared in several TV movies and guest roles until her retirement in 1986.
Barbara Stanwyck died on January 20, 1990, at the age of 82, from congestive heart failure and chronic obstructive lung disease. She was cremated and her ashes were scattered over Lone Pine, California. She was remembered as one of the greatest actresses of all time, who influenced generations of performers with her style and skill. She once said, "I'm a tough old broad from Brooklyn. I intend to go on acting until I'm ninety and they won't need to paste my face with make-up."
Jean Harlow: The Original Blonde Bombshell
Jean Harlow was an American actress who became the first major sex symbol of Hollywood in the 1930s. She was known for her platinum blonde hair, her glamorous style, and her sensual screen persona. She starred in some of the most iconic films of the pre-Code era, such as Red Dust (1932), Dinner at Eight (1933), and Bombshell (1933). She also showed her comedic talent and versatility in films such as The Public Enemy (1931), Platinum Blonde (1931), and Libeled Lady (1936). She died at the age of 26 from kidney failure, leaving behind a legacy of beauty and charisma that influenced generations of actresses.
Jean Harlow was born as Harlean Harlow Carpenter on March 3, 1911, in Kansas City, Missouri. She was the daughter of a dentist and his wife, who separated when she was young. She moved to Los Angeles with her mother in 1923, where she attended a private school and pursued her interest in acting and dancing. She married a young businessman named Charles McGrew in 1927, but the marriage soon ended. She then began working as an extra in films, using her mother's maiden name as her stage name.
In 1929, Harlow was discovered by producer Howard Hughes, who cast her as the female lead in his epic war film Hell's Angels (1930). The film was a huge success and made Harlow a star overnight. Her platinum blonde hair, which was bleached with peroxide and ammonia, became her trademark and started a trend among women. Her seductive voice, which was dubbed by another actress in Hell's Angels, was revealed to be a natural and husky contralto in her subsequent films.
Harlow signed a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1932, where she became one of the studio's top stars. She was paired with some of the leading men of the time, such as Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, William Powell, and Robert Taylor. She played a variety of roles, from sassy and sexy women to sweet and innocent girls. She also proved to be a skilled comedienne, who could deliver witty lines and physical gags with ease. Some of her most memorable films from this period are Red-Headed Woman (1932), where she played a gold-digging secretary who seduces her boss, Red Dust (1932), where she played a prostitute who has an affair with a rubber plantation owner in Indochina, Dinner at Eight (1933), where she played a former showgirl who clashes with a snobbish socialite, and Bombshell (1933), where she played a movie star who tries to escape from her manipulative entourage.
Harlow's career was cut short by her untimely death on June 7, 1937. She had been suffering from various illnesses for months, but had ignored the symptoms and continued working. She collapsed on the set of Saratoga (1937), where she was co-starring with Clark Gable. She was diagnosed with uremic poisoning caused by kidney failure, and died after being hospitalized for several days. She was only 26 years old. Her final film was completed with the use of body doubles and released shortly after her death.
Jean Harlow was one of the most popular and influential actresses of Hollywood's golden age. She had a unique style and personality that captivated audiences and inspired other performers. She was also a generous and kind person, who supported various charities and helped her friends and co-workers. She once said, "I like to wake up each morning feeling a new man is waiting for me."
Bette Davis: The Unconventional and Influential Legend
Bette Davis was an American actress who had a career spanning more than 50 years and 100 acting credits. She was known for her unconventional looks, her strong personality, and her forceful and intense style of acting. She played unsympathetic, sardonic, and complex characters, often in romantic dramas, historical films, and suspense horror. She was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, winning two for Dangerous (1935) and Jezebel (1938). She also received an honorary Oscar for her contribution to the art of screen acting.
Bette Davis was born as Ruth Elizabeth Davis on April 5, 1908, in Lowell, Massachusetts. She was the daughter of a lawyer and a photographer, who divorced when she was young. She developed an interest in acting and dancing at an early age, and attended a boarding school where she participated in theater productions. She moved to New York City in 1928, where she studied at the John Murray Anderson School of Theatre and made her Broadway debut in Broken Dishes (1929). She then moved to Hollywood in 1930, where she signed a contract with Universal Pictures.
Davis's early films were mostly unsuccessful, as she struggled to find suitable roles that matched her talent and personality. She had her breakthrough performance in Of Human Bondage (1934), where she played a cruel and unfaithful waitress who torments a medical student. The film was a critical success and earned Davis her first Academy Award nomination, although she was not among the official nominees. The next year, she won her first Oscar for playing a troubled actress in Dangerous (1935). She then signed a contract with Warner Bros., where she became one of the studio's top stars.
Davis's career reached its peak in the late 1930s and early 1940s, when she starred in some of the most iconic films of her time. She played a strong-willed southern belle in Jezebel (1938), which won her a second Oscar. She played a terminally ill socialite in Dark Victory (1939), which was one of her personal favorites. She played a ruthless wife who murders her lover in The Letter (1940), which earned her another Oscar nomination. She played an ambitious woman who clashes with her family in The Little Foxes (1941), which was based on a play by Lillian Hellman. She played a spinster who finds love and happiness in Now, Voyager (1942), which featured her famous line, "Don't let's ask for the moon. We have the stars."
Davis's career went through several ups and downs in the following decades, as she faced challenges from the changing tastes of audiences, the decline of the studio system, and the rise of television. She also had conflicts with studio executives and directors over her artistic choices and salary demands. She left Warner Bros. in 1949, after suing them for breach of contract. She then worked as a freelance actress, appearing in films such as All About Eve (1950), where she played an aging Broadway star who is threatened by a younger rival; What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), where she played a former child star who torments her sister; and Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), where she played a reclusive woman who is haunted by a murder.
Davis also worked on stage and television, winning three Emmy Awards for her performances in The Star (1955), The Virgin Queen (1978), and Strangers: The Story of a Mother and Daughter (1979). She also wrote two autobiographies, The Lonely Life (1962) and This 'N That (1987). She was married four times, divorcing three times and widowed once. She had three children, one of whom wrote a controversial book about their relationship. She died on October 6, 1989, at the age of 81, from breast cancer.
Bette Davis was one of the most acclaimed and influential actresses of all time. She challenged the conventions of Hollywood and society with her unconventional looks and personality. She created a unique persona that combined intelligence, emotion, and humor in a powerful and expressive way. She was also a pioneer in women's empowerment and self-expression. She once said, "I am doomed to an eternity of compulsive work. No set goal achieved satisfies. Success only breeds a new goal. The golden apple devoured has seeds. It is endless."
Marlene Dietrich: The Exotic and Erotic Icon
Marlene Dietrich was a German actress and singer who became an international star with her collaboration with director Josef von Sternberg. She embodied the exotic and erotic allure of pre-Code Hollywood, with films such as Morocco (1930), where she kissed a woman on the lips, Shanghai Express (1932), where she played a notorious courtesan, and Blonde Venus (1932), where she performed in a gorilla suit.
Marlene Dietrich was born as Marie Magdalene Dietrich on December 27, 1901, in Berlin, Germany. She was the daughter of a police officer and a jewelry maker, who raised her in a strict and conservative household. She studied music and theater at an early age, and began her career as a cabaret singer and a chorus girl in Berlin in the 1920s. She made her film debut in The Little Napoleon (1923), but her breakthrough came with The Blue Angel (1930), where she played Lola-Lola, a seductive singer who ruins the life of a professor. The film was directed by Josef von Sternberg, who became her mentor and lover.
In 1930, Dietrich moved to Hollywood to work with von Sternberg at Paramount Pictures. They made six more films together, which established Dietrich as a glamorous and mysterious icon of the screen. She often played exotic and erotic characters, who wore lavish costumes and had ambiguous sexuality. She also sang songs that became her signature, such as "Falling in Love Again" from The Blue Angel, "The Boys in the Back Room" from Destry Rides Again (1939), and "Lili Marleen" from The Flame of New Orleans (1941). She was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in Morocco, where she wore a tuxedo and kissed a woman on the lips.
In the 1940s, Dietrich became an American citizen and supported the Allied war effort. She entertained the troops on the front lines, sold war bonds, recorded anti-Nazi broadcasts, and donated her salary from Knight Without Armor (1937) to help refugees. She also starred in some of the most acclaimed films of her career, such as The Spoilers (1942), where she fought with John Wayne, Pittsburgh (1942), where she reunited with Wayne and Randolph Scott, and Witness for the Prosecution (1957), where she played a double-crossing wife. She also had a famous affair with actor Jean Gabin, who was a French resistance fighter.
In the 1950s, Dietrich's film career declined, but she found new success on stage and cabaret. She performed in Las Vegas, New York, London, Paris, and other cities around the world. She also recorded several albums of songs in different languages. She was known for her distinctive style and charisma, which influenced generations of performers. She also had a long-term relationship with writer Erich Maria Remarque, who wrote All Quiet on the Western Front.
Dietrich died on May 6, 1992, at the age of 90, in Paris, France. She was cremated and her ashes were interred at Städtischer Friedhof III in Berlin. She was remembered as one of the greatest actresses and singers of all time, who transcended the boundaries of gender, nationality, and genre. She once said, "I am not a myth."