Hollywood filth: the saucy movies of the 1940s

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Sarah Cook delves in the deep past of Hollywood in search of some fruity movies – and she finds plenty hiding away in the 1940s.

Before 1934, sex and seduction were common place in movies. Filmmakers were free to deal with darker themes and head-strong women, to a certain extent.

Unfortunately, that changed when the Hays Production Code came into effect. The Hays Code, introduced in the 1930s, was a stupidly strict set of rules which restricted what you could show on the big screen. From nudity to homosexuality, the Hays Code was considered a set of moral guidelines to govern American filmmaking for years. If your film didn’t pass the code and was deemed too heinous to show, the studio would be forced to cut the picture until it was fine to show to audiences.


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Not only that, but the world was plunged into war. Movies became heavy pro-war propaganda or halted entirely whilst the globe was locked into a huge battle. This meant that the 1940s proved difficult to get anything heinously rude or sinful through the censors. The movies had to get creative. By that, I mean, they had to slip in innuendos and hint at all things kinky beneath the top hats, tails, and furs. Some movies pushed their luck more than others, and these are some of the best!

Two-Faced Woman (1941)

Greta Garbo is best known for her dramatic performances in movies such as Flesh And The Devil (1927), Anna Christie (1930), and Anna Karenina (1935). Her melodramatic tone and her solemn face made her a perfect tragic heroine. However, in 1941, there was an attempt to see Garbo in a funnier movie.

The result was Two-Faced Woman.

Co-starring Melvyn Douglas, Two-Face Woman revolves around New York magazine editor Larry Blake who, whilst holidaying on the slopes, impulsively marries a hot-headed ski instructor, Karen. However, when the pair disagree on many topics such as where they would live and work, Blake goes back to New York, leaving Karen behind on the promise that he would come back. Whilst there, he rekindles a romance with old flame Griselda Vaughn. This is found out by Karen after she tries to surprise Larry in the city. In order to spy on Larry, Karen masquerades as her own twin sister. And that’s where the fun begins.

The original cut of the film dealt comically with adultery as Larry contemplates having an affair with his wife’s sister. The Hays Code thought this too inappropriate so they had to rejig everything so that Larry is aware of his wife’s ruse from get go.

However, that isn’t to say the final cut doesn’t have its own racy moments, and some of the original seduction still lingers. In fact, Larry suggests that he starts a relationship with both sisters. Plus, there are plenty of low-cut numbers from Garbo and a lacy nightgown in a rampant seduction scene. Even though the film was panned when released, leading to rumours it’s why MGM fired Greta Garbo, the movie is still a silly, sexy watch.

Kings Row (1942)

In 1940, Henry Bellaman wrote the novel Kings Row. It exposed the hypocrisy of American smalltown secrets during the 1890s. Daring, Bellaman wrote themes of mental illness, incest, hypocrisy, suicide, gender equality, and sadistic vengeance.

Still somewhat taboo, it was surprising when screenwriter Casey Robinson and producer Hal B Wallis brought the rights to the movie because they would never get the themes of the book past the code. When director of the Production Code Authority Joseph Breen came across the production, he also objected to many of the themes of the script such as the general suggestion of loose sex and the mercy killing.

Fearing public condemnation, Breen passed the script to Will Hays himself. After many rewrites, they were able to go ahead. Still, the immoral undercurrent of a small town which promotes idealism and purity is there in the movie. It’s a dark melodrama with affairs, lust, and horror hiding in the wooden houses and underneath the corsets. While it played it safe with the novel, there’s enough implied to give it an edge.

Oh, and the film also stars Ronald Reagan who gets his legs sawn off by Charles Coburn. Not fruity, but thought you’d want to know.

The Gang’s All Here (1942)

Busby Berkeley headlined this one, an innuendo-filled musical with a number you’ll absolutely won’t forget when you see it. Especially because it was Berkeley’s first colour feature and is absolutely a camp classic.

One of Fox’s most expensive movies, The Gang’s All Here revolves around a wealthy heir who falls in love with cabaret singer Eadie the night before he is deployed to World War II. However, he’s already engaged to Vivian. When he returns from the war, his father hosts a lavish party for him and hires Eadie.

If the name Carmen Miranda means nothing to you, then you’ll definitely recognise the outfit: a woman dressed entirely in fruit with a basket of bananas on her head. The number in this film is called ‘The Lady With The Tutti-Frutti Hat’. Eadie’s outfit? Totally fine and juicy. The chorus girls around her? Singing with great big bananas in a number filled with sexual innuendo. It’s a campy, lewd delight.

True fact: The Gang’s All Here was banned in Brazil. People wrongly assume this was because of the bananas, but it’s actually because the dancers had bare feet!

The Outlaw (1942)

Jane Russell is one of the best-known sex symbols of the Golden Age of Hollywood, most known for her role in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, playing opposite Marilyn Monroe. Over her career, Jane Russell became a pin-up and appeared in more than 20 movies. However, Russell’s first performance was in Howard Hughes’ western The Outlaw.

This film tells the story of Henry McCarty, aka William H. Bonney, aka Billy the Kid, and Pat Garrett, the sheriff who would eventually slay him. Russell plays Rio McDonald, a young woman who attempts to kill Billy the Kid, but ends up falling for him. In one scene, she lies upon bales of hay with her breasts akimbo. In fact, there are a lot of scenes where Jane Russell’s boobs are the main feature. The movie also features some murky morals and many seductions.

The Hays Code was appalled by the “morally unacceptable content” of the movie and there were many cuts to it. Howard Hughes, however, removed exactly half a minute of footage.

With 20th Century Fox threatening to cancel the release, Hughes took matters into his own hands. Phoning up every person he could think of, the director generated a public outcry which turned into an increased demand. In spite of being against the code, The Outlaw showed for one week before being pulled.

It would be released again several years later by RKO and earn nearly double its budget.

The Lady Eve (1941)

You really have to comb through the Hays Code cinema era to find saucy things. However, leave it to a Barbara Stanwyck movie to get you hot under the collar.

Stanwyck (famous for her seductress role in Baby Face, a movie that almost definitely was the catalyst for the Hays Code) stars opposite Henry Fonda in Preston Sturges’ movie. The film revolves around Jean Harrington, who tries to con brewery heir Charles Pike after falling in love with him.

The original script was deemed unsuitable as it hinted at a sexual affair between the two leads, yet the final product still had enough moments of canoodling between Charles and Jean for Roger Ebert to later call it one of the sexiest movies of all time. Barbara Stanwyck is the queen of the tease. In one scene, she languishes on a chaise in a dressing gown whilst alluring Fonda with her hot, heated words.

Positively filthy, I say…

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