Friday, August 16, 2019

The Pre-Code Era: Just a Lot of Underwear

Claudette Colbert in The Sign of the Cross (1932)
The pre-Code obsessives irritate me.  They never tire of professing the superiority of the indecent and shocking pre-Code films made between 1930 and 1934 to the more morally responsible films made during the Code's enforcement from 1934 to 1954.  They insist that pre-Code films are more serious and more adult-oriented.  What they really mean is that a pre-Code film might give you a serious glimpse of Loretta Young in sexy lingerie.  In fact, a better name for the pre-code films would be the underwear films.  Women almost always turn up in lingerie in a pre-Code film.  Kim Morgan of The Dissolve wrote, "Check how many times Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell dress and undress in William Wellman's Night Nurse."  Jeanette MacDonald said, "The first pictures I made were very 'naughty.'  I was flaunting around in sleazy negligees and slinky gowns.  Oh, yes!"

 Jeanette MacDonald in The Love Parade (1929)


Déjà vu!  MacDonald in The Merry Widow (1934)

This is lazy, dull-witted and predictable entertainment.  Daniel Lord, a Jesuit priest who drafted the Production Code, sarcastically accused the producer of the lingerie-heavy No Man of Her Own (1932) of owning a large amount of stock in a lingerie company. 

The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) even features a lingerie song.

Lord had an extremely low opinion of this type of entertainment.  He wrote:
Smut requires no brains and dirt comes out of the minds and hearts of the dullest and most illiterate.  There is a sort of crude and compelling humor in the dirty joke which, tiresome and repetitious as it is, never loses its quick appeal.  A beautiful woman willing to expose herself needs no talent or ability.  Feed the audience blood and sex for a time, and they have known so highly seasoned a diet that a good story has almost no appeal for them.
A film that offers a series of passing titillations in place of an engrossing or heartfelt story is not good entertainment.  A film should provide more keen content than a look at a woman's bare feet. 

Loretta Young's feet in Loose Ankles (1930)

Today, the Internet offers endless films of women in sexy lingerie (and less) and endless films to satisfy the foot fetishist.  Trust me, this is not filmmaking at its apex.

The lingerie was bound to become boring after a couple of years.  By 1932, MacDonald found her box office appeal in decline and figured that a change was necessary.  "I have gone far enough in lingerie," she told Motion Picture. "I'm sure they must say about me, on the screen, ‘Good gracious, is Jeanette MacDonald going to take off her clothes — again?"

Jean Harlow in Iron Man (1931)
New thrills had to be found once the lingerie scenes became boring.  It is fortunate that the Code came into effect before too many of those new thrills came to be.  If not for the Code, we might have eventually gotten to see a film about George Brent battling venereal disease or Joan Blondell going on a shopping spree to find the perfect dildo.

Joan Blondell in Blonde Crazy (1931)
Let's hear from a pre-Code obsessive.  James Wallace Harris, author the Auxilary Memory blog, wrote, "What the moral police wanted back then, was to censor Hollywood from showing strong willed women.  The kind of women who wanted their own careers, or ones that wanted to explore their sexuality or escape the bondage of marriage, motherhood and even morality."

Morality is bondage? 

Joan Blondell is concerned about Ann Dvorak in Three on a Match (1932)
Let's look at a typical pre-Code lady who went off to "explore their sexuality or escape the bondage of marriage, motherhood and even morality."  The woman, Vivian Kirkwood (Ann Dvorak), appears in Three On a Match (1932).  Kim Luperi of Classic Movie Hub, wrote:
As the wife of lawyer Robert (Warren William) and mother to Junior (Buster Phelps), Vivian leads a comfortable life – during the Great Depression, no less – but there's one problem: she’s terribly bored.  Upon leaving Robert for the thrills Mike (Lyle Talbot) offers, Vivian tumbles into a life of drugs, thugs, and depravity that culminates with Junior’s abduction and ends with Vivian’s epic sacrifice to save her son's life.
Ann Dvorak and Buster Phelps in Three on a Match (1932)
Luperi acknowledged the luridness of the film.  She wrote:
Three on a Match (1932) doesn’t play around.  The notorious pre-Code jam packs scenes featuring drunkenness, dope, illicit sex, gangsters, and suicide all within a cool 63 minutes.
Ann Dvorak screams in anguish in Three on a Match (1932)
Pre-Code films focused mainly on adulterous wives, alcoholic prostitutes, thrill-seeking party girls, weepy kept women, and greedy gold diggers.  Not a strong woman in the bunch.

Joan Marsh is a gold digger in Bachelor's Affairs (1932)

Jay Raskin, author and filmmaker, has in recent times taken a bold stand in defense of Born to Be Bad (1934).  He wrote, "This is the type of Pre-Code film that makes you curse the Hayes Code and the Catholic Legion of Decency.  It is more serious and adult orientated movie than almost any movie for the next 20 years."  Born to be Bad (1934) involves an out of wedlock birth, child abuse, cheating the legal system, (implied) prostitution, and adultery.  Sex was the film's big hook.

There's far more to adulthood than men and women looking for new and exciting ways to satisfy themselves sexually.  Adulthood is to a greater extent about responsibility and productivity.  Genuine adult films are films about adults fulfilling a deep and vital duty to one another.  It's sad for filmmakers to restrict grown-up matters to matters of sexual ardor.

Born to be Bad, which was set to be released at the time the code came into effect, did undergo reshoots and re-editing to appease censors.  This might be the reason film ended with Young coming to appreciate the importance of motherhood.


Mark A. Vieira, the author of Forbidden Hollywood: The Pre-Code Era (1930-1934), wrote, "Films like Search for Beauty and The Scarlet Empress did not merely include suggestive scenes; these films were about sex.  Their plots hinged on seduction.  They showed naked women and even naked men."

Scenes from Search for Beauty (1934)


The Sign of the Cross (1932) featured an orgy, a naked dance, and scantily clad women being savaged by wild animals.  This woman is about to be devoured by alligators. 

Vieira and Cecilia de Mille Presley took a close look at The Sign of the Cross in a article titled "The Wickedest Movie in the World: How Cecil B. DeMille Made The Sign of the Cross."  They wrote:
Drawing on Hol­lywood’s private life, [assistant director Mitchell] Leisen enhanced the film with picaresque details.  Shots of couples fondling and osculating during the orgy scene were far more provocative than anything previously shown in a major studio film.  There was "The Dance of the Naked Moon," performed by an exotic named Joyzelle Joyner, in an exhibition of Sapphic seduction that promised to go the limit.
The orgy got so wild that participants were injured.

Here is a glimpse of the orgy action.


This was not the only orgy staged on film sets in Hollywood.  Orgies were popular in this town.

Hollywood filmmakers dreamed of orgies.
Orgy scene in Manslaughter (1922)
Orgy scene in Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1923)
Orgy scene in The Warrior's Husband (1933)
Drawing on Hollywood's private life, indeed.  Vieira wrote:
At Warner Bros., Darryl Zanuck was so happy with [Public Enemy writer] John Bright's work that he invited him to a stag party.  "It involved everything, including a lesbian show by two prostitutes," recalled Bright.  "I remember commenting to myself that here were the leading creators of the nation's entertainment, including children’s pictures, and they were behaving so obscenely, speculating whether the girls were on the level or not, were they having orgasms or not, while these wretched little creatures were involved in angleworm antics.  I was shocked and revolted at the absurdity of it.
In The Sign of the Cross, the lesbian show staged at the orgy never reached the point of angleworm antics.  Joyner was rebuffed in her "Sapphic seduction" by her intended partner (Elissa Landi), a virtuous woman who could not be intimidated by the dancer's aggressive technique.


Here is a gorilla getting ready to attack a beautiful young woman.


It is implied by the spectator's shocked expressions that the gorilla rapes the girl.


The Production Code debate is a debate between two groups: people who like to see gorilla rape in their films and people who don't like to see gorilla rape in their films.

Sex imbued every frame of The Sign of the Cross.


Lord wrote:
The transcontinental trains were packed with Broadway writers summoned to save the talking pictures with clever dialogue.  Instead they brought low, crude, and filthy things.  Plots were narrowed down to seduction and murder and illegitimate children and immoral women and rapacious men.  Silent smut had been bad.  Vocal smut cried to the censors for vengeance.

No one was more vocal about the vocal smut than Lord.  Lord continued:
I began to make an analysis of the films produced in the months since the code, and the results of the survey were terrifying.  Into a small booklet called The Motion Pictures Betray America I put the cold statistics on the rapes, the seductions, the illicit loves, the illegitimate children, the murders, the brutality.  I named names and mentioned in detail what I thought of important producers (named) who used their wives (named) to star in a series of pictures that presented them as filthy, immoral women.  I accused the industry of faking observance of the code.  I said that they were, these companies, a menace to the decencies, with no slightest regard for the future of America, ambassadors of bad will and national slander to the European nations, and an irresponsible lot of money-loving scamps who would sell their sisters to make a fast buck.
Lord was focused on one important producer, Irving Thalberg, whose wife Norma Shearer starred in a series of sexually provocative films.  One of Shearer's most popular films was The Divorcee (1930), the plot of which involves nothing more than a divorced woman going on a sex spree.

Norma Shearer in A Free Soul (1931)
The pre-Code films were usually sensational and shocking.  The films were too often vile and vulgar.  Jeremy Geltzer, author of Film Censorship in America: A State-by-State History, wrote:
Road to Ruin [1934] exposed — and glamorized — the dangers of fast living, sex, drugs, adventure, and alcohol. The low-budget film thrilled audiences with scenes of a booze-fueled co-ed kissing party, bare-legged dancing to jazzy jitterbug music, strip poker, and even a moonlight swim with girls stripped down to their bloomers.

 Vieira pointed to the response to the Studio Relations Committee (SRC) to Hell's Angels.  He wrote:
"The difficulty, as you know," the SRC's Lamar Trotti explained, "lies in the fact that the story of Hell’s Angels is stupid, rotten, sordid, and cheap." Trotti noted that scenes between British soldiers and French bar girls showed open-mouth kissing.  "When the couples kiss each other, they invariably open their mouths and try to swallow each other.  The men kiss the girls on the ears and the girls squeal."
Vieira noted, "Though some of these films were exploitative, many of them were legitimate works of art.  Hollywood was offering mature thought to an audience that was ready for it — and supporting it."  The person who wants to make the point that pre-code films were legitimate works of art will immediately point to the elegant and sophisticated comedies of Ernst Lubitsch.  Morgan wrote, "After all, Lubitsch comedies were about sex, love, joy, and the messy human complications that come from voluptuous adventure."  But the censors appreciated that fact that Lubitsch's films, though filled with "[d]eviltry [and] innuendo" (Edwin Schallert, Los Angeles Times), were tasteful and mature.  SRC's James B. M. Fisher wrote of Lubitsch's The Love Parade, "There is a bathtub scene, very discreetly handled.  There is also an early scene which shows Jeanette MacDonald in a very décolleté gown. There are a few lines with a rather explosively sophisticated meaning.  None of these things should cause any adverse comment, however, because the picture is entirely free from vulgarity."  Although he stressed that the film was for adults, SRC's Geoffrey Shurlock was highly favorable in his assessment of Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise (1932), which he described as "the most sparkling and entertaining of Lubitsch's comedies since the advent of talkies."  A Detroit exhibitor echoed Shurlock's opinion.  "Not very uplifting, from a moral viewpoint," he wrote, "but done in a foreign locale in such a humorous vein that few will take exception to the nature of the story."  Lubitsch leading lady Jeanette MacDonald said, "The famous 'Lubitsch touch.'  It had an amusing kind of naughtiness.  Not 'dirty.'  Not really 'sexy,' but it really had great whimsy." 

The Love Parade (1929)

Raskin wrote, "The Hayes Code pretty much separated characters into good and bad and you could easily guess who would be rewarded (the good) and who would be punished (the bad)."  Internet Movie Database user worldofgabby described the Code period as "an era which gutted movies of. . . moral ambiguity."

Moral ambiguity is a literary device.  Writers put a character into this grey area to make him more interesting.  But I don't see this greyness in the real world as much as I see it in the fictional world.  Most people are just not that complex and, in the end, a person falls either on the side of good or the side of bad.  Not all, mind you, but most.  People develop distinct patterns of behavior, which can make them fairly predictable.  The people who make good decisions and behave well are people we regard as reliable and trustworthy.  The people who make bad decisions and behave poorly are the people we know to avoid.  When a pattern of behavior is particularly bad and particularly distinct, we call it modus operandi and we put those people in prison.  But writers want to tell us that the good guys are not entirely good and the bad guys are not entirely bad.  This notion, writ large in film after film, is one of the screenwriter's worst fantasies.


The human being, whether off-screen or on-screen, needs to exist in a moral universe.  Right is right and wrong is wrong.  We can never forget that.  The alternative is nihilism, which is a view that has in recent years destroyed the cinematic arts.

Let's present a crucial debate between Lord and M-G-M producer Irving Thalberg.  The quotes were extracted from Vieira's Forbidden Hollywood: The Pre-Code Era (1930-1934): When Sin Ruled the Movies.

"I am talking only about the morality of entertainment.  People go to the theatres; they sit there passively — accept and receive — with the result that they go out from that entertainment either very much improved or very much deteriorated; and that depends almost entirely upon the character of the entertainment."
"We merely present [motion pictures].  The motion picture does not present the audience with tastes and manners and views and morals; it reflects those they already have. People see in it a reflection of their own average thoughts and attitudes. If the reflection is much lower or higher than their own plane, they reject it. The motion picture is literally bound to the mental and moral level of its vast audience."
"You set standards.  You inculcate an idea of customs. You create fashions in dress, and you even go so far as to create fashions in automobiles. No art has done that before. You’ve got a larger audience! You’ve got an audience which pays 35¢, 50¢, as against a Broadway audience, which has to pay $4.00. And you’ve got closeness to that picture audience. You’ve got enlargement. You’ve got emphasis of light. You’ve got vividness.
. . .
You have built up enthusiasm for actors and actresses.  You make them so real to people that you could get these people to like anything that your heroes and heroines do. You could make Clara Bow do almost anything, and people would still love what she did—up to a certain point, of course, depending on good taste. You have grave responsibilities, gentlemen!
. . .
I will admit that at the end of your story you have illustrated where right is right and wrong is wrong.  But what if, in the course of the story, that question has been left open, and there have been times when wrong has been right?  When you are looking at Clara Bow get away with a lot of things, it has an evil effect, even though at the end you show retribution, because, you see, all of the time the audience has been in love with that woman."
Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar (1931)
Little Caesar (1931) stirred up a heated debate between Jason Joy, the head of the SRC, and Dr. James Wingate, the head of the Motion Picture Division of the State of New York Education Department.  Joy wrote to Wingate:
The more ghastly and the more ruthless the criminal acts are, the stronger will be the audience reaction against men of this kind and organized crime in general. . . Always drama has been permitted to paint the unconventional, the unlawful, the immoral side of life in order to bring out in immediate contrast the happiness and benefits derived from wholesome, clean, and law-abiding conduct, and thus, without actually preaching a sermon, giving audiences the opportunity of inevitably forming the conclusion that the breaking of human or divine laws brings punishment. . . We are sure that it was never intended that censorship should be destructive, picking at the details, ignoring the effect of the whole, but rather that its duty should be a constructive one of influencing the quality of the final impression left on the minds of the audiences by the whole, irrespective of details possibly objectionable in themselves, sincerely used by the producer as a means of making necessary contrasts. . . The mere statement or even description of evil, lawless or immoral act is not in itself immoral and the question of whether it would "tend to corrupt morals" or incite to crime would depend always upon the impression left as to whether the act stated is profitable or unprofitable.
Wingate disagreed.  His argument was simple: "Children see a gangster riding around in a Rolls-Royce and living in luxury, and even though some other gangster gets him in the end, the child unconsciously forms the idea that he will be smarter and will get away with it."

Here is the kingpin's car in Little Caesar.  It's a 1929 Studebaker President FB.

Here's the kingpin's home.


It looks pretty good.

Jeanine Basinger, the author of A Woman's View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-1960, wisely pointed out, "When morality has to dramatize its own opposite to make its point, the opposite takes on a life of its own."

Gregory D. Black, author of Hollywood Censored: Morality Codes, Catholics, and the Movies, supported Joy's views.  He wrote, ". . . Joy argued that censorship did not entail, in his opinion, removing all reality from the screen.  There were criminals and there were corrupt officials, and no moral lessons could be taught if the screen did not use real life to illustrate morality."  But that argument is defeated by films like Safe in Hell (1931).  Critics responded unfavorably to Safe in Hell, a lurid film that involved prostitution, rape and murder.  Time magazine found the film to be "crude" and "trite.  The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that the film was "illogical and unintentionally humorous" and "the villains acted with self-conscious bestiality and amusing indifference."  Joe Bigelow of Variety derided the film for being implausible and excessively dark.   Bigelow noted:
Picture's story is hardboiled and sordid.  Too much so most of the time, which is "Safe in Hell's" chief deficiency.  Dorothy Mackaill plays a bad lady all the way to the finish, when she reforms morally while on her way to the gallows. . . A sad and unsatisfactory finish is obviously an attempt to lend credence to an impossible yarn.  It doesn't help, for as long as the story is thoroughly unbelievable up to the finish, no ending could change that impression. . . Nina Mae McKinney, with one song, and Clarence Muse are the colored comedy relief, but up against too much of a handicap in the form of a constantly depressing air of evil which prevails throughout the picture.
Morgan Wallace's bestiality contributes to the depressing air of evil in Safe in Hell (1931).
Filmmakers can shock audiences more if they leave behind reality and exaggerate immoral acts to the most nightmarish proportions.  It also did well to abandon everyday reality for exotic horrors.  Vieira wrote of Mata Hari (1931):
Cinematographer William Daniels shot its love scenes with a dreamlike diffusion, fogging the implausibility of the action and making [Greta] Garbo glow like a goddess in a jungle temple.  She makes her entrance in a bejeweled Javanese costume, dances seductively before a statue of the Lord Shiva, and finishes the dance by offering herself naked to the idol.
The film is focused on the sexual power that this exotic dancer exerts on men.  An airman, Lt. Alexis Rosanoff (Ramon Novarro), becomes infatuated with her, unaware that she is an enemy spy.


Vieira wrote of The Scarlet Empress (1934), ". . . [T]he Legion of Decency got as far as the first reel, where an eight-year-old girl dreams of three beheadings, a naked woman falling out of an 'iron maiden,' three topless women being burned at the stake, and a 'human clapper' swinging inside a huge bell.  The Legion slapped a 'condemned' rating on The Scarlet Empress, but Breen paid no attention."

A hellish life is to be found in the exotic world of Kongo (1932).


In A Free Soul (1931), a lawyer's daughter played by Norma Shearer has an affair with her father’s gangster client, played by Clark Gable.  Shearer later admitted, "Our film established the gangster as a glamour boy, not just a villain."

Motion Picture Magazine published a letter about glamour boy gangsters from a Los Angeles reader, Anita Mackland.  Mackland wrote:
"The Other Side of the Question," in the October "Letters to the Editor," is based upon the assumption that the desire to emulate virtue is predominant in the human breast. If this were true, the problem of keeping humanity in the straight and narrow path would have been, all these past ages, a comparatively easy task.  But history, alas! tells a different story.

There is something predatory in man which is instinctively drawn to theglamourouscrook.  The little boy finds himself secretly admiring the cunning mind that is able to contrive so many fascinating schemes for evil.  Even those of us whose characters are fixed, often find ourselves enjoying the lure of these sinister influences. Though I am but a timorous female who wouldn’t so much as kill a fly, I dote on gang pictures, but I don’t approve of them as they have been portrayed to date.  The offender is too often made so admirable, in spots, that his hold upon our sympathies is not counteracted by his criminal deeds.  The evil that he does not only fails to "live after him," but frequently we gulp a tear in his behalf and long to punch a perfectly worthy judge in the jaw.  This is all WRONG.

Until the gangster screen character is entirely robbed of his glamour he should be kept out of pictures and away from impressionable minds.

The undeniable influence that gangsta rap has had on our society proves that Mackland and Wingate were right. 


Filmmakers understood the negative influence that their films had.  This was blatantly acknowledged by the producers of the smutty Search for Beauty (1934).  The film's plot has to do with con men duping Olympic swimming champions into endorsing a racy magazine.  Here is the dialogue between two teenage girls perusing an article in the magazine.
Sally (Toby Wing): "I sure wish I could meet a guy like that 'dark, mysterious artist.'  Of course, you get a bill for it in the end." 

Susie (Verna Hillie): Bill?  Baloney! That 'paying the price' stuff is the bunk. They just put that in to make the yarn moral.  I’ll bet that dame is living on Park Avenue, riding around in an imported oil can, and splashing mud in the faces of pure working girls."
Here's the full scene.

Five pre-code films, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Frankenstein (1931), City Lights (1931), King Kong (1933) and Duck Soup (1933), made AFI's "100 Years. . . 100 Movies" list.  At the time of their release, these films did not run into problems with the SRC (although local censor groups cut out a line of dialogue in which Dr. Frankenstein said he now knew what it was like to be God).  The scene in which the monster playfully tosses a little girl into the lake and panics as the girl drowns was trimmed when Frankenstein was re-released in 1937.  Footage of Kong undressing Ann Darrow and Kong biting and stomping on natives was removed for a 1938 re-release. 

The censors did not see Duck Soup's Rufus T. Firefly as a glamour boy that children might emulate.  But, still, the film included a couple of bedroom scenes that might have raised a few eyebrows.


Additional notes 1

Basinger found that filmmakers used the same "two-faced" strategy of gangster films in women's films.  She wrote:
. . . [D]uring Hollywood’s transition-to-sound period, gangster movies were very popular, spewing out tough talk and machine gun bullets. When the censors became nervous about the glamorizing of gangsters, a crackdown took place. Hollywood immediately found a simple way to deal with the problem. It went on making gangster films, with all the same talk and the same bullets, but it killed off the bad guys at the end and announced: "Crime does not pay."  Everyone seems aware of this ruse, and much has been written about the cheap attempt to make violence acceptable by a last-minute line of dialogue or character turnaround. Isn’t it interesting, then, that when a woman’s film shows a woman in power for eighty-five minutes and reverses that in the last five minutes ("Oh, Maude, give up your presidency.  Come back to me and the children."), everyone seems to feel that this reversal defines the entire movie more than the rest of the film does? Why is this?  If "Crime does not pay" is an FBI advertising slogan pasted onto a movie as an excuse for its celebration of violence, what is "I think I’ll bake cookies instead of curing cancer"?
Basinger agrees with Harris that marriage is bondage.  Even worse, she wants us to believe that marriage is the reason we haven't found a cure for cancer.  Obviously, the FBI shouldn't have spent so much time cracking down on bootlegger gangs when so much havoc was being created by these marriage gangs.    

Basinger found that films for and about women "provide details of a rich and wealthy life without husbands or children but they lament the unhappiness that fame and wealth are supposed to bring."  These films, she noted, provide "a glimpse of heaven, an escape into wealth and power, and then remind them that this kind of life doesn’t hold a candle to their own little lives and families."  She believes that these films "provid[ed] viewers with escape, freedom, release, and then telling them that they shouldn't want such things; they won't work; they're all wrong."  This analysis is built squarely on the presumption that most women hated their husbands and children.  This analysis is built on the presumption that the women who helped to build families had "little lives" (even hellish lives, she suggests) while the women who built careers invariably had rich lives - lives filled with freedom, wealth and power. 

I have talked to women who grew up watching these films.  They had sympathy for the troubled women in these films but they didn't want to be these women.  The married mothers who watched these films were not so superficial that they would trade their babies for diamonds or trade a loving and committed husband for a seductive scoundrel.  Some of these women have held a great-grandchild in their arms.  Their family life has been a rich life for them.

Ann Doran, Irene Dunne and Fred MacMurray in Never a Dull Moment (1950)

I must admit, though, that I do sometimes find it disconcerting when a romantic comedy ends with a woman giving up a thriving career to become a housewife.  It's a life-changing decision that many women have had to make in their lives.  It's their right to make the decision as they see fit.  My own mother gave up an executive secretary job at McCall's Magazine to start a family.  But the scene should have a gravitas, especially if we have seen the woman express a devotion to her job and we have seen the woman enjoy an affluent lifestyle as a reward for her good work.  We shouldn't see her suddenly give up the job with a shrug and smile.  Yet, this happens in a few post-war romantic comedies, including June Bride (1948), The Lady Takes a Sailor (1949) and Never a Dull Moment (1950).  These woman have important jobs - Bette Davis is a big-city magazine editor in June Bride,  Jane Wyman is the president of a multimillion dollar product research institute (much like Consumer Reports) in The Lady Takes a Sailor, and Irene Dunne is a Broadway songwriter in Never a Dull Moment.  Yet, they give up their jobs with great ease to marry men who have lesser jobs.  So, yes, fault could be found with these films if you want to look hard enough. 

A newly domesticated Irene Dunne defends the homefront against William Demarest in Never a Dull Moment (1950)
Basinger complained strenuously that films encouraged women to be wives and mothers, ignoring the fact that films just as often encouraged men to be husbands and fathers.  In films of the 1930s and 1940s, men fearful of the responsibilities and restrictions of marriage and fatherhood were bound to undergo a miraculous third-act transformation in which their fears faded away and they finally made a loving and willing commitment to woman and child. 

Let's start with Clark Gable in Adventure (1945).  Warner Archive provided the following description of the film:
As a rough-hewn merchant marine, Gable reprises his most popular film persona, the wisecracking man's man who loves 'em and leaves 'em - until the right woman comes along. Garson is the librarian who finds nothing in the Dewey Decimal System about how to domesticate 6'1" of brawn and bravado.

Gable had cultivated an image as a hit-and-run lover, as he explains in this clip from No Man Of Her Own (1932).

But he stopped running whenever he met up with the right woman.

When we first meet Gable in Adventure, he is enjoying boyhood freedoms and adventures not much differently than Huck Finn.  The big difference is that Huck finds freedom and adventure on the Mississippi River while Gable finds freedom and adventure on the much grander Pacific Ocean.  Ed Severn of the "Miss Greer Garson" website wrote, "[Gable]'s having a great time here.  The first 25 minutes of the movie are all his: he kicks a door down, chews up some scenery, kisses some beautiful women, punches a few guys, and espouses a wealth of folklore knowledge."  By the end of the film, Gable is shedding tears of joy over the birth of his son and offering his wife a loving kiss.  And what's wrong with that?

Thirteen years later, Gable is still professing his hit-and-run policy in Teacher's Pet (1958).

Again, he has finally met up with the right woman.

The marriage-adverse male protagonist turns up in two films by Frank Borzage: Bad Girl (1931) and Man's Castle (1933).  Let's start with Man's Castle, which features Spencer Tracy as a drifter named Bill. 
Spencer Tracy stares warily at Loretta Young in Man's Castle (1933).

As with Gable, Tracy falls in love with a woman, which stirs big changes in him.

Tracy fights these feelings for a while, clinging desperately to his myopically impulsive ways.  Wikipedia reports, "Bill is a wandering sort, unwilling to live in the same place too long.  Trina falls in love with him, but wisely makes no demands that will make him feel trapped in their developing relationship."  Nathanael Hood of Letterboxd wrote, "Bill is deliberately gruff and constantly puts Trina down, but she recognises that his apparent grumpiness is an act to hide his fear of getting in too deep, and she responds with love and understanding."
Bill abandons his girlfriend, who by then is pregnant, by jumping aboard a passing freight train.  He was a drifter before he met her and he remains reluctant to abandon his drifter ways.  But, then, he quickly changes his mind and hops off the train.

The loving couple reunited for a happy ending.

How could anyone run out on Loretta Young?

The man-child is again represented in Bad Girl by radio repairman Eddie Collins, played by James Dunn.  But Eddie lacks the wanderlust of Tracy or Gable.  You can say he yearns for adventure only if you regard his dream to own his own radio shop to be a form of adventure.

Sally Eilers and James Dunn in Bad Girl (1931)

Eddie sees marriage as a scheme to keep a man down.  He tells Dorothy Haley (Sally Eilers), "Well, here's one guy's gonna beat this game, see?  No poverty, no pinchin', no scrimpin' for me.  I got $580 saved up, see?  In a couple of months, I'm gonna have my own radio shop."

It seems that he is getting his ideas from his boss, Mr. Lathrop, who he treats as a father figure.  He listens respectfully when Mr. Lathrop advises him against marriage.   
Mr. Lathrop: Don't get married.

Eddie: Not a Chinaman's chance.

Receptionist: He's been getting a lot of telephone calls lately, Mr. Lathrop.

Eddie: Ah.

Mr. Lathrop: Well, I'd hate to see you making any mistake, Eddie. Why, you can have your own little place in six months.  But not if you let a woman get a hold on ya.

Eddie: Oh, I never even think about it.

Mr. Lathrop: That's the danger. Do you suppose any man would ever marry if he thought of it?

Eddie: Why, I can't even talk to a girl. You know, it's funny about me that way. I'd like to be nice to women. You know, say nice things to them, like fellas can. I can't though. I think of nice things to say.  But when it comes to putting 'em into words I only say something sarcastic and mean.  But me get married?  That's a laugh.

Mr. Lathrop: Well, I hope so.

But Eddie changes his ways, too, before long.

Robert Montgomery and Janet Gaynor in Three Loves Has Nancy (1938)
 Robert Montgomery is petrified of marriage in Three Loves Has Nancy (1938). 

In the end, he gladly climbs into the marital trenches to share his life with Janet Gaynor.

In Love in the Afternoon (1957), business magnate Frank Flannagan enjoys fleeting romances during his international travels.  The object of his latest romance is young Ariane Chavasse (Audrey Hepburn), who desperately desires a commitment from the man but is afraid she'll scare him off if she lets him know her true feelings.  So, instead, she pretends to share his bed-hopping philosophy. 

Flannagan says of his love habits, "Makes everything much simpler.  That's how it should be.  No involvement, no complications.  None at all.  The trouble is, people get too attached to each other.  Scenes, tears.  Everything gets maudlin.  People should always behave as though they're between planes."

"Very sound, Mr. Flannagan," Ariane responds.  "He who loves and runs away lives to love another day."

He brightens at the remark.  "I must remember that," he says.  "It works out great.  It works for you.  Everybody's happy.  Nobody gets hurt."

But the womanizing jet-setter eventually falls in love with Ariane.  Ariane's father Claude (Maurice Chevalier) perfectly summarizes the situation: "Hit-and-run lover.  Got run over himself."

Additional notes 2

I must admit that Hollywood also showed off the female foot during the Code era.

It's a Wonderful World (1939)

Love Crazy (1941)

Reference sources

"Adventure 1945," Blu-Ray.

Gregory D. Black, Hollywood Censored: Morality Codes, Catholics, and the Movies, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. 

James W. Harris, Auxilary (Memory (May 23, 2010).

Kim Luperi, "Pre-Code Corner: Oh, No You Don’t – Or Yes, You Do? Three on a Match and Kidnapping," Classic Movie Hub Blog (February 3, 2018).

Cecilia de Mille Presley and Mark A. Vieira, "The Wickedest Movie in the World: How Cecil B. DeMille Made The Sign of the Cross," Bright Lights Film Journal (December 18, 2014).

Kim Morgan, "Ernst Lubitsch’s charming pre-Code transgressions," The Dissolve (October 23, 2013).

Ed Severn, "Adventure (1945)," Miss Greer Garson.

Carlos Valladares, "Man’s Castle 1933," Letterboxd (September 12, 2017).    

Mark A. Vieira, Forbidden Hollywood: The Pre-Code Era (1930-1934): When Sin Ruled the Movies.  New York, N. Y.: Running Press Adult (April 2, 2019).

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