A couple of years ago, I found myself in a small used bookstore in Ventura where I found a book that changed my life and my perception of American history. No, it wasn’t the Bible, or the Book of Mormon (or Book of Mormon), or Lies My Teacher Told Me.
It was this book – Complicated Women, by Mick LaSalle. I had heard of “Pre-Code” movies before, of course. I don’t have two film degrees for nothing. But I’d always heard them spoken about as an aberration, a novelty, a failed moment in the evolution of American film that dead-ended in 1934 and allowed the real history of American film to begin.
But LaSalle had a different view. He wrote about Pre-Code films as being a brief moment of honesty on the American screen, until that honesty was shoved back into the box demanded of it by conservatives. He thought that the Production Code, far from being the “improvement” over the filth of the Pre-Code period that many critics used to speak of as being, had actually infantilized us as a society and made it difficult for Americans to deal with real life when it inevitably came to us in the form of illness, disappointment, divorce, and betrayal.
Once I started watching the Pre-Code movies LaSalle wrote about for myself and comparing them to the Production Code films I knew so well, I knew he was right. And I knew I needed to write this blog.
So let’s talk about one of those movies that opened my eyes. It’s not a great or even particularly good movie. It doesn’t have any major stars or a major director (sorry, La Cava fans). But it does cover many of the themes that will recur over and over again as we look at Pre-Code films and see how different they are from Production Code films.
The Age of Consent (1932)
Director: Gregory La Cava
Producers: David O Selznick and Pandro S. Berman
Screenplay: Sarah Y. Mason and Francis M. Cockrell (from the play “Cross Roads” by Martin Flavin)
Synopsis: College undergraduates Betty Cameron (Dorothy Wilson) and Mike Harvey (Richard Cromwell) are having trouble deciding whether to finish college or drop out of school to get married. Matters get even more complicated when Mike is caught in a compromising position with flirtatious waitress Dora (Arline Judge), only to discover that Dora is under the legal age of consent, so he will have to marry her or go to jail.
So, read that synopsis again. Think about it. Pull some assumptions into your mind from what you know of classic Hollywood movies from the late 1930s through to the 1950s.
I’ll tell you one thing to start with – your knowledge of Production Code Hollywood movies will not help you predict the plot of this one. Betty’s not a bad girl. Neither is Dora. And the problems that the characters end up facing are caused, not by sex, but by sexual repression and traditional morality, a conclusion American films wouldn’t be allowed to come to until more than 30 years after this film was made.
The film opens with a montage of college students flirting with one another before switching to the biology class led by Professor Mathews (John Halliday), whose dry lecture is interrupted by a blasting car horn from Duke Galloway (Eric Linden). Duke’s rich father has just bought him a brand-new car with a backseat as big as a hotel, “only better – you don’t have to register!” Fellow student Mike Harvey (Richard Cromwell) admires Duke’s car until he realizes that Duke has come to pick up his girl, Betty Cameron (Dorothy Wilson). Mike and Betty quarrel and Mike storms off to the local café, where pretty working-class waitress Dora Swale (Arline Judge) flirts with him to try and cheer him up, with no luck.
Betty starts to leave on her date with Duke, but she’s still so angry with Mike that she insists on turning around to continue the argument with him. As Duke waits in the car, Betty storms into the diner and demands that Mike apologize. The argument escalates until Betty declares that she’s going to follow Mike everywhere he goes until he apologizes, and …
That’s right – Mike broke his nice girlfriend’s bra strap while groping her during their makeout session in a public men’s room, and now they’re happily engaged. Welcome to Pre-Code!
Mike and Betty still have a dilemma, though – Mike wants to get married right away so they can be together all the time (that is, live together and have sex) but Betty worries that maybe they should wait until he graduates in two years because otherwise he will resent her for making him drop out. Mike seeks advice from Prof. Mathews, but it quickly becomes clear that Mathews’ advice may not be sound, since his own engagement to English professor Barbara (Aileen Pringle) ended because academia distracted both of them from romance. Still, there is a hint that Barbara’s feelings for Mathews may not be quite extinguished even though they are both now middle-aged. As Mike drops Betty off at her dormitory, the question of when to get married is still up in the air.
Mike stops off at the café on his way home, still brooding and, frankly, horny, and the flirtatious Dora convinces him to walk her home after her shift. Once there, they get into her father’s stash of illegal booze (it is Prohibition, after all) and end up making out … at a minimum. It’s a little hard to tell since they both seem to stay clothed (though Dora asks, “Are you sorry?” so something happened), but it’s enough to enrage Dora’s father when he arrives home from working the night shift, and he immediately calls the police.
At the District Attorney’s office, Mike is informed that Dora is underage, so he must either marry her or go to prison for statutory rape. Given that choice, Mike reluctantly agrees to marry her. Neither one of them is very happy about it, but Dora obviously sees this as her chance to escape her tedious waitressing job and her domineering father, so she goes along with her father’s wishes. Prof. Mathews promises to make sure Mike does not disappear before the wedding and to support him through what comes next.
When Mike tells Betty what has happened and that he must marry Dora or go to jail, she is devastated. In an effort to cheer her up – one that actually seems genuine and not just another seduction attempt – Duke takes Betty out for a fast ride through the country in his fancy car.
At Dora’s house, her father is pleased at her “catch” – Mike is obviously of a much better social class than the Swales and Dora’s father sees a bright future for his daughter in this reluctant, miserable shotgun marriage. A phone call for Prof. Mathews interrupts the looming wedding – Betty and Duke crashed his car and Mathews must go to the hospital immediately. Though Dora’s father is reluctant, he finally agrees that he and Dora should go to the hospital with Mike and Mathews.
At the hospital, Betty will recover from her concussion and broken arm, but Duke dies with Mike and Mathews at his bedside. Dora is so distressed by Duke’s dying words about Mike being “so lovesick it’s silly” that she refuses to marry Mike with an emotional speech:
Did you catch that? It’s subtle, but Dora is outright rejecting her religious upbringing (which, given her father’s accent, is probably Catholic). Not only that, she refuses to marry Mike because she thinks it would be more immoral to “steal” him when he loves someone else than it was for her to have sex with him.
The last scene, of course, is pure Hollywood – Mike and Betty board a train to California after their wedding, with Mathews and Barbara seeing them off … and a hint that this episode has rekindled their own, middle-aged romance. The End.
The Age of Consent is not a great movie but, in some ways, that’s why I chose it to be the first film I wrote about. Its flaws put its differences from classic (Production Code) Hollywood movies into sharp relief. The morality is very clearly different from what would come later, from its rejection of conventional sexual morality to Dora’s outright rejection of her father’s religious teachings. The film essentially asks, What is sin? What is right and wrong? and answers those questions in a way that would no longer be permitted only three years later.