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Lists: Pre-Code Cleavage

Lists: Pre-Code Cleavage

By Karina Longworth

Film Threat “celebrates” Breast Cancer Awareness Month by counting down the Fifty Best Breasts in Movie History — and yes, that’s 25 actresses, two apiece. At MediaBistroLA, Kate Coe bristles that “pre-code films are largely ignored, with the exception of Mae West,” and that’s a fair point; choosing West over, say, Clara Bow is like passing over a sorority sister for her salty, disreputable great aunt.

Unfortunately (and somewhat surprisingly), there’s not yet a web portal dedicated the preservation of early cinema necklines. In fact, my Google search for “pre-code cleavage” turned up just one result, a message board comment declaring that Zita Johann’s “pre-code cleavage, however lacking in volume, was absolutely the hottest thing of the Castle Films silent 8mm era.” I also came across a discussion on a Turner Classic Movies message board thread on “plunging cleavage,” recommending Joan Blondell and Jean Harlow in just about everything. As commenter MovieJoe79 puts it about the latter, “she never wore a bra, so you can catch a real eyeful on occasion!”

Below the jump, you’ll find my picks for a few classic pre-code cleavage uses. Because in the end, we are all twelve year-old boys. Some of us were just born in 1918.

Claudette Colbert in the milk bath (above), “The Sign of Cross”

The number one nipple slip of the 1930s, courtesy of none other than Cecil B. DeMille. In Pre-Code Hollywood, Thomas Doherty notes that Paramount’s publicist cheerfully called attention to the film’s flounting of the easily-evaded censorship stricture of the day, the Breen Code: “Rome burns again! The sets are marvelous and the costumes spell sex. [And] there’s Claudette Colbert in a milk bath!”

Ginger Rogers, “Gold Diggers of 1933”

I’d love to be able to show a clip of the “Music Makes Me” number from “Flying Down to Rio,” in which Rogers, wearing a sheer gown, sings lyrics like “My self control was something to brag about/Now it’s a gag about town/Because music makes me do things I shouldn’t do.” Unfortunately, that’s not on YouTube, but this clip from “Goldiggers of 1933” is. Rogers’ star image underwent a dramatic transformation around 1934. In her case, it had more to do with her increasingly successful partnership with Fred Astaire than with the Production Code that went into effect that year, but the shift in overall moral climate certainly created a paucity of roles for girls with experience wearing a bikini made out of giant pennies whilst singing ironic lyrics in pig latin.

“Red-Headed Woman” (1932)

This mind-bogglingly problematic scene is a particularly loaded example of Jean Harlow’s, um, lack of constriction referenced by MovieJoe79. Drunken floozy Harlow makes a scene in front of her married lover and his wife. The lover follows her to her apartment, where he pushes past her negligee-wearing, banana-eating roommate to give Jean a piece of his mind. Harlow locks the two of them in her bedroom. Around the 5:45 mark, the married guy slaps Harlow, to which she responds, “Go ahead, do it again! I like it!” Cut to the banana-eating roommie, listening at the door as the lover beats Harlow to tears. Cut back into the room. The married guy asks the wimpering Harlow to give him the key so he can leave the room. Eyes wide, she drops it down her blouse.

It’s one of those pre-Code scenes that you actually have to see to believe, but it also points to the flip side of the traditional post-feminist read of 1930s film. “Red-Headed Woman” was one of the few films of the era scripted by a female writer, and it still plays like a male fantasy of dominance and submission.

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