Don't ever let anybody tell you strong women just came out of nowhere in the 1960s. Not in the movies (they've been around since at least Lillian Leighton began starring in silents) and certainly not in real life (they've been around since ever). The greatest bread and butter of pre-code talky Hollywood, and perhaps MGM in particular, was the melodrama, usually of the romantic variety. Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, Ann Dvorak, Jean Harlow and numerous other actresses played independent women who practically took off their high heels and threw them through the glass ceiling in their movies.
The pre-code time period of Hollywood can be positively shocking to the novice "pre-coder." It surely was to me when I began watching more pre-code films. One cannot appreciate (or rather regret, or curse) just how dramatic a change the Hayes Code's leashing of American cinema brought about. An entire library's worth of films were vividly adult in orientation, pulpy in presenting their licentious content and liberal in their utilization of steamy innuendos. Today, these films are rightly marketed by that beacon of classic cinema, Turner Classic Movies, in DVD packages, as "Forbidden Hollywood." Just because they're in black and white and in a 1:33 aspect ratio doesn't make them any less naughty; indeed, their bold and brazen tackling of amatory relationships, lustful dames and salacious scandals set against the desperation of the Depression only enhances the titillation.
This is not to suggest that there weren't overbearingly ubiquitous gender roles. It is easy to commend the modern, pragmatically down-to-earth portrayals of these women and their romantic predicaments. These films doubtless showcase an open maturity that would be sent to creative prison for almost three decades, reemerging with the rise of a sexually awakening new generation with films such as Splendor in the Grass (1961) and Sweet Bird of Youth (1962). However, these pre-code films, no matter how outwardly prickly and sensually standoffish, ultimately relied on placing all of the moral weight and responsibility on the woman. Time and time again, it's the female who is called upon by the screenplay, by fate, by the demands of the powers that be, to sacrifice for the sake of the man. This turn in the story normally takes place sometime around halfway or perhaps later in the film, after the audience is lured, ever so slightly, into perhaps gullibly believing the woman will act according to her own best interests regardless of who says what.
Possessed (1931) is such a film. Helmed by Clarence Brown, a regular director of Greta Garbo, and correspondingly a man skilled at drawing out paradoxically larger-than-life and slyly soulful performances from his actors, Possessed radiates with the buoyant, almost unrestrained charismatic charm of Joan Crawford and Clark Gable. Crawford's movements in particular are still quite wedded to the beguiling symmetry silent cinema, with which she was no stranger. (The fact that she was a former Broadway dancer helps to fill in just why she always seems to know precisely how to position herself before both her fellow actors and the camera.) The plot is familiar for its time period: A female factory worker, Marion, lives in a small town and is dully sought after by a childhood friend-turned-co-worker and permanent-suitor, Al (Wallace Ford). Her interest in Al is understandably infinitesimal as he seems as interesting as a lump of rocks. One night she wanders about by the railroad tracks, where she spots a train slowly moving past. In the film's most beautiful sequence, which plays just like a silent film, Marion watches from outside of the train cars as the translucent windows beckon her to peer into the world of luxury. This train has millionaires for passengers, and their bright, silvery world (in black and white) contrasts hugely with the bleakly black world Marion inhabits.
One plot point leads to another, and within a few minutes, in the time of the film, Marion meets Mark Whitney (Gable), an extremely wealthy man. Mark and Marion hit it off and a quick calendar montage takes the viewer from 1929 to 1932. At a most inconvenient time, Al returns, believing that Marion has made a fortune of her own and he remains hopeful in his quest to marry her--as well as enhance his own economic position greatly. In the three years they have "been together," Mark has refused to marry Marion, partly because he has been emotionally wounded by a previous relationship and partly because he does not wish to risk ruining their special bond. Another factor is introduced in the latter half of the film, which is the more melodramatic and implausible of the movie--political considerations. A group of shady, rich investors want Whitney to run for governor of their state and try to convince him that if he were to marry Marion, it would appear he was doing so merely to avoid scandal relating to their already three-year long relationship.
Possessed isn't about Satanic demons but rather is used to connote the state of the Crawford character's existence. The film makes the rather ugly point, all too often, that Marion is at least somewhat "owned" by Mark. Certain curt lines of dialogue are built around this conceit and while it was a decent concept it is hammered into the ground. Likewise, whereas the film begins as a fairly involving character study, it begins to lose grasp of what was working in its favor; the entire gubernatorial plot springs up in order to create the necessary condition by which Marion will sacrifice everything she's ever wanted--marriage--in order to see that her man prevails. If that weren't enough, the film demands she publicly do so again, at the risk of permanent embarrassment, in the film's final melodramatic moments.
Possessed contains many of the contradictions of the pre-code films at large, even if it's far less sexually frank than a great many of them. They feed the viewer the dessert first and then finally force down all of the vegetables. After hooking the audience with the allure of smoldering and sexy starlets coupled with amorously masculine virility, the message--forever that the woman must bend to the greater good--forces itself onto the stage. One can make a compelling case that in portraying this dichotomy, the pre-code films were in actuality only reflecting reality; that, by illustrating the uttermost indignities and unpleasantness a woman is called upon to endure, they remain implicitly pro-woman, anti-hypocrisy. In this way, perhaps, Stella Dallas (1937) is the ultimate post-code "pre-code" film, about the most sacrificing mother ever committed to celluloid (played, both ironically and fittingly by Barbara Stanwyck). And are today's mainstream films all that different? Judging by Iron Man, in which Gwyneth Paltrow's dutiful assistant works tirelessly for the benefit of her aloof male boss, I would contend no, they honestly aren't.