Dames, Janes, Dolls, and Canaries

Jeanette MacDonald and Genevieve Tobin in Ernst Lubitsch’s One Hour With You (1932)

As critic, novelist, and frequent Current contributor Farran Smith Nehme tells NitrateVille Radio host Mike Gebert, our ideas about the history of cinema are shaped by what’s available. We can only trace lines of influence and map the evolution of styles and techniques based on the films we’ve seen or read or heard about. Working with curator Dave Kehr and senior program assistant Olivia Priedite, Nehme has put together a series running at the Museum of Modern Art in New York through February 19 that spotlights fourteen actresses whose careers flared brightly but all too briefly in the late 1920s and early ’30s, women who have since been overlooked, forgotten, or skipped over in histories of the period.

If the draw of Dames, Janes, Dolls, and Canaries: Women Stars of the Pre-Code Era is sex, drugs, and, as Nehme phrases it in MoMA’s Magazine, crime “that did, in fact, pay,” that’s fine. There’s plenty of all that in many of these nineteen features. Another draw might be the opportunity to see rarely screened films by directors we treasure such as Frank Borzage, Ernst Lubitsch, James Whale, Leo McCarey, and Dorothy Arzner.

The point of the series, though, is twofold. First, Nehme is rekindling long-dimmed spotlights on such talents as the versatile Nancy Carroll or Mary Nolan, who, as Nehme tells Gebert, was an “extraordinarily beautiful woman with a lot of raw acting talent whom fate just kicked in the teeth over and over again.” Second, the series serves as a reminder that the depiction of women during those few years between the general adoption of sound in 1929 and the enforcement of the Production Code in the summer of 1934 was different from—and far more generous than—it would be for years to come.

“The women of pre-Code Hollywood were not only more sexually liberated than their Code-bound successors, they were also unapologetically independent and skeptical or outright dismissive of norms and institutions like marriage in ways that went unpunished,” writes Beatrice Loayza in the New York Times. And as Olympia Kiriakou points out in the Notebook, “apart from some finger waves and lip rouge, these women share very little in common in terms of their screen personalities, lifestyles, or star images. It is precisely that variety that highlights the plurality of performance styles and personas that populated U.S. cinema screens in the early 1930s.”

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