Some of the raciest movies in Hollywood were made well before the Sharon Stone leg crossover and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s kinky tenure as a secretary. Between the advent of sound in the late 1920s and the enforcement of the restrictive Hays Code in 1934, filmmakers got away with making movies that introduced aggressive sexuality and untraditional relationships. Hollywood’s bawdy pre-code period featured lawbreakers, heartbreakers, and shocking tales of modern morals aplenty. We’ve highlighted ten of the naughtiest.
A Busby Berkeley extravaganza that features this bawdy little song and dance number about “getting it in the open air.” Why yes, that is Dick Powell opening Ruby Keeler’s metal corset with a can opener. Nineteen-thirties kink?
Clara Bow in her first talkie plays a brazen party girl breaking hearts at her college, but she winds up having eyes for her professor.
Seduction, blackmail, murder — Jean Harlow really knew how to have a good time in Red-Headed Woman. The 1932 Jack Conway picture was full of overt female sexuality, a touch of nudity, and a sadistic scene between Harlow and Chester Morris (above). The film was censored and banned in certain countries, but it became a smash hit. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote the original screenplay, but producers didn’t find it provocative enough and gave the gig to Anita Loos for a rewrite.
The title alone suggests something lurid and pulpy. Several “titillating” scenes of Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell flashing their lingerie raised eyebrows, and the film’s violent plot involving murder and children put the movie over the top.
Ruth Chatterton’s Alison Drake is a successful automobile tycoon, sleeps with her employees (and anyone she feels like) and rejects marriage proposals. For the most part, Michael Curtiz’s Female has us right until the end, but the feminist angle is spoiled when Chatterton’s character gives in to marriage and kids. Still, the film’s frankness is commendable for the time.
Loretta Young’s bare feet get pampered by a roving male hand in the opening shot of Loose Ankles. His identity is humorously revealed, but that’s not the only “naughty” scene in this story of a wealthy socialite who purposefully tries to cause a scandal in order to shame her family.
“Couldn’t we all be a little more nonchalant?” Miriam Hopkins’ Gilda murmurs from a bed to Fredric March’s Tom and Gary Cooper’s George. The free-spirited artist can’t decide between the two men, but she openly engages both fellas in a sexual relationship, and eventually the trio moves in together. The risqué living arrangement is handled with wit and sophistication thanks to the guidance of director Ernst Lubitsch and a screenplay from the “Shakespeare of Hollywood,” Ben Hecht.
Barbara Stanwyck sexes it up and exploits powerful men for their money, dumping them at the first sign of love. Filled with innuendo and banned in several cities, Baby Face became one of the most controversial films from the pre-code era. The racy speech in the above video opens the film. Stanwyck’s penniless woman is urged to “use men to get the things [she] wants.”
Norma Shearer wishes Clark Gable would shut the hell up about love and marriage in Clarence Brown’s A Free Soul. “Men of action are better in action; they don’t talk well,” she tells him after he patters on about their relationship.
Welcome to “larceny lane,” “double cross street,” “and sucker alley” — otherwise known as the 1931 film, Blonde Crazy. Here, you’ll encounter “dress suit louts,” “race track touts,” and “blondes in the mood to do you good.” James Cagney’s smarmy con man uttered one of his most famous lines in the film (about a certain “dirty, double-crossin’ rat!”), but the movie also sports several “salacious” scenes. Bonus: everyone gets slapped in the face at least once.