The strict imposition of the Production Code in mid-1934 prohibited film audiences from seeing Carole Lombard clad in lingerie and little else, as in this scene from 1932's "No Man Of Her Own." Connoisseurs of Carole's figure -- and they are legion, in both genders -- understandably regret the move.
But could it be that despite Lombard's many physical charms, enforcing the Code may have helped her career? It's entirely possible...and to understand why, learn from, of all people, Peter, Paul & Mary.
Among the folk trio's many hits was a 1967 song called "I Dig Rock And Roll Music," an affectionate comment on the contemporary music scene. Part of the lyric examined censorship:
"I dig rock and roll music
I could really get it on that scene
I think I could say something if you know what I mean
But if I really say it, the radio won't play it
Unless I lay it between the lines"
The Code forced filmmakers and writers to "lay it between the lines" -- and one genre that benefited was comedy. In the first half of 1934, movies such as the surprise hit "It Happened One Night," Lombard's breakthrough "Twentieth Century" and the murder whodunit "The Thin Man," all technically pre-Codes, paved the way for a new genre called screwball.
A May 2016 piece by renowned critic David Denby in the New Yorker argued that the Hays Code didn't constrict women on screen, but in many ways liberated them (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/05/02/what-the-hays-code-did-for-women?fbclid=IwAR3aRxLZNkDoFA8syJMkChdZwLcFelp0Zk-B3Ii5czDv-siDZyuelxQWODk). Denby notes that while pre-Code films were freer, women often paid a price:
"Feminist film critics have embraced the period for its self-determined women and its eager acknowledgment of female sexuality. Yet these freedoms didn't always work out so well for women. The atmosphere of the movies could be crude. ... For every movie like 'Red Dust' (1932), in which [Jean] Harlow and Clark Gable tussled in the steaming M-G-M jungle -- moments of what you might call healthy open sex -- there were many films that were merely naughty or mildly voyeuristic."
Lombard is a prime exhibit in Denby's argument -- first, for what may be her best-known film, the 1936 screwball masterpiece "My Man Godfrey":
Denby then backtracks a year to a neglected gem and arguably Carole's best Paramount starring vehicle, "Hands Across The Table," written by the aforementioned Norman Krasna:
More than a year after the Code was enforced, director Mitchell Leisen manages to create an air of genuine sexual tension without either Lombard or co-star Fred MacMurray removing any items of clothing until that sun lamp scene. Audiences of late 1935 got what Leisen and the leads were up to.
Whether or not you agree with Denby, at the very least he'll get you to thinking.