Day Two: The Hays Code, Femme Fatales, and Bette Davis’ Scarlet Letter
The United States, finally breaking its non-interventionism policy and deploying troops in World War II, now faced another problem, how to fill the thousands of employment positions abandoned by men during their enlistment. “Do the job he left behind,” the posters read, and women across America stepped into factory overalls to work.
This, of course, did little to preserve the delicate, patriarchal power paradigm so intricate to the American way of life. Women were to stay at home, and raise families, and be faithful, and stand very still on their pedestals. They were not to be parading about in trousers, making money, and keeping the great Capitalist machine running, while their husbands and boyfriends ate bullets and shrapnel on Japanese beaches. What would happen when the men came home? Would they still be men?
Enter William Wyler’s The Letter, based on the W. Somerset Maugham play of the same name from the 1920s, another time when feminist ideals threatened the status quo of masculine agency. The film’s narrative is taken from a real life scandal in which the wife of a British colonial headmaster shot a male friend dead. “Was sex involved?” an all-male, probably sex-starved jury demanded to know.
Wyler’s film contains two very significant changes in the case. The first, the addition of the titular letter, as the evidence of adultery that could make-or-break the murder trial, and the second, a dark ending, in which the murderess in question, Bette Davis’ femme fatale, Leslie Crosbie, is killed. The letter itself is an invention of Maugham, but Crosbie’s death is an element exclusive to the 1940 film, and for this, The Hays Code can be thanked.
The Motion Picture Production Code (The Hays Code), active from the 1930s through the 1960s, enforced what the United States public could and could not see on the silver screen. Under the Hays Code, murder and adultery could not go unpunished. Therefore, The Letter’s bleak ending, much more disturbing than the original, is the result of a moral watchdog meant to keep this sort of bleakness out of the cinema in the first place. Crosbie kills a man, and she must be killed for it, simple as that. Or, maybe the censors were just weary of the implied ambiguity of Crosbie’ crime, and that someone might connect Crosbie’s stifling marriage with the dovetailing epilogue of British Colonialism that serves as a backdrop to the picture. Perhaps the censors were afraid the adulteress was in the right.
On screen, Bette Davis embodied a new screen role for women of the 1940s. The femme fatale, cunning, sexually aggressive, and deadly, personified growing masculine fears of a degenerative gender structure, and became a well-known trope of the film noir genre. No longer would women play merely love interests, or damsels in distress, but intelligent antagonists who could out-quip, and outgun their male counterparts. But were these roles breaking the mold, or just enforcing the sexual stereotypes that had been used to persecute women since American colonialism? Either way, the tide was shifting. Overseas, posters warning of venereal diseases proclaimed that “loose women” could actually kill a man, while back home, wives and girlfriends found keeping their promises of fidelity to a soldier they might never see again was a concept they couldn’t get behind. Oh, and they weren’t leaving the workforce, or Sunset Blvd, any time soon.