Today in film, like in regular life, pregnancy is no big deal. There are pregnant characters in film all the time. Movies about being pregnant, movies about giving birth, movies about having a new baby. In this day and age, “which actress is pregnant now?” talk is the most popular type of gossip you can find in the rags.

But back in the earlier days of film, having a baby apparently wasn’t so commonplace. The word “pregnant” was never uttered on screen. In the cases it was a happy thing, they would just say that they were “having a baby”. In unhappy cases, films usually allowed the shocked, uncomfortable silence tell the story.

And women NEVER showed. Apparently, back in the 1930s, babies didn’t actually grow in utero. They must have been like those toys that get bigger as you add water, only with 1930s babies you added air and as soon as they were delivered they ballooned into a regular sized infant.

In pre-code film, there were a lot of cases of women having babies or getting pregnant before marriage. These were usually portrayed as unhappy situations, but sometimes the woman was still able to raise the child happilly. After enforcement of the code began, it seemed like it wasn’t even possible to conceive a child out of wedlock. It was quite awhile before women were allowed to have children outside of happy marriages, and even then, in most cases, they were still married. They had just separated from their husbands.

Yes, pregnancy in classic film is a strange thing. Here are some films with notable, baffling pregnancies.

Mary Pickford isn’t pregnant in Tess of the Storm Country, but she vows to help out a woman who is. Pickford falls in love with the wealthy Lloyd Hughes, whose sister becomes pregnant. Before she can marry the father of her child, he’s killed. So Pickford takes pity on the poor woman, helps her through the pregnancy, and then takes care of the child.

This pregnancy is a classic example of the shame that came along with having a baby out of wedlock. To protect her friend, Pickford allows people to think the child is hers, even risking her relationship with the man she loves. And in those days, a sin like this had to have punishment, and in the end the child dies.

In Bad Girl, Sally Eilers and James Dunn are young lovers during the Depression who marry quickly after meeting and struggle financially, especially once Eilers finds out she’s pregnant. Director Frank Borzage creates a really interesting and intimate drama between these characters based  almost entirely around the pregnancy. Both characters have a hard time handling the idea that they’re going to be parents, and both of them thing that the other doesn’t want the baby.

Eilers becomes pregnant early in the movie, and it’s a very prominent plot point in the film. But she never shows and it’s difficult to keep track of how far along she is until the baby is born. But Borzage’s look at the anxieties and uncertainty of being parents for the first time was a rare look at pregnancy in classic film.

Life Begins is a film all about pregnancy. Hence the title. Loretta Young plays a young married woman who is in jail for murder. She’s also pregnant, and is apparently far enough along that she must be admitted to the maternity ward of a hospital (you’d never know she was that far along, though). It’s there that she meets a whole bunch of other pregnant women, all very different, including brassy showgirl Glenda Farrell.

It’s a very moving film with a lot of top notch performances, but it’s also a really interesting look at the way hospitals worked back then. It’s movies like these that really give you a glimpse into a world that no longer exists. It’s just so strange and baffling the way things were done. First of all, the fact that pregnant women had to be admitted to the hospital months before he due date. Husbands were only allowed to visit their wives at the hospital for an hour or two a day. There were no private rooms for the women.They all had a bed in a large single room. And the husbands weren’t even allowed to be in the delivery room. It’s just such a strange look back.

Pregnancy isn’t the main theme in Beauty For Sale. This is one of those cases where it’s never implicitly stated, just silently and shamefully suggested. The story revolve around the romantic troubles of three friends, and troubles of Florence McKinney is the saddest of all. She’s in love with the boss’s son, having a clandestine affair. When she frantically tries to convince him to marry her, it’s made clear, without words, that she’s pregnant. He promises to marry her, but abandons her the night before the wedding, leaving the country. It’s a small part of the movie, but it’s certainly the most tragic, and Florine McKinney delivers a really fantastic performance.

Beauty For Sale is another example of the “secret shame” pregnancy story lines. The film is full of pre-code goodness, and it balances the lighter side of those ideas (gold digging, whee!) with the darker side (McKinney’s pregnancy) extremely well. The idea is that being pregnant before marriage is so horrible it can’t even be spoken aloud, only alluded to. While it’s wonderfully pre-code, it still takes on the idea that those who sin must be punished (or at least the women who sin), and McKinney’s character meets a tragic fate.

It’s pretty much a rule that I have to write about Man’s Castle at least once a week here, so here we are, filling that quota. It’s one of the most lenient of pre-code films. Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young live together in their Hoovershack, clearly sharing a bed and having a sexual relationship, without being married. Young becomes pregnant. While the revelation comes somewhat late in the film, it’s the main conflict point in the film. And, refreshingly, the conflict has absolutely nothing to do with societal norms and expectations. Frank Borzage couldn’t care less about the social implications of an illegitimate child on these people – it’s hardly the worst thing that’s happening in the world at the time. The conflict is completely between Bill and Trina and what the baby does to their relationship.

It looks like they’re caving to societal expectations by getting married. But as with most Borzage weddings, it doesn’t seem to be a legally binding ceremony. It’s performed by a man who is no longer a minister, with no legal documents being signed. The marriage is completely spiritual (and isn’t even really consummated as such until later in the film when Bill realizes he wants to stay with Trina). In Man’s Castle, pregnancy is not a plot point to shock or hold a mirror up to society. It’s simply a driving force for two characters. While initially it looks like it’s going to drive them apart, the pregnancy just brings them closer together. And we’re given something of Christ-story correlation, when Bill does the math and figures out the baby will be born in December. “Sort of a Christmas present, huh, Bill?” Trina says.

Men In White has perhaps the most controversial use of pregnancy in pre-code film. Clark Gable plays a doctor who is engaged to Myrna Loy. When the couple has an argument, Gable has a one-night stand with Elizabeth Allen. She becomes pregnant, and instead of having the baby or even telling Gable, she has a back alley abortion. The procedure is botched, and she’s admitted to the hospital to repair the damage, where Gable finds out that she had been pregnant with his child.

Even in pre-code, the topic had to be handled delicately. The one stand is only implied, with a discreet fade out. The abortion is never calle as such. They dance around it in their dialogue:

“Ruptured appendix?”
“Worst than that.”
“……..why didn’t she come to us?”

But from their behavior, it’s clear what has happened. Men In White is one of the most daring pre-code films.
 

When Kitty Foyle was made in 1940, the code was still being strictly enforced. So Ginger Rogers, in the title role, becomes pregnant while she is still marriage to her husband, Dennis Morgan. But she doesn’t find out she’s pregnant until they’ve separated. This is one of the many ways films made during enforcement worked around the code and bent the rules. Rogers was no longer with her husband, she was single woman, but she had committed no sin since they had been married when the baby was conceived.

However, she still plans on raising the child as a single mother. The pregnancy moves quickly, and is not a major part of the story. The baby dies, which is an important part of the formation of Kitty Foyle’s character.

With it being such a rare thing in classic film (as opposed to today), pregnancy in film was always a major plot point. Either it was used to shock the audiences or drive the story further. 

 

By Katie Richardson

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