Famous Actresses of the Pre-Code Hollywood Era

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Here is an index to the biographies I’ve written up of many of the most famous stars of the pre-Code era, with links, filmographies, and reviews.


Claudette Colbert Pre-Code

Claudette Colbert

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Parisian-born, big-eyed Claudette Colbert got her start on Broadway before moving to motion pictures at the start of the Great Depression. Her kiddish demeanor mixed with her sophisticated beauty made her the perfect match for her male costars. Her Pre-Code films included working with Ernst Lubitsch and Cecil B. DeMille on some of their early talkies as well as winning an Academy Award for her collaboration with Frank Capra on It Happened One Night (1934)

She was a big success in pictures, and worked steadily until the late 50’s where she transitioned back to Broadway. Her last screen appearance was in a TV movie in 1987 before she passed in 1996.

Claudette Colbert’s Pre-Code Filmography

  • Young Man of Manhattan (1930)
  • The Big Pond (1930)
  • Manslaughter (1930)
  • Honor Among Lovers (1931)
  • The Smiling Lieutenant (1931)
  • Secrets of a Secretary (1931)
  • His Woman (1931)
  • The Wiser Sex (1932)
  • Misleading Lady (1932)
  • The Man from Yesterday (1932)
  • The Phantom President (1932)
  • The Sign of the Cross (1932)
  • Tonight Is Ours (1933)
  • I Cover the Waterfront (1933)
  • Three-Cornered Moon (1933)
  • Torch Singer (1933)
  • Four Frightened People (1934)
  • It Happened One Night (1934)
  • Cleopatra (1934)
  • Imitation of Life (1934)

Claudette Colbert Sites and Links

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Bette Davis

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One of the most widely remembered stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood, feisty Bette Davis got her start in the Pre-Code era, though it was mostly in thankless supporting roles rather than the vivacious leads that she would come to be known for. She was often assigned bit or unimpressive parts, such as in The Big Shakedown or Parachute Jumper that simply didn’t give her anything to chew on. It wasn’t until 1934’s Of Human Bondage where Davis got a chance to show her teeth, creating one of the most truly memorable monsters of the era.

She was written in for the 1934 Oscar as a nominee after being overlooked, and her career soared through the rest of the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s, culminating in her signature role as Margo in All About Eve. Davis never stopped working, and transitioned into comedies and bizarre and sublime horror films, like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. Her last picture, Wicked Stepmother, really is one of the worst pictures ever made, but it’s got Davis in it, which at least makes it interesting to watch. Davis passed away in 1989.

Bette Davis’ Pre-Code Filmography

Bette Davis Sites and Links

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Rut Donnelly

Ruth Donnelly

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A stage actress since she was 17, Ruth Donnelly transitioned to Hollywood in full by the early 1930’s. Since this put her in her late 30’s, that was the perfect age to cast her as many young starlet’s cynical mother. Donnelly is always reliable for a gag since she could switch between being flirtatious and accusatory before anyone was sure what was what. She helped lighten heavy dramatic movies as well, such as when she’s the doddering Kansas tourist who reassures Kay Francis in Mandalay or when she’s the prison matron terrifying her charges with an aggressive cockatoo in Ladies They Talk About.

Her popularity never really faded, and she landed in some choice roles in later years from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to The Snake Pit. She passed on in 1982.

Ruth Donnelly’s Pre-Code Filmography

Ruth Donnelly Sites and Links

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Glenda Farrell

Glenda Farrell

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Always wry, Glenda Farrell rarely had the same warmth as her fellow leading ladies, but few others could wrangle a putdown with as much flair. Her first role was in Little Caesar, the gangster movie that put Edward G. Robinson on the map, and success soon followed with pictures like I Was a Fugitive From a Chain Gang and Capra’s Lady for a Day. Her team ups with fellow Warner Brothers star Joan Blondell lead to some of her most memorable roles, most notably as the domineering gold digger in Havana Widows.

Farrell would go onto headline the enjoyable fast talking girl reporter Torchy Blane series of films in the late 1930’s. She then transitioned to the stage and soon television, eventually winning an Emmy. She died in 1970.

Glenda Farrell’s Pre-Code Filmography

  • The Lucky Break (1930)
  • Little Caesar (1931)
  • Scandal for Sale (1932)
  • Life Begins (1932)
  • Three on a Match (1932)
  • I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)
  • The Match King (1932)
  • Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)
  • Grand Slam (1933)
  • Girl Missing (1933)
  • The Keyhole (1933)
  • Gambling Ship (1933)
  • Mary Stevens, M.D. (1933)
  • Lady for a Day (1933)
  • Bureau of Missing Persons (1933)
  • Man’s Castle (1933)
  • Havana Widows (1933)
  • The Big Shakedown (1934)
  • Hi, Nellie! (1934)
  • Dark Hazard (1934)
  • I’ve Got Your Number (1934)
  • Heat Lightning (1934)
  • Merry Wives of Reno (1934)

Glenda Farrell Sites and Links

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Myrna Loy Pre-Code

Myrna Loy

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Myrna Loy grew up in Helena, Montana before moving to Los Angeles at the age of 13. Work as a chorus girl eventually led her to the movie business, but in the late silent era she was often stereotyped as the dark featured mysterious type. She shed this image slowly in the early 30s, and eventually hit a career peak in the mid-30s with a starring role in the popular Thin Man series.

Finally rid of her old image and now possessing one of professional woman with a sense of humor, she continued working steadily until the mid-60’s. Often considered one of the nicest actresses you could meet, she passed on in 1993.

Myrna Loy’s Pre-Code Filmography

  • Cameo Kirby (1930)
  • Isle of Escape (1930)
  • Under a Texas Moon (1930)
  • Cock o’ the Walk (1930)
  • Bride of the Regiment (1930)
  • The Last of the Duanes (1930)
  • The Jazz Cinderella (1930)
  • The Bad Man (1930)
  • Renegades (1930)
  • The Truth About Youth (1930)
  • Rogue of the Rio Grande (1930)
  • The Devil to Pay! (1930)
  • The Naughty Flirt (1931)
  • Body and Soul (1931)
  • A Connecticut Yankee (1931)
  • Hush Money (1931)
  • Rebound (1931)
  • Transatlantic (1931)
  • Skyline (1931)
  • Consolation Marriage (1931)
  • Arrowsmith (1931)
  • Emma (1932)
  • Vanity Fair (1932)
  • The Wet Parade (1932)
  • The Woman in Room 13 (1932)
  • New Morals for Old (1932)
  • Love Me Tonight (1932)
  • Thirteen Women (1932)
  • The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)
  • The Animal Kingdom (1932)
  • Topaze (1933)
  • The Barbarian (1933)
  • When Ladies Meet (1933)
  • Penthouse (1933)
  • Night Flight (1933)
  • The Prizefighter and the Lady (1933)
  • Men in White (1934)
  • Manhattan Melodrama (1934)
  • The Thin Man (1934)

Myrna Loy Sites and Links

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Marian Marsh Pre-Code

Marian Marsh

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Barely 17 when the Pre-Code era rolled around, Marsh’s family had moved West to help foster her sister’s acting ambitions. Marian’s starring role in Svengali changed that as she became an overnight sensation. Able to project weariness and joy beyond her age in both directions, Marsh illuminated the screen against actors like John Barrymore, Edward G. Robinson, and Warren Williams.

However, only a few years into her career, Marsh left the studio after a financial tiff, and worked mostly B-pictures until 1940. She retired at 30 to become a housemother, and lived happily that way until 2003.

Marian Marsh’s Pre-Code Filmography

Marian Marsh Sites and Links

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Una Merkel pre-code

Una Merkel

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Getting her start in the pictures as a stand-in for Lillian Gish, Una Merkel’s deft comic skill was soon discovered. She became the requisite smart talking best friend in a wide variety of Pre-Code comedies.

Her gift never left her, and later roles included Destry Rides Again with Marlene Dietrich and a bit part in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot. She transitioned into television before retiring in 1965, and passed away in 1986.

Una Merkel’s Pre-Code Filmography

  • Abraham Lincoln (1930)
  • The Eyes of the World (1930)
  • The Bat Whispers (1930)
  • Command Performance (1931)
  • All Women are Bad (1931)
  • Six Cylinder Love (1931)
  • The Maltese Falcon (1931)
  • Daddy Long Legs (1931)
  • The Bargain (1931)
  • Wicked (1931)
  • Private Lives (1931)
  • The Secret Witness (1931)
  • She Wanted a Millionaire (1932)
  • The Impatient Maiden (1932)
  • Man Wanted (1932)
  • Huddle (1932)
  • Red-Headed Woman (1932)
  • They Call It Sin (1932)
  • Men Are Such Fools (1932)
  • Whistling in the Dark (1933)
  • The Secret of Madame Blanche (1933)
  • Clear All Wires! (1933)
  • 42nd Street (1933)
  • Reunion in Vienna (1933)
  • Midnight Mary (1933)
  • Her First Mate (1933)
  • Beauty for Sale (1933)
  • Bombshell (1933)
  • Day of Reckoning (1933)
  • The Women in His Life (1933)
  • This Side of Heaven (1934)
  • Murder in the Private Car (1934)

Una Merkel Sites and Links

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Genevieve Tobin

Genevieve Tobin

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Probably not one of the major stars of the Pre-Code era, but one of my favorites. Watch her in Pleasure Cruise (even with the despicable ending) and don’t be bowled over how unbelievably lovable she manages to be. She was never a big star, but mostly played tyrannical women who used sweetness as a weapon, and she excelled at making it look like she wasn’t in on the joke.

Tobin got married in 1938 and retired from pictures in 1940. She passed away in 1995.

Genevieve Tobin’s Pre-Code Filmography

  • A Lady Surrenders (1930)
  • Free Love (1930)
  • Seed (1931)
  • Up for Murder (1931)
  • The Gay Diplomat (1931)
  • One Hour with You (1932)
  • The Cohens and Kellys in Hollywood (1932)
  • Hollywood Speaks (1932)
  • Perfect Understanding (1933)
  • Pleasure Cruise (1933)
  • Infernal Machine (1933)
  • The Wrecker (1933)
  • Goodbye Again (1933)
  • I Loved a Woman (1933)
  • Golden Harvest (1933)
  • Easy to Love (1934)
  • The Ninth Guest (1934)
  • Dark Hazard (1934)
  • Success at Any Price (1934)
  • Uncertain Lady (1934)
  • Kiss and Make-Up (1934)

Genevieve Tobin Sites and Links

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Loretta Young

Loretta Young

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Few actresses have the career of Loretta Young. Better remembered today for her lengthy and self titled television show and her devotion to Catholic charities, her early career in the pictures of the 1930’s were rife with wicked sensibilities.

Young’s personal life is, to be charitable, quite insane, including adopting her own daughter that she had with Clark Gable to cover up their affair. After her show ended, she retired from acting and passed away from ovarian cancer in 2000.

Loretta Young’s Pre-Code Filmography

  • Loose Ankles (1930)
  • The Man from Blankley’s (1930)
  • The Second Floor Mystery (1930)
  • Road to Paradise (1930)
  • War Nurse (1930)
  • Kismet (1930)
  • The Truth About Youth (1930)
  • The Devil to Pay! (1930)
  • Beau Ideal (1931)
  • The Right of Way (1931)
  • Three Girls Lost (1931)
  • Too Young to Marry (1931)
  • Big Business Girl (1931)
  • I Like Your Nerve (1931)
  • Platinum Blonde (1931)
  • The Ruling Voice (1931)
  • Taxi! (1932)
  • The Hatchet Man (1932)
  • Play-Girl (1932)
  • Week-End Marriage (1932)
  • Life Begins (1932)
  • They Call It Sin (1932)
  • Employees’ Entrance (1933)
  • Grand Slam (1933)
  • Zoo in Budapest (1933)
  • The Life of Jimmy Dolan (1933)
  • Heroes for Sale (1933)
  • Midnight Mary (1933)
  • She Had to Say Yes (1933)
  • The Devil’s in Love (1933)
  • Man’s Castle (1933)
  • The House of Rothschild (1934)
  • Born to Be Bad (1934)

Loretta Young Sites and Links

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Coming Soon:
Ruth Chatterton
Joan Bennett
Constance Bennett
Edna Mae Oliver
Thelma Todd

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