old hollywood

Where Were All the Pregnant Women in Classic Movies?

Gone With the Wind. Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection

In classic Hollywood movies, having a baby was an exercise in innuendo. Actors could say the word “baby,” but not the word “pregnant.” They could say a woman “went to the doctor” — just as long as they were vague about it. Baby bumps were rare. And loud, wailing labor scenes? Totally out of the question.

Much like nudity, pregnancy was a touchy subject under the Production Code, a set of rules that studio films were expected to follow between 1934 and 1968. The code told filmmakers what they could and couldn’t include in movies, cautioning against impolite subjects such as prostitution or brutal murders. While there was nothing in the code that said you couldn’t talk about pregnant women or pregnant bodies, there was a ban on scenes of childbirth — and it was understood that you shouldn’t dwell on the nine months that led up to that. This uneasy approach to pregnancy led to a lot of strange phrasing and staging, which persisted for several decades.

The fact that all female characters couldn’t really address or even hint at a uniquely female condition makes a dark kind of sense when you consider that the Production Code is best understood through its architects, who were very male and very Catholic. While women’s groups were part of the broad coalition of outraged moviegoers calling for censorship in the 1920s and 1930s, the actual authors of the code were conservative men. The text was written by a priest (Father Daniel Lord) and a religious publisher (Martin Quigley), while the day-to-day enforcement fell to an Irish-Catholic father of six who had previously worked press relations for the Eucharistic Congress. Joseph Breen left PR behind to run the Production Code Administration (PCA) in 1934, serving as the chief censor for nearly 20 years. As Thomas Doherty details in his Breen biography Hollywood’s Censor, the man prized his “deep-set, inherent, and instinctive respect for women and for the sanctity of the home and the imperishability of the Christian family.”

That “respect” was reflected in many of Breen’s rulings on onscreen adultery and divorce, topics which he routinely railed against. But it’s also apparent in code-era Hollywood’s handling of pregnancy. Although the code only banned “scenes of actual childbirth, in fact or in silhouette,” any frank discussion of pregnancy was off the table. “Pregnancy or expected ‘blessed events,’ should never be discussed as such in screen stories,” Olga J. Martin, Breen’s former secretary, wrote in the unofficial code companion, Hollywood’s Movie Commandments. “Any direct or crude reference to pregnancy in films is considered out-of-place, exactly as it would be in any normal society where children are present.”

So what did this mean for movies with pregnant characters? Well, they couldn’t look pregnant, for starters. Movies from this time period preferred, as scholar Kelly Oliver puts it, “to skip from romance and marriage to instant family.” On occasion, a pregnant character might walk around in an oversize robe (like Mary Astor in 1941’s The Great Lie) or a large dark coat (like Barbara Stanwyck in 1950’s No Man of Her Own) that betrayed a bulge. But glossing over the second and third trimesters was preferable. Even The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, the boundary-pushing 1944 comedy about a knocked-up teenager who can’t remember the soldier she married, was skittish about pregnant bodies. Right before she goes to the hospital to deliver, Trudy (Betty Hutton) is filmed in an armchair, the camera facing her back. Later she slides into the backseat of a car, her stomach still never seen — not even later in hospital, as nurses dance in the hallway over her six (!) bouncing baby boys.

Pregnant characters also couldn’t say the word “pregnant.” It was simply too explosive, so movies had to find another way to break the news. In Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, for example, Trudy communicates her pregnancy to her sister by crying outside the doctor’s office. She’s also vague with her childhood friend Norval, simply saying she’s “sure” she’s married. Sometimes a character might say they were “going to have a baby,” but euphemisms were frequently deployed instead — a tradition that extended to television, too.

Childbirth itself was an even thornier topic, since it was the one aspect strictly forbidden in the code. But some movies managed to fight the rule. The most famous was Gone With the Wind, which shows Melanie (Olivia de Havilland) in premature labor. In a memo to producer David O. Selznick, Breen advised him to delete any action or dialogue “which throws emphasis upon the pain and suffering of childbirth,” suggesting it was “enormously dangerous from the standpoints of both the Production Code and of political censorship.” According to scholars Leonard J. Leff and Jerold L. Simmons, the problem here was the message communicated to women watching the movie — “that the pain of childbirth could surpass the joy” — but despite Breen’s complaints, the scene stayed in the movie, with a few alterations.

The PCA handled a more explicit case in 1958, when the French film The Case of Dr. Laurent arrived Stateside. The pseudo-documentary made the case for natural childbirth through an actual scene depicting it, which prompted Breen’s successor Geoffrey Shurlock to reject the movie for U.S. distribution. But The Case of Dr. Laurent received such a warm reception outside the PCA that Shurlock changed his mind. He reversed his decision, approving the movie and reexamining the code stance on pregnancy and childbirth entirely. This review “resulted in a less restrictive approach” to pregnancy in movies, by scholar David A. Kirby’s account.

By the time the PCA and the code ended in 1968, pregnant characters were no longer hiding behind chairs. Barbra Streisand mined a belly bump for laughs in Funny Girl, where she vamped across the stage in a straining wedding dress, while Mia Farrow carried Satan’s little miracle in Rosemary’s Baby. The “instant family” phase of movie history was officially over, another relic of the code era. But turn on TCM today and you’ll see actress after actress hinting at a condition she can’t actually name — only to appear in the next scene swinging a toddler on her hip.

Where Were All the Pregnant Women in Classic Movies?