When Dynasty is revived later this year on the CW Network, it will become one of the rarest of all American TV programs: the soap opera. And while prime time weekly soaps like Dynasty do still pop up, the daytime soap continues to barrel towards outright extinction. Only four daytime soaps still exist on American television, and their long term future remains questionable. Those few soaps that remain can’t match the splendor of power of soaps at their peak, when the shows were big massive events that shot around the world for fun opulent escapes. The decline of the soap opera is bad for a number of reasons, including the death of one of the most effective forms of serialized drama. It’s also a bad turn of events for the classic film fan, since soaps have always been a descendent and close relative of the precode era of film.
The most obvious connection to old Hollywood in general is the fashion. The looks of these rich, larger than life characters call back to the fabulous gowns and tuxedos associated with Hollywood glitz and glamour. Although much more recent than the classic films we associate larger-than-life style to, the style of these soaps still evoke that elegance that is mesmerizing to watch. But the soaps connection to precodes goes well beyond that.
On the whole, soap operas are the most fun when portraying over the top (and often absurd) melodrama. The crazier it gets, the better, and the scenarios can plunge to crazy depths. This heightened sense of melodrama is so in tune with precodes that is a wonder soaps just didn’t directly copy the storylines. The celebrated precode Three on a Match contains enough material to cover months on a soap opera, including affairs, kidnapping and gangsters. Blonde Venus rivals any soap for pure melodrama, Marlene Dietrich suffering through so many travails that even Victor Newman might feel sympathy for her.
The character types and tropes are also incredibly similar. Both precodes and soaps are littered with utterly amoral characters: people always putting their self preservation first, no matter what the cost to others around them. In some cases, we’re even found rooting for these people of shaky morals, hoping that they’ll get away with their actions. And in these shows and films, there’s always a chance that they will.
Because of these amoral characters, there’s always scandalous and shocking behavior to be found in both. Affairs, scandal babies, blatant crimes and various sexual improprieties are always occurring, often without consequence. Employees’ Entrance is the perfect combination of amoral characters and actions, featuring a cutthroat and reprehensible boss you can find in almost any soap.
And finally, the importance of strong women in both cannot be overstated. The most progressive films of old Hollywood can be found in precodes, films in which female characters are more powerful and complex than they would be for decades to come. With the powers of their job, personality or physical allure at their disposal, characters like Barbara Stanwyck in Baby Face are of the same cloth of leading soap actress: able to change things and get one over by any means necessary. Norma Shearer’s turn in The Divorcee as a woman scorned should remind viewers of Augusta Lockridge in the soap Santa Barbara: a woman who can give as well as she takes.
Characters like those in Man Wanted (Kay Francis) and Female (Ruth Chatterton) are executives and bosses, running well oiled machines. They are fully prepared for everything and are in control, whether it being professionally or personally. Seeing these characters evokes the legendary Dynasty character Alexis, played by Joan Collins. The head of a company, she’s always a step ahead whenever in business or at home. Chatterton, Francis and others played the precursors to such a character. If Alexis Colby were dropped into a precode film, she’d fit right in–and she’d be running wild.
Overall, the precode and soap opera offer the same kind of programming: wild and unpredictable. These are worlds where anything can happen, and usually does. Nothing is too over the top or too scandalous. With characters of little or no morals, they’re willing to do anything at all. And if they do, they just might get away with it. What can happen next unknown, but it will always get crazier.
And that’s precisely what makes both precodes and soap operas so fun. It’s a great escape to a different and even crazier world. And that’s why they’re both similar and invaluable.