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From Barnes & NobleOur Review
Liberated Leading Ladies
"No picture shall be produced that shall lower the moral standards of those who see it," reads the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930, a policy that would ultimately signal the death of screen depictions of strong, independent, complicated women until the late 1960s. But the period of cinema history preceding this era of censorship -- a period that extended from the invention of talkies in 1929 to the enforcement of the Code in 1934 -- saw an explosion of films that dealt with moral ambiguities and sexually liberated women in an even-handed and frank way that has yet to be replicated. In Complicated Women, Mick LaSalle paints an enthusiastic and lively account of the women of pre-code Hollywood who served as vanguards of the modern women's liberation movement, paying special attention to screen icons Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo and the films they made.
People who think modern movies such as "The Piano" and "Basic Instinct" are risqué in their depiction of women as sexual beings have not seen the movies Hollywood produced between 1929 and 1934. Films of actresses such as Shearer and Garbo, Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, and Marlene Dietrich contained scenarios and representations of women with voracious sexual appetites and so-called loose morals that would shock some of today's moviegoers. These women were unapologetic adulterers, prostitutes, and participants in orgies. They left their husbands and seduced men simply because they could. And audiences loved them.
But, as LaSalle posits in Complicated Women, the underlying message of these films, the reason why their value transcends their entertainment worth, was that morality could be relative, sexuality could be independent of love, and women could be as unsentimental as men and maintain an aura of integrity that had nothing to do with their sexual exploits.
These were certainly radical notions, born of the postwar social climate and the newly widespread availability of contraception, and LaSalle devotes some attention to this aspect. But he gives much of the credit for the progressive content of pre-Code movies to the actresses who starred in them and made audiences love them. There can be no doubt LaSalle is an avid and knowledgeable film buff and his spirited descriptions of the era's stars and their films make for a quick, enjoyable, and juicy read.
It is with some dread one reads on, knowing the Code's enforcement and the end of America's feistiest film era -- and with it, this extremely readable book -- are right around the corner. LaSalle's digression into contemporary movies and female stars is a little tiresome; he seems at times to be showing off his sizable knowledge of the movies, rattling off the names of virtually every actress to have appeared in a movie in the last 10 years. But otherwise, Complicated Women is a rousing account of a vibrant moment in movie history.