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.
Movie quiz: who said, "I'm in an orgy, wallowing. And I love it!" Madonna? Demi Moore? Koo Stark? No, it was Norma Shearer in 1931's Strangers May Kiss. In this breezily written, engaging look at the position of women in pre-Code Hollywood pictures, LaSalle uncovers a host of actors (some, like Ann Dvorak and Glenda Farrell, now almost forgotten) and films that broke social barriers with their frank portrayals of female sexual desire and freedom. Contradicting prevailing film theory that claims the 1940s as the golden age of women in film, LaSalle boldly posits that the best women's movies were made before 1934, when the studios were forced to follow the notorious Production Code. According to the author, pre-Code Hollywood films reveled in nonjudgmental, often quite serious, portraits of women characters exercising enormous sexual, personal and social freedoms--from sex outside marriage to having their own careers. "The Production Code," LaSalle notes, "ensured a miserable fate... for any woman who stepped out of line." Drawing upon movies, reviews, social trends such as rising female college admissions and even the writings of feminists such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman, he makes a solid case that the freedom women gained in the 1920s changed America, and that this change was reflected, and reinforced, in films. Along the way, LaSalle offers a variety of revealing insights--such as his observations on the anti-Semitism of Roman Catholic clergy in their war against Hollywood--as he entertainingly traces the careers and early work of such major stars as Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford and the once-famous Ruth Chatterton. Photos not see by PW. (Sept.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Between 1929 and 1934, Hollywood was governed by a voluntary code of decency. During this period, women characters were often tough-talking, sexually aggressive, and independent. Under pressure from church and state decency groups, a code with enforcement powers was implemented in 1934. The effect of the 1934 code (which remained in effect until the late 1960s) has been hotly debated recently. LaSalle, film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, makes it clear what he thinks, blasting the code as a measure "to prevent women from having fun. It was designed to put the genie back in the bottle--and the wife back in the kitchen." He calls the code, as enforced by Joseph Breen, "anti-art," antiwoman, and anti-Semitic. However, LaSalle's main purpose is to celebrate the short-lived era of "complicated women," as personified by the early films of Marlene Dietrich, Jean Harlow, Myrna Loy, and others. In particular, this book is an unabashed valentine to Greta Garbo and Norma Shearer. It features insights on significant scenes from precode films and evaluates some modern counterparts to the great ladies of the early 1930s. This book is more narrowly focused than other recent books on the subject--such as Thomas Doherty's Pre-Code Hollywood (LJ 7/99) and Mark A. Viera's Sin in Soft Focus (LJ 11/1/99)--and some may disagree with the author's conclusions, but it is recommended for large film and women's studies collections.--Stephen Rees, Levittown Regional Lib., PA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
An overdue tribute to the myriad of strong and independent women film stars of pre-Code Hollywood (1929-34).
“LaSalle's marvelous Complicated Women is the best kind of film book, making us see with fresh eyes the women of pre-Code Hollywood, a truly revolutionary lot by any standards. LaSalle wittily and insightfully celebrates the multiform 'New Woman' of the late '20s and early '30s. The author does a persuasive job of reminding us of the contribution of lesser-known stars while rescuing the much-maligned Norma Shearer from her gilded cage as MGM's plastic princess and restoring her to her rightful place as a breathtakingly risky (and risqué) sensualist with plenty of career savvy. Bravo!”
Molly Haskell, author of From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies
“Mick LaSalle's Complicated Women isn't just a great title for life, it's an eye-opening examination of pre-Code Hollywood that retrieves lost films and overlooked careers. It's also a delight to read and argue with.”
David Thompson, author of Beneath Mulholland and Rosebud
“Mick LaSalle is a guy who really knows his stuff. He's actually seen everything he writes about, evoking a whole era of forgotten movies in a refreshing style that's not just a series of rehashed plots, but a witty, insightful joyride without an ounce of pomposity or patronizing, while at the same time providing the unsuspecting viewer with a fun guide on how to 'read' pre-Code movies.”
Bruce Goldstein, Director of Repertory Programming, Film Forum, New York
“Mick LaSalle's Complicated Women is a revelation: He takes us back, with wit, passion, and intelligence, to those brief shining years of the early 1930s when Hollywood women movie stars like Norma Shearer could be erotic, funny, and independentwith no hell to pay.”
Kate Buford, author of Burt Lancaster: An American Life
“Sophisticated and provocative.”
“An overdue examination of a historic conflict between Hollywood and would-be monitors of morality.”
New York Times Book Review
“In prose as snappy and sassy as the movies he describes, LaSalle restores to their rightful stature smart, sexy actresses like Ann Dvorak . . . and especially Norma Shearer.”
LaSalle's marvelous Complicated Women is the best kind of film book, making us see with fresh eyes the women of pre-Code Hollywood, a truly revolutionary lot by any standards. LaSalle wittily and insightfully celebrates the multiform 'New Woman' of the late '20s and early '30s. The author does a persuasive job of reminding us of the contribution of lesser-known stars while rescuing the much-maligned Norma Shearer from her gilded cage as MGM's plastic princess and restoring her to her rightful place as a breathtakingly risky (and risqué) sensualist with plenty of career savvy. Bravo!
author of From Reverence to Rape: The Treatmen Molly Haskell