God, I love pre-Codes. Who doesn’t? They’re feisty, they’re unapologetic, they’re raw, they’re dirty, and their running time is usually 80 minutes or less. You could easily sit through a double- or triple-bill of pre-Code films without batting an eye. Well, maybe you would bat an eye — as soon as you caught a glimpse of Norma Shearer’s barely there silk gowns and her fabulous physique underneath.
Complicated Women: Sex & Power in Pre-Code Hollywood by Mick LaSalle is a crash course on Hollywood pre-Code films for those who are strapped for time. It’s a great little starter point for film fans wanting to know more about movies made in Hollywood between 1929 and June 1934, prior to the Motion Picture Production Code being enforced.
LaSalle’s writing style is incredibly casual and direct. The text is easy to follow and LaSalle makes his deductions and opinions very plain – some of them you may disagree with (as I found myself doing periodically), but the majority of his musings are spot-on – not to mention downright hilarious. A great emphasis is placed on popular female film stars of that era, especially Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo. By breaking down and dissecting Shearer’s and Garbo’s career trajectories and outward characteristics and mannerisms, LaSalle basically uncovers the themes and truths of Hollywood pre-Code films and how they relate specifically to women.
LaSalle also touches upon the careers of other popular film actresses of that period including but not limited to Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, Mae West, Barbara Stanwyck, Miriam Hopkins, Bette Davis, Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak and Kay Francis. All worthy mentions considering how much these actresses contributed not only to pre-Code films, but to Hollywood in general and the films produced during the 1930s straight through to the 1970s.
In LaSalle’s opinion – and, incidentally, in mine too – pre-Code films offered better roles and better stories for female stars of the period and female audiences of that time. These women onscreen were powerful, uninhibited, and unapologetic for living their lives the way they wanted to (not how men wanted them to). If they wanted to divorce their cheating husbands and attend orgies in Paris, they did it and liked it. If they wanted to sleep their way to the top of the business world and wrap themselves in silks and furs (and very little underwear), that was entirely their prerogative.
LaSalle says it best when he likens the coming of Joseph Breen’s Production Code to the entire onscreen female population suddenly getting their virginity back (and heaven help them if they lost it again).
Did I like it?
This was a re-read for me. I had read it once before many years ago but it had been so long since then, I forgot what LaSalle had written. I’m interested in picking up LaSalle’s follow-up entitled Dangerous Men: Pre-Code Hollywood & the Birth of the Modern Man, so I thought it’d be nice to read both books back-to-back.
Long story short, yes I loved it. As I said in the intro, Complicated Women: Sex & Power in Pre-Code Hollywood serves as an excellent starting point for film fans wanting to know more about early-Hollywood and the pre-Code era.
If you’re already familiar with pre-Code movies and the era’s “complicated women,” use this book to complete your understanding of the films’ themes, narratives, story structure, and production. LaSalle’s opinions, recollections, and theses are well worth exploring whether you disagree with them or not. This is a fairly short book in terms of page count, so you could easily blitz through it in a day or two.
Rating = 5/5 stars
I read and reviewed this book for Raquel Stetcher’s #ClassicFilmReading challenge.