Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood, by Mick LaSalle. Thomas Dunne Books, 279 pages, $24.95.
While hardly a household word, even among some cinephiles, pre-Code cinema — those “naughty” Hollywood films made between 1929 and 1934 — has inspired recent retrospectives on both coasts and intermittent television revivals courtesy of cable channels like Turner Classic Movies and American Movie Classics. This brief period is treasured by aficionados for some of the same reasons film noir has endured: It’s adult cinema that tackles surprisingly modern subjects, particularly in its portrayals of women far removed from reassuring domestic roles. Both question the status quo, though pre-Code films do so in a lighter vein. It’s also possible to connect the dots between the two. It’s no stretch to read the murderous floozies and ruthless female executives of the pre-Code landscape as precursors to the twisted harridans and gun-toting femme fatales of noir.
While pre-Code lacks the double lure of noir’s nihilism and literary pedigree, it has proven durable enough to inspire three recent books on the subject. Proof of that durability is in the variety of approaches taken. In Pre-Code Hollywood, Thomas Doherty looks at the period from a sociological angle; Mark Vieira’s Sin in Soft Focus limns the history and the artistry in a lavish pictorial format. Mick LaSalle’s Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood takes an entirely different tack. The book is an unabashed paean to the actresses, and their roles, who account for so much of its interest. The author stakes out his territory early. In the introduction he makes it clear that he wants to retrieve pre-Code from obscurity by showing how the images of women from that time deserve some of the praise given to noir and post-Code romances a la Dark Victory. For LaSalle, the major draw of these films is their celebration of women’s uninhibited sexuality, which he says ended in 1934 and only returned in force in 1968, when the Code finally cracked.
The author is passionate in his advocacy. His enthusiasm for the expropriation of male power by women who in the decade prior to pre-Code were based on Victorian models of vamps or ingenues drives much of his discussion. He gives time — though not equal time — to the famous (Garbo, Dietrich, Crawford) and the forgotten (Glenda Farrell, Ann Dvorak), interweaving polemic with plot descriptions and quotes from contemporary fan magazines and the actresses themselves. Unlike some critics, the author has obviously seen the films he describes, a decided plus in advancing his argument.
Detailed, lively descriptions of rarities like The Story of Temple Drake (based on Faulkner) or Men in White, which tackles abortion, whet the reader’s appetite. While most of the book is taken up with thumbnails of the films and their stars, it also effectively shows the brutal aftermath of this privileged period, when the Code was implemented. Endless rewrites, narrative-destroying cuts, even suppression of whole films were not uncommon, with the result, LaSalle argues, that the smart, self-reliant, sexually adventurous woman mostly faded from the screen.
One of the book’s goals is to bridge the 70-year gap between pre-Code and today, presumably to make these films and the women who populated them more palatable to modern audiences. LaSalle does this by including two chapters on modern versions of the pre-Code woman and sprinkling the rest of the book with au courant references. Thus Norma Shearer is “as ambitious as Madonna”; Garbo’s face, “like morphing, fast-moving fireballs, and other special effects,” requires the big screen. Such analogies work as much against the book as for it by appearing to pander to the reader, as if the films ultimately can’t stand — and be appreciated — on their own. Whether it’s worth trying to interest modern, particularly young audiences in films the author himself sometimes describes as “antiques” is debatable, and the book has a slightly schizoid quality in both preaching to the converted and trying to convert.
Within the book’s general attempt to reclaim pre-Code is a more specific rescue effort: Norma Shearer. A major star of the period and for LaSalle its chief exemplar, Shearer is remembered today mostly for one role, that of the insufferable good wife in George Cukor‘s 1939 The Women. The book spends many pages trying valiantly to resuscitate this fallen star, and this effort highlights some of the book’s larger problems. The author’s zeal, admirable in exciting interest in these films, often overtakes him, leading to dubious, sometimes outlandish claims, such as “Whenever the audience’s belief in Shearer’s decency is in conflict with the audience’s sense of right and wrong, and something has to give, the thing that gives, always and amazingly, is the audience’s definition of right and wrong.” (italics in the original). Audiences then and now would no doubt be surprised to hear that they’d ever suspended their personal moral code in favor of “Norma Shearer’s decency.” LaSalle doggedly persists in such conceits, bombarding the reader with adjectives, as if saying she’s great proves it. He ascribes all manner of natural and supernatural talents to her and devotes an entire chapter to “Norma in the New Millennium,” which presents most of today’s actresses as spiritual heirs to his icon. Garbo is also the subject of some woolly hyperbole that demands the blue pencil: “In what besides Garbo movies does a sincere profession of faith absolve the believer of past and future transgressions? In Christianity, and nothing else.”
So little of substance has been written on this period that any material merits a certain interest simply by default. If Complicated Women’s indulgences keep it from being more than a rather narrow stroll down memory lane, it at least deserves respect for taking the trip.
For those who are already “converted” to pre-Code, the book may seem too limited in its focus. For every “assertive, happy, free” woman, as the author calls the ideal pre-Code woman, there are plenty of cowering, grim, oppressed women who fail to make the discussion (Virginia Bruce’s raped drug addict in the 1932 Kongo is one of many examples). And there are exceptions to the post-Code censorship that deserve mention but don’t get it — for example, Gregory La Cava’s 1940 Primrose Path, a bitter slice of American neo-realism in which Marjorie Rambeau plays a pathetic, aging prostitute who tries to enlist her daughter in the business to help the family survive. In fairness, such references may be outside the book’s purview, but it might have been a broader, more useful study if they had been included.