Friday, May 2, 2008

Book Review: Complicated Women by Mick LaSalle

Subtitled "Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood," author Mick LaSalle's eye-opening book Complicated Women casts a loving eye on the films and actresses in the time before Will Hays's Production Code was enforced, and shows how movies that many people think of as painfully outdated actually contain some of the most modern-thinking females seen on celluloid to date.

(Comparisons are even made to films of the 1990s, with the newer films showcasing much more "old-fashioned" beliefs, which just goes to show that the Production Code pretty much destroyed how women are portrayed in movies.)

Though many actresses are covered, LaSalle's focus is mainly on two: Greta Garbo and Norma Shearer. These two women (Shearer in particular, and with much more concerted effort on her part) made great leaps in women's roles in a very short period, and were trailblazers, allowing the women that came after the ability to do the same.

Only a few pages of Complicated Women are devoted to Kay Francis (the original focus of this weblog, she was the reason I picked up the book in the first place), but LaSalle recognizes her for her portrayals of unmarried professional women who, in a few of her films, became mothers with no negative repercussions. He later proposes a theory regarding why many pre-Code stars, Francis among them, were labeled "box office poison" in 1938, only a few years mid-Code. "Actresses lost their edge" under the censorship of the Code, LaSalle states, and thus their "social relevance. After all, what is the point of a Kay Francis movie in which Kay Francis is less sophisticated than the viewer?"

The most eye-opening part of Complicated Women is that Will Hays was hardly involved at all in the enforcement of the Code that bears his name. The man truly responsible was Joseph Breen, a devout Catholic and director of studio public relations — certainly an individual with far too much power.

Another surprise was the sheer number of actresses that were active in the period. Along with Shearer (of whom I was mostly unaware until now) and Garbo (of whom I was unappreciative), there are several more women whose movies I feel compelled to seek out — or at least watch for on Turner Classic Movies. A partial list includes Joan Blondell, Mae Clarke, Madge Evans, Ruth Chatterton, Glenda Farrell, Ann Dvorak, and Constance Bennett — as well as films from the period by such big stars as Marlene Dietrich, Myrna Loy, Jean Harlow, Claudette Colbert, Carole Lombard, Barbara Stanwyck

Complicated Women also takes time to mention LaSalle's thoughts regarding the actresses of the modern day who are best carrying on the pre-Code legacy. Some of his choices may be surprising, but he backs them all up with substantial cinematic evidence.

LaSalle deftly rides the line between passion and scholarship. It's obvious he feels strongly about the films and women he chronicles, but he hasn't let that get in the way of telling the facts accurately (there's a bibliography of his sources in the back for further reading).

(In 2003, LaSalle was interviewed for a documentary based on his book also called Complicated Women. Featuring clips of films from the period, the documentary is shown occasionally on Turner Classic Movies. Watch TCM also for the films mentioned in the text, or check out the DVD collections Forbidden Hollywood, Vol. 1 and Forbidden Hollywood, Vol. 2 for eight of the most prominently covered.)


Laura said...

I also enjoyed this book very much. I also got his book on leading men of the Code era but haven't read it yet.

One of the major actresses whose pre-Code films have been a complete eye-opener for me is Loretta Young. I've reviewed several at my blog in the last few months; my favorite is MIDNIGHT MARY.

Fun name change for your blog! I look forward to more of your posts.

Best wishes,

Craig Clarke said...

Thanks a lot for your regular visits. I'll probably also pick up the Dangerous Men book, but this one has already given me a long list of movies to see. :-)

I was surprised by the mention of Loretta Young. I remember thinking, "Can't be. Not the one from The Bishop's Wife!" (It's kind of like finding out Grandma was a cheesecake model.) I'll keep an eye out for Midnight Mary.

And I'm glad you like the name change. I especially like Miriam Hopkins's use of the phrase in Trouble in Paradise.

VP81955 said...

Excellent blog you have, and a fine evaluation of LaSalle's book.

I analyzed "Complicated Women" and pre-Code cinema slightly more than two years ago in an entry at my classic Hollywood blog, "Carole & Co." (named for Carole Lombard, my all-time favorite actress):

Craig Clarke said...

Thanks for the kind words. I'm a big fan of Carole Lombard, as well (though not as much as I was, say, fifteen years ago).

You may be interested in my review of Lombard's early pre-Code film Virtue.

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