Monday, April 14, 2014

Book Review: COMPLICATED WOMEN by Mick LaSalle

First published in 2001, Mick LaSalle's Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood is primarily a feminist consideration of Pre-Code actresses and the roles they were able to play before Joseph Breen threw a big, wet blanket on the Tinseltown party in 1934. Although it is probably not an ideal introduction to Pre-Code pictures for the absolute novice, Complicated Women is a very good resource for those who already know something about the era and its stars, and it's written in a casual, personal voice that will appeal to classic movie fans who aren't necessarily academic in their approach to pictures.

LaSalle, who reviews movies for the San Francisco Chronicle, focuses on the actresses who helped to define the distinctive themes and styles of the Pre-Code era. Starting with Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo, he works his way through discussions of Jean Harlow, Barbara Stanwyck, Kay Francis, Joan Crawford, Ann Harding, Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak, Miriam Hopkins, and other leading ladies who rose to stardom during the early days of the talkies. LaSalle contrasts the kinds of pictures these women were making before 1934 with the melodramas that came into favor after the strict enforcement of the Hays Code, and he argues that Hollywood - and perhaps society as a whole - were forced to take a big step backwards in terms of women's liberties and sexual freedom because of the rabidly conservative forces that lined up behind Joseph Breen. In LaSalle's view, the Hays Code was primarily and vindictively concerned with screen images of women enjoying active sex lives, pursuing careers, and being perceived as morally complex individuals; the Code attempted to shut down these visions of gender equality and force women to see themselves in the old 19th-century roles as domestic angels or worldly temptresses, with the temptresses inevitably being punished for their sins.

The book reveals LaSalle's particular interest in Shearer and Garbo, to whom he devotes the lion's share of his attention. In contrast, he clearly has no love for Joan Crawford, whom he often describes in pejorative terms. While his discussions of Harlow, Stanwyck, and Blondell are intriguing, most readers will probably finish the book wishing there had been more pages dedicated to them. There's a reason Norma Shearer graces the cover of Complicated Women, and Shearer fans will be delighted to find LaSalle championing her cause most emphatically. LaSalle's treatment of the movies made in the later 1930s and 1940s might upset fans of that period, especially those who love the women's weepies, or melodramas, that made huge stars of Crawford and Bette Davis. LaSalle finds these pictures stifling in their reactionary images of women who must give up sexual freedom, economic independence, and even personal integrity in order to please the flawed men who expect so much from them. He observes that 1940s film noir escapes from the Code's strictures in its depictions of the femme fatale, who often conforms to the letter of the Code by getting killed for her iniquities but also impresses viewers with her strength and refusal to submit to conventional morality. Toward the end of the book, LaSalle speculates about more modern actresses as the heirs to Shearer and Garbo's legacies, but classic movie fans might find these segments the least compelling of the whole work, since they deal in actresses who might not even be familiar to those who haven't seen a lot of their films.

Reading the book in 2014, it's hard not to wonder what LaSalle thinks has changed since Complicated Women was first published. Pre-Code movies have become much easier to watch with the advent of streaming and specialized services and television channels. Has Shearer's reputation risen with the success of Turner Classic Movies and the arrival of Warner Archive and Warner Archive Instant? Have the movies finally caught up with Pre-Code visions of women's sexual and professional lives? While LaSalle did publish a follow-up, Dangerous Men: Pre-Code Hollywood and the Birth of the Modern Man, in 2002, he hasn't produced another book since then. Maybe it's time for him to provide readers with a new consideration of Pre-Codes that turns more of its attention to the other actresses who enjoyed their greatest success during that brief, wild fling before Breen and his cronies shut the party down.

Complicated Women is currently available in paperback on Amazon for just over $12. It would make a great Mother's Day gift for Norma Shearer devotees or fans of Pre-Code film.