×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood

In the five years from the full-scale arrival of sound to the clampdown of the Production Code in July 1934, Hollywood heroines "took lovers, had babies out of wedlock, got rid of cheating husbands, enjoyed their sexuality, held down professional positions without apologizing for their self-sufficiency," observes San Francisco film critic Mick LaSalle in his snappy, sassy and deliciously entertaining new book.

In the five years from the full-scale arrival of sound to the clampdown of the Production Code in July 1934, Hollywood heroines “took lovers, had babies out of wedlock, got rid of cheating husbands, enjoyed their sexuality, held down professional positions without apologizing for their self-sufficiency,” observes San Francisco film critic Mick LaSalle in his snappy, sassy and deliciously entertaining new book.

In short, these women had fun; “to a large degree,” LaSalle writes, “the Code came in to prevent women from having fun.”

Combining a scholar’s depth of knowledge with a fan’s zest, LaSalle celebrates the serious social contribution that pre-Code films made by dramatizing changing female attitudes without ever losing sight of how much sheer joy was had in smashing all those tired Victorian conventions.

“I’m in an orgy wallowing,” Norma Shearer announced as the paramour of a roving newspaperman in 1931’s “Strangers May Kiss,” “And I love it!” She upped the ante later that year in “A Free Soul” as a free-spirited society belle who goes after gangster Clark Gable, clad in a form-fitting white dress under which it is readily apparent she’s wearing not a stitch. “Oh, dear, he wants to talk some more,” she sighs when Gable asks if she loves him; she’s not there for conversation.

Shearer is LaSalle’s quintessential pre-Code heroine because, unlike Greta Garbo or Mae West (both of whom he likes, too), her characters weren’t exotic temptresses outside the rules, but rather normal young women who were rewriting the rules as they went along.

Ann Harding, Miriam Hopkins, and Dorothy Mackaill also played ordinary women who questioned the value of marriage and affirmed the pleasures of independence. LaSalle reclaims these smart, sexy actresses from obscurity and argues convincingly that Golden Age icons like Loretta Young, Barbara Stanwyck and Marlene Dietrich did their most interesting work in pre-Code films, where their characters were celebrated, not punished, for being complex human beings.

True to his mission as a passionate, partisan advocate, LaSalle downplays the often primitive camerawork and occasionally naive acting style of these early talkies, concentrating on the star quality of the actresses and the honesty of the dialogue, which expresses ideas that remain bold and startlingly modern.

More Reviews

  • Steve Bannon appears in The Brink

    Sundance Film Review: Stephen K. Bannon in 'The Brink'

    Stephen K. Bannon drinks Kombucha (who knew?), the fermented tea beverage for health fanatics that tastes like…well, if they ever invented a soft drink called Germs, that’s what Kombucha tastes like. In “The Brink,” Alison Klayman’s fly-on-the-wall, rise-and-fall-and-rise-of-a-white-nationalist documentary, Bannon explains that he likes Kombucha because it gives him a lift; he drinks it for [...]

  • 'Great Bear Rainforest' Review

    Film Review: 'Great Bear Rainforest'

    Imax documentaries take us into the wilderness in ways we could only ever dream of experiencing in person, inviting us to marvel at the majesty of mother nature. Director Ian McAllister’s “Great Bear Rainforest” journeys deep into a remote, relatively untouched landscape where crystal clear lakes mirror the mountains and misty, mossy cedar forests tower [...]

  • The American Clock review

    London Theater Review: 'The American Clock'

    Time is money. Money is time. Both come unstuck in “The American Clock.” Arthur Miller’s kaleidoscopic account of the Great Depression, part autobiography, part social history, crawls through the decade after the Wall Street crash, dishing up snapshots of daily life. In the Old Vic’s classy revival, director Rachel Chavkin (“Hadestown”) tunes into the play’s [...]

  • 'Tremors' Review: Jayro Bustamante's Forceful, Atmospheric

    Berlin Film Review: 'Tremors'

    “Love knows nothing improper,” chides a zealous preacher in “Tremors.” Ostensibly, she says it to an entire rapt church; more pointedly, she’s addressing mild-mannered family man Pablo, as he’s dragged through a terrestrial hell for the cardinal sin of falling in love with another man. What’s the greater impropriety, then: same-sex love or the victimization [...]

  • The Magic Life of V

    Berlin Film Review: 'The Magic Life of V'

    The surprise Oscar nomination of impressionistic “Hale County This Morning, This Evening” suggested a broadening of acceptance towards documentaries well beyond standard “Just the facts, ma’am” territory. Still, juggling style and substance will always be a tricky matter in that form, as evidenced by a film such as “The Magic Life of V.” This latest [...]

  • Jake Gyllenhaal

    Off Broadway Review: Jake Gyllenhaal in 'Sea Wall/A Life'

    Comfy? Okay, let’s talk Death: sudden death, painful death, lingering death, accidental death, and whatever other kinds of death happen to come into the receptive minds of playwrights Simon Stephens (“Sea Wall”) and Nick Payne (“A Life”). The writing in these separate monologues — playing together on a double bill at the Public Theater — [...]

  • Dylan O'Brien and Ed O'Neill in

    TV Review: 'Weird City' From Jordan Peele and Charlie Sanders

    There’s hardly a better example of just how overwhelming the TV offerings have gotten than “Weird City.” The new slick and bizarre comedy was co-created by Jordan Peele and “Key and Peele” writer Charlie Sanders, features a stacked cast, and is nonetheless stranded on YouTube Premium (though the first two episodes are available to stream [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content