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.