Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood
Reading film studies books is a hobby usually reserved for the hardcore film fanatic. Once upon a time these tomes were usually formal, academically centered slogs through jargon and film examples. But that’s not the book I’m recommending today. Better known as the film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, Mick LaSalle creates a book with Complicated Women that’s both formal analysis, basic knowledge, and a fun celebration of a time where wild and wanton weren’t phrases immediately cementing a woman’s reputation.
LaSalle’s book jauntily recaps the formation of pre-Code Hollywood and its prominence as a landmark of film history. By utilizing the careers of Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo, specifically, he elaborates on pre-Codes as a means of allowing women to be who they were. Many often decry pre-Codes as an era of wanton lawlessness in cinema, where anything went. Sure, topics like pregnancy, white slavery, and drug addiction were depicted, but the tenderness with how these things were explored, and the lack of condemnation on characters who had fallen remains unparalleled. For women especially they could have desires, sex, and relationships without being slut-shamed or perceived as evil. They could be prostitutes and didn’t necessarily have to repent; they could be mothers who wanted more out of life; they could get divorced and call out men for the double standards regarding the distinctions between the genders.
Many fans of pre-Code might believe Complicated Women rehashes what’s been recounted in countless film history books: how the Code formed and what happened after, but LaSalle narrows his thesis towards discussing the then and now aspects, particularly regarding women. Where Norma Shearer was a real woman in A Free Soul, she became a stock representation of the martyr in The Women, which came out post-Code. Likewise, Greta Garbo, once the epitome of romantic love without condemnation, came, with the implementation of the Code, a stranger in a strange land, eventually retreating from cinema entirely. By eliminating complicated cause and effect, LaSalle presents the same information in new ways, garnering attention from novices and aficionados.
There’s also a contemporary component included. Complicated women weren’t just of the pre-Code era, but remain part of the the filmic landscape today, although there are strong narrative differences (which LaSalle hints at from time to time). It is this third section where an updated edition would be helpful. It’s great that LaSalle discusses how the careers of Julianne Moore or Jessica Lange are in line with the likes of Shearer, Miriam Hopkins, and the like. But I have to wonder how he’d feel about today’s stars that I find are similar to women of the 1930s, like Jessica Chastain for instance.
If you believe you’ve every examination of pre-Code history, give Complicated Women a look. LaSalle writes with a fun, frisky attitude that will intrigue those used to boring academic tomes or searching for something lighter.
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Kristen Lopez View All
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.
I read this book a few years ago and I was surprised how easy it was to get through! I was expecting it to be really dense and wordy like most academic-type film books are. I really enjoyed reading it and finished it in a matter of a couple of days. Great review!