Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood

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9780312252076: Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood

Between 1929 and 1934, women in American cinema were modern! For five short years women in American cinema were modern! They took lovers, had babies out of wedlock, got rid of cheating husbands, enjoyed their sexuality, led unapologetic careers and, in general, acted the way many think women only acted after 1968.

Before then, women on screen had come in two varieties - good or bad - sweet ingenue or vamp. Then two stars came along to blast away these common stereotypes. Garbo turned the femme fatale into a woman whose capacity for love and sacrifice made all other human emotions seem pale. Meanwhile, Norma Shearer succeeded in taking the ingenue to a place she'd never been: the bedroom. Garbo and Shearer took the stereotypes and made them complicated.

In the wake of these complicated women came others, a deluge of indelible stars - Constance Bennett, Ruth Chatterton, Mae Clarke, Claudette Colbert, Marlene Dietrich, Kay Francis, Ann Harding, Jean Harlow, Miriam Hopkins, Dorothy Mackaill, Barbara Stanywyck, Mae West and Loretta Young all came into their own during the pre-Code era. These women pushed the limits and shaped their images along modern lines.

Then, in July 1934, the draconian Production Code became the law in Hollywood and these modern women of the screen were banished, not to be seen again until the code was repealed three decades later.

Mick LaSalle, film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, takes readers on a tour of pre-Code films and reveals how this was the true golden age of women's films and how the movies of the pre-Code are still worth watching. The bold, pioneering and complicated women of the pre-Code era are about to take their place in the pantheon of film history, and America is about to reclaim a rich legacy.

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About the Author:

Mick LaSalle is the film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, and teaches a class at University of California at Berkeley on Pre-Code Film. He lives in San Francisco, CA.

From Kirkus Reviews:

An overdue tribute to the myriad of strong and independent women film stars of pre-Code Hollywood (1929-34).LaSalle provides a detailed summary of an important five-year period in Hollywood history-the interval that preceded the strict censorship of films by the Production Code Administration under the leadership of Joseph Breen. Typically, the "Code" era is remembered in film histories as an age of production that was bound by the suppression of nudity and the proscription of obscene language. LaSalle argues cogently that the Code more dangerously demanded an adherence to conservative and rigid gender roles. Pre-Code films, he points out, were filled with self-reliant, intelligent, and sexually independent women. This was a period dominated by powerful female stars-Mae West, Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Myrna Loy, Claudette Colbert, Jean Harlow-whose power and talent were undermined by a Code that made impossible all but the most chaste and wifely female roles. LaSalle, the regular film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, provides reviews of the films from pre- and post-Code Hollywood with loving detail; photos accompany the reviews and there is a helpful index of film stars and a filmography of the period. LaSalle, however, fails to unite his excellent reviewing skills with a much-needed social analysis of the era. The Code that consigned women actors to the sidelines appears as if out of nowhere, and LaSalle accuses Breen of single-handedly knocking Hollywood to its knees. Also, LaSalle has a none-too-subtle preoccupation with Norma Shearer-a powerhouse from the pre-Code days who, unlike West or Garbo, has remained unappreciated in the film annals of today-and he risks, at times, slipping into unmitigated Shearer adoration.By no means a social or cultural history of the period, LaSalle nevertheless offers an engaging and often-affectionate account of the strong women who dominated the films of this pre-Code Hollywood -- Copyright © 2000 Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

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