Complicated Women: Sex & Power in Pre-Code Hollywood

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"Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood" by Mick LaSalle is, in a phrase, eye opening.

I considered myself both a classic film lover & a feminist before I read this book. Upon reading the introduction I realized the following:

1) I knew absolutely nothing about film history
2) I had never seen 'the good stuff'
3) I had lots to learn

This was the first time I really understood what The Hollywood Production Code was, and the impact it had. This was the first time I realized the power that women once had in Hollywood. In fact, it changed my opinion of what really was the Golden Age of Hollywood, at least as far as women were concerned. And this book also led me to wonder just how different movies would be today if that censorship had not occurred way back in 1934.

What would movies be like today if women’s power hadn't been stripped away...

But perhaps I get ahead of myself.

Many of us hear ‘classic films,’ and we think of movies from the 1940’s & perhaps the 50’s. But really, as LaSalle tells us, some of the finest movies were created long before that:

"The best era for women's pictures was the pre-Code era, the five years between the point that talkies became widely accepted in 1929 through July 1934, when the dread draconian Production Code became the law of Hollywood. Before the Code, women on screen 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, and in general acted the way many of us think women only acted after 1968.

They had fun. That's why the Code came in. Yes, to a large degree, the Code came in to prevent women from having fun. It was designed to put the genie back in bottle -- and the wife back in the kitchen. We'll discuss this wretched Code later, and at length. But suffice it to say, to a surprising extent, it succeeded."

How could decency codes do more than affect the content of movies? How can anyone claim that limits on movies hurt women more than men? After all, men were in the same movies, so the code would shape men & women equally, right?

To understand this, one must look back at how power was once distributed in Hollywood.

In the 20’s and early 30‘s women dominated at the box office. Women were the biggest stars, featured month after month on the covers of fan magazines (it was a rare month indeed when a male face turned up on the cover!), and society was fascinated with women in general.

LaSalle wrote:

"Offscreen and on, nothing was more interesting than woman's stories: Women got the vote and were increasingly attending college and pursuing careers. ten times more women were enrolled in public colleges in 1920 than in 1900. Hemlines were raised from the ankles, where they had hovered for centuries, to just below the knees. Women got to throw away their corsets. In place of corsets, women wore brassieres (a new invention), bound their breasts for a boyish look, or like Garbo, Shearer, Madge Evans, Jean Harlow, and many others, went braless.

Bobbed hair was part of the new freedom...Short hair was loose and liberating. Young women started wearing makeup, too -- and flaunting it, powdering up and applying lipstick in public. To the older generation, this was scandalous. Makeup was regarded as immoral, something associated with bohemians and prostitutes. So was smoking... Meanwhile, the availability of diaphragms, spermicidal jellies, and pessaries in the twenties resulted in real changes in sexual behaviors."

The combination of the public interest in women & their changing roles, along with the public adoration of their silver screen stars, the female stars of the time were able to rebel & leverage their collective clout into real changes for women in film. Now the actresses played parts that defied earlier stereo-types, & the audiences loved it - loved them. Soon female actresses had more power than the directors. And this brought more feminist films, and more film fans.

Long story short, because women were the box office draws, women controlled the movies.

But enter The Motion Picture Production Code, and everything changes. Not for the better.

Stars no longer had as much control in films. Female stars were much worse off, as they were sent back to stereo-types & the real lives & choices of women were no longer represented on film. Stars like Mae West & Greta Garbo could no longer make the films they wanted, and even worse, many of their previous films were cut to take out the scenes & materials that ’broke’ The Code. These cuts were permanent, as the edits were literally thrown away or filmed over completely -- Lost forever!

While many movie goers were upset at seeing their favorite Mae West films ruined, the code prevailed. That is until brave filmmakers, many from outside the USA, dared to ignore The Code in the 1950’s. But by then, directors & men had been enjoying their power, and women were still thwarted from regaining the control in film they once had.

Complicated Women book coverLaSalle’s book illuminates not just the horrors of the code, but the culture of the times - and yes, yes, yes, the lives & movies of the legendary female actresses of the time as well.

It is clear that LaSalle has researched well, and his writing makes it at once interesting and compelling.

That he adores the legends he writes of is never a question.

If you buy this book, you'll find it's addicting -- not only to read, but you'll find yourself ordering videos & looking for classic film listings. And, if you are like me, you'll never watch films in quite the same way again (new or 'classic')... So you have been warned!

Review by DeeDee

Read our review of The Divorcee, the first movie to test The Code!


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