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Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood Hardcover – September 28, 2000

ISBN-13: 978-0312252076 ISBN-10: 0312252072 Edition: 1st

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books; 1st edition (September 28, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312252072
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312252076
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.4 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (57 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,001,888 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

Between 1929 and 1934, Hollywood was governed by a voluntary code of decency. During this period, women characters were often tough-talking, sexually aggressive, and independent. Under pressure from church and state decency groups, a code with enforcement powers was implemented in 1934. The effect of the 1934 code (which remained in effect until the late 1960s) has been hotly debated recently. LaSalle, film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, makes it clear what he thinks, blasting the code as a measure "to prevent women from having fun. It was designed to put the genie back in the bottleDand the wife back in the kitchen." He calls the code, as enforced by Joseph Breen, "anti-art," antiwoman, and anti-Semitic. However, LaSalle's main purpose is to celebrate the short-lived era of "complicated women," as personified by the early films of Marlene Dietrich, Jean Harlow, Myrna Loy, and others. In particular, this book is an unabashed valentine to Greta Garbo and Norma Shearer. It features insights on significant scenes from precode films and evaluates some modern counterparts to the great ladies of the early 1930s. This book is more narrowly focused than other recent books on the subjectDsuch as Thomas Doherty's Pre-Code Hollywood (LJ 7/99) and Mark A. Viera's Sin in Soft Focus (LJ 11/1/99)Dand some may disagree with the author's conclusions, but it is recommended for large film and women's studies collections.DStephen Rees, Levittown Regional Lib., PA
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

LaSalle mines the brief, rich period of Hollywood history between the talkies' advent and that of the industry's production code, under which not only didn't crime pay but adultery, divorce, extramarital sex, and even women working outside the home were punishable when not verboten. Typically, the schemes of an offending woman in an American movie led to a crushing denouement. LaSalle concentrates on Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo as representative stars of the period. Subsequently less celebrated. Shearer was a transcendent celebrity in the early '30s, who greatly impressed, among others, Clark Gable: "Damn, the dame doesn't wear any underwear. . . . Is she doing that in the interests of realism or what?" She and Garbo portrayed women as independent beings possessing thoughts, urges, and desires. Those last two the code sought to suppress. Excellent on Hollywood as it entered the era of studio dominance, the book may also reawaken interest in Shearer. Meanwhile, limned less lengthily in an epilogue are Bankhead, Loy, Harlow, Lombard, and others. Mike Tribby
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Customer Reviews

You NEED to read this book.
Jennifer Wong
My friend said to me, "Cameron, you NEED to read this book," and I thought, OK, well, maybe -- but it turned out she was right.
Cameron Simmons
Mr. LaSalle should be commended on his attention to Norma Shearer's contribution to the film industry.
julip510

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

59 of 63 people found the following review helpful By Barbara C. Hendrickson on October 15, 2000
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
While reading LaSalle's Complicated Women, I found myself lusting to see the movies he describes. Luckily many of them belong to Turner Classic movies. I just taped and watched four of them: Stanwyck's Baby Face; Kay Francis' Mary Stevens, MD; Tallulah Bankhead in Faithless; and Dorothy Mackaill's Safe in Hell. I couldn't believe my eyes! Stanwyck as a women prostituted by her own father who sleeps her way to the top of the corporation? Francis as a woman doctor who has an illegitimate child? Bankhead as a former rich girl who hits the street to make money for her injured husband's medical bills? And Mackaill as a call girl hiding out from the cops in Tortuga? And none of them had to die for their sins, even though they may have repented their behavior? I was born in 1932 and grew up with the movies of the late 30's and 1940's. I was familiar with some of those women stars, but I never saw such stories in post-Code films. The modernity of the pre-Code movies is astounding; the strong women who are their protagonists were lost for 30 years. I can't help feeling cheated by what the post-Code movies taught me about women and men and their "proper" relationships. Hooray for Mick!
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29 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Breck Stewart on January 20, 2002
Format: Hardcover
I must admit I bought this book first because of the fact that Norma Shearer was on the cover. I am a big fan of hers and always felt extremely frustrated that she is practically forgotten today even though she had such an impact on our movie culture from the silent days until her retirement in 1942.
When I saw that book on the shelves, I didn't even hesitate and bought it right away, not knowing anything about it or the author. I always buy any book related to actresses from old movies anyway. But as I started to read, I became completely engrossed in the story, the drama, the lives of these pioneer women. These actresses were literally strangled in their creative flow by those stupid, rigid and close-minded officials who in 1934, decided to put a stop to what they felt were abominations, destroying a brilliant path the movies could have gone for if given the chance.
This book is simply superb. There are no words strong enough to express just how much I love it. I had never heard of the author and was amazed at how much he knew about his subjects. His comments are often funny, touching and always right on target. I devoured this book while being on a business trip out of the country and it became my companion on those long hours on the plane.
I recommend this book to everyone. I have read the other reviews and agree with all those who are highly praising. One of them was written by a woman who, saying that it was a must for all women, was wondering how men might feel about this book. Well, I can tell you right now that as a man, I would very strongly recommend to anyone who wants to learn about our movie history.
I have read the book at least 10 times by now and always enjoy it immensely.
Read more ›
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22 of 22 people found the following review helpful By S. OBrien on October 1, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Mick LaSalle's COMPLICATED WOMEN showcases the development of an exciting genre of films (1929-July 1934) that should really be seen by anyone interested in good films and film history. LaSalle writes with a sharp, informed intelligence and wit. He capsulates the careers of the era's most significant stars: Harlow, Francis, Crawford, Harding, Hopkins, Chatterton -- and reminds us of the strong, sexual, intelligent roles they were able to play before the Production Code. Garbo and Norma Shearer provided the foundation in 1929-30 for what followed. His emphasis on these two makes perfect sense -- they had the most prestige, fan appeal and power during this time to shift the gears of how women were to be seen in the movies. This book is also a great reference of film titles to go out and seek or watch for on Turner Classic Movies. It certainly made me redefine my own outlook on women's roles in old movies. What I saw growing up in the 50's and 60's at the movies was a gigantic technicolor bore compared to some of these films. This book is a must for every film library.
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful By T. J Mitchell on April 19, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Before the Hollywood infrastructure got its meat hooks into the fledgling talkie medium, there was a grace period when women spoke freely. The vamp, the seducer, even that most threatening of feminine archetypes - the socially empowered ingénue - were allowed to roam the parlors and nightclubs like a wild tonic in grayscale. For anyone who appreciates unfettered female expression and all its intricacies, Mick La Salle's book, Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood, is an inspired revelation. La Salle prods us to explore the concept of morality in 20th century America and its representation on film which, contrary to popular belief, does not plummet through decades of ignorance as one looks back from the 60s. In fact, he depicts an age (1929-1934) prior to the censorship of Production Code figurehead Will Hays and its chief architect Joseph Breen in which women were not burning their bras so much as simply not wearing them. With the focus primarily on the legendary Greta Garbo and the tragically forgotten Norma Shearer, Complicated Women lends insight into the burgeoning sexuality of the liberated heroine whose modern attitudes went without apology and, more importantly, without punishment.
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