Pre-Code Women Make Film History
In the minds of many of us younger folks, all old movies are old-fashioned, corny, and puritanical with women relegated to second-class status. In the white male patriarchal narratives, women were either goody two-shoe housewives or sinful whores who were in need of reform, or death. Indeed a great deal of classic film history was like this under a rigid censorship regime now known as the Production Code or the Hays Code which reigned absolute from approximately 1934 to 1967.
However, there was a glorious, albeit short-lived period called the Pre-Code starting in the advent of the norm of talking pictures (roughly 1929) until 1934 that was uncorrupted by the draconian Code. Before TCM or DVDs or more recently Warner Archives, most of these gems went unappreciated for several decades, unjustly buried in the vaults.
Thankfully film historians and critics such as Mick LaSalle, reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle have brought this era back into the public’s conscience. His book, Complicated Women, published in 2000, was one of the first texts exclusively about this historically and narratively rich period. It was this very book that inspired TCM to single out this era in documentaries, air the films on its channel, and release them in several popular DVD box sets.
Complicated Women is a perfect read for film aficionados and scholars for its extensive research and keen, in depth analysis as well as for casual movie fans and general readers with its engaging page turner aesthetic. Anybody who is a fan of Molly Haskell’s writing must read this book pronto.
Off the bat, LaSalle’s narrative has an interesting structure, establishing two “protagonists,” Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo. These two actresses, he argues, were the most instrumental at ushering the framework for more complex female characters and opening the door for many actresses to join the fun.
One of LaSalle’s main goals is to reintroduce Shearer back into popular culture as he feels she was the eminent trendsetter in Hollywood. From an early age the Canadian-born Shearer showed a great deal of gumption and self-confidence, even after big blows like being bluntly rejected by Ziegfeld (of the Ziegfeld Follies) and producer-director Cecil B. DeMille for not being “pretty enough.” As shrewd as she was ambitious, Shearer realized that the ingénue roles she was playing at the beginning of her career would quickly make her obsolete, that she needed projects and roles with more “oomph.”
Fast forward a few years, Shearer, wife of MGM’s wunderkind head of production Irving Thalberg, finally got the material she craved, but only after much prodding and a dash of ingenuity (read the book to find out.) Trailblazing performances in films like The Trial of Mary Dugan and The Divorcee, Shearer’s heroines, sexually adventurous free-spirited young women who were not slut shamed by the screenplays, established the structure that many of the era’s most popular actresses tweaked and expanded upon. All except Garbo.
Garbo, the immortal Swedish star who was typecast as the lecherous vamp in American silent films, hated the archetype and made her protestations known to all (including the press.) After going on a strike, MGM caved to her demands, including role approval. In her talkies, she created a new and unique type of femme fatale who destroys herself and men, not out of maliciousness but out of her overwhelming sense of passion and martyrdom. These roles continue to win her legions of admirers. (Although I haven’t seen many of her films, from the bits I’ve seen of Ninotchka, I cannot share LaSalle’s high opinion of Garbo).
LaSalle gives nicely detailed portraits of some of the other pre-code actresses. Some like Jean Harlow, Claudette Colbert, and Loretta Young, playing mature and saucy and mature roles before she became a clotheshorse and sanctimonious (and hypocritical) holier-than-thou type on and off screen, went on to greater fame after the Code. He feels as though they never got the same quality of roles after the strict censorship was enforced. He also gives thoughtful coverage to Ann Harding and Kay Francis, both of whom tend to be forgotten by modern audiences.
My one minor criticism is that some of the more obscure and underrated performers such as Ann Dvorak, Madge Evans, Glenda Farrell, and Dorothy Mackaill, whose sharp cultural observations he quotes extensively, don’t get more than a fleeting reference or two. I wanted to know more about movie magazine writers Delight Evans and Gladys Hall, who had their fingers on the pulse of the movement (and particularly of Shearer’s significance.)
A huge asset of this book is that LaSalle articulates the individuality and importance of each actress and doesn’t pit one against the other, focusing on the positive attributes of each woman. For example, the controversial Miriam Hopkins, often portrayed as a temperamental and ultra-competitive star who out-divaed Bette Davis on and off camera, is seen here as a witty and intellectual person who gave very sharp and humorous performances. (His only unkind words are for Joan Crawford, who never gets a break in the press).
The Production Code was more than a prudish annoyance implemented by stupid men that could easily be circumvented by shrewd filmmakers. LaSalle asserts that its toxicity was that “their main goal was to censor ideas. The censors were absolutely fixated on the messages movies transmitted.” One of the biggest casualties were the female-driven films that were on their protagonists’ side. Now women had to repent and accept subservience (or die) in the last five minutes.
Like most, I thought Will Hays was most instrumental in the censorship regime (after all it was called the Hays Code). It was interesting to learn that Joseph Breen, a name I saw in passing in many texts, was the real driving force. Breen, a former yellow journalist and Catholic layman, was as obsessed by his vehement anti-Semitism as by his misguided sense of morality and family values.
Far from being stupid, he deviously railed all the higher-ups in all the American Catholic congregations to boycott “immoral” movies, i.e. the ones that were the most entertaining. Since Catholics were a sizable percentage of moviegoers, the studio execs adopted Breen’s Production Code, which took immediate stranglehold over the industry and the content of each movie.
LaSalle makes an interesting observation that modern audiences are cynical about romance because of the schmaltzy treatment of it under the 30+ years Code (I too usually find romance scenes to be cringeworthy.) Maybe our aversion wouldn’t be as strong if we had more sex with romance a la Pre-Code.
The two final chapters, which are unofficial epilogues about modern actresses, demonstrate how even in the 90s most leading ladies are heavily indebted to Pre-Code actresses, and in particular Norma Shearer. LaSalle lamented the fates of many underrated 90s stars like Mimi Rogers, Madeleine Stowe, Natasha Gregson Wagner, and Jennifer Jason Leigh, who had one or two juicy roles a piece and the rest of their filmography the standard boring support for male stars.
There is more of a pathos reading these chapters, as in this decade, there are even fewer opportunities for women in the movie world which is dominated by mindless macho apocalyptic action crap. Many of the aforementioned actresses have even slighter roles or have disappeared. Even Drew Barrymore, whom LaSalle rightly compared to Harlow, one of the few 90s stars still in the game has been reduced to second fiddle for the consistently unfunny and juvenile Adam Sandler.
There are indications of change as this summer’s box office has been dominated by female-driven vehicles such as Maleficent, Belle, and The Fault in Our Stars. Women are using their money to show that they want more significant representation in movies. This would be the perfect opportunity for filmmakers, execs, and audiences to usher a new Golden Era for films with strong female characters.