Category Archives: Books

Books: Complicated Women

Pre-Code Women Make Film History

Courtesy of talkingwithtim.com

Courtesy of talkingwithtim.com

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.

Courtesy of article.wn.com

Courtesy of article.wn.com

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.

Courtesy of www.listal.com

Courtesy of www.listal.com

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.”

Courtesy of backlots.net

Courtesy of backlots.net

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).

Courtesy of classicfilmheroines.tumblr.com

Courtesy of classicfilmheroines.tumblr.com

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.)

Courtesy of fr.film-cine.com

Courtesy of fr.film-cine.com

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.

Courtesy of iwakeupscreaming.wordpress.com

Courtesy of iwakeupscreaming.wordpress.com

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.

Courtesy of via-51.blogspot.com

Courtesy of via-51.blogspot.com

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 the romance, a la Pre-Code. It doesn’t have to be as graphic as a porn site like sex-hd.xxx might show it, but adding a few more raunchy scenes and a bit more sex would certainly make the romance genre a bit less cringe.

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.

Courtesy of femmepiricalevidence.blogspot.com

Courtesy of femmepiricalevidence.blogspot.com

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.

Books: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang by Pauline Kael

Courtesy of sensesofcinema.com

Courtesy of sensesofcinema.com

At one artistically glorious time beginning in the late 60s, a group of film critics were household names (and famous enough to be parodied on SCTV). Critics like Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, Judith Crist of TV Guide (known by many as the first movie critic on TV), Andrew Sarris of The Village Voice, and Dwight McDonald of Esquire had highly original voices and helped elevate film criticism to a more sophisticated level of analysis.

The most unique and fearless of them all was Pauline Kael. In contrast to her dowdy middle-aged appearance and voice which resembled Madge Blake (Aunt Harriet of Batman) and Marion Lorne (Aunt Clara of Bewitched), her colorful writing had a distinctively erotic quality as she was always enraptured with the filmgoing experience regardless to whether she loved or hated the film.

She was an outsider in many ways in terms of her highly subjective first-person aesthetic and in many of the movies (the only term she used, as she felt all other terms like “films” or “motion pictures” were pretentious) she gravitated towards, a position I think she enjoyed. Never one to mince words, Kael butted heads with academic critics, particularly Sarris, whose preferences she felt tended towards esoteric arty farty material.

Courtesy of www.azevedosreviews.com

Courtesy of www.azevedosreviews.com

She also sparred with the more traditional critics, namely Crowther, the eminent critic at the time whom she singled out for scorn on multiple occasions. They were suckers for “respectable” films with an important social message (a la Stanley Kramer, whose oeuvre she gloriously ripped apart in an essay entitled “The Intentions of Stanley Kramer”). Her praise for “trash” melodramas and blockbusters raised eyebrows and derision from both the traditional and academic camps.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a collection of Kael’s reviews and essays from 1965 to 1967, at the tail end of her freelancing period. Right after this, she became a national cultural icon with her stint as the critic for The New Yorker from 1967-1991. She rose to prominence with her 7000-word impassioned defense for the then-maligned Bonnie and Clyde (this piece is included in this book). Endorsing the controversial film placed her on the right side of history as this visceral, edgier type of counterculture filmmaking became the future and the old establishment, particularly Crowther, fell out of public favor, and in Crowther’s case, practically overnight after his moralistic (and very square) review of Bonnie and Clyde.

Her analysis of Bonnie and Clyde is probably her most famous work due to its historical significance (not to mention that it’s a damn good essay too).

Courtesy of www.impawards.com

Courtesy of www.impawards.com

My favorite piece in this book is her detailed account of behind-the-scenes access of the filming of the 1966 Sidney Lumet drama The Group, based off a novel by Mary McCarthy about the trials and tribulations of eight Vassar graduates.

Considering how opinionated and blunt she was in her writing, Kael was an interesting choice by Lumet and writer-producer Sidney Buchman to be on the set. She was definitely not an impartial visitor. For example, she harangued Lumet about an actress who misread the line “the whole class was for Roosevelt” instead of “the whole group was for Roosevelt” on multiple occasions. After he and the producer brushed her off, she confronted the crew members about this continuity error; by that time Lumet was already directing his next film.

Courtesy of http://www.azevedosreviews.com/

Courtesy of http://www.azevedosreviews.com/

Very unusual for professional critics, Kael watched films with average movie-goers and fed off of their energy. For example, much of her disdain for the film The Shameless Old Lady, which she thought was “pleasant enough,” was the arty hype from other critics and the audience who consequently was “so audibly pleased with its capacity to respond.”

Many professional critics have veered away from Kael’s provocatively subjective prose in favor of a more objective, less controversial delivery. This is precisely one of the major reasons nobody gives a damn about contemporary criticism. In spite of the obstacles, Kael persisted in genuine honesty and has consequently delivered an output of provocative, engaging criticism (and dare I say art) to the literate public.