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What I love about this book is that Mick LaSalle sees the pre Code era of American filmmaking for what it was an exciting period with raw, uncensored content certainly, but also one that was often quite progressive and refreshingly feminist He is insightful in articulating the view that this era empowered female sexuality without condemning it or dooming its characters , questioned the institution of marriage, and examined issues like abortion, physical and sexual abuse, and economic disparity, often while telling women s stories The period also showed that an everyday woman could simply enjoy sex for physical pleasure LaSalle correctly points out that one underrated pioneer in this regard was Norma Shearer, who played average young women who were unapologetic about their sexuality in films such as A Free Soul and Strangers May Kiss both 1931 , and thus highly dangerous After the Production Code descended this would not be seen for decades LaSalle gives Susan Sarandon in Bull Durham 1988 as an example He recognizes the Production Code for what it was mainly an attempt to put women back in their place and cites many examples to make the argument I liked how he put the period in context, and pointed out the evolution of men s fears of women s independence manifesting in the vamp character, the sexually voracious woman who would suck the life out of men e.g sex death from films in the 1910 s 20 s, and decades earlier in literature For the brief pre Code interval 1929 34 this was lifted to the fear and consternation of conservatives see one of the below quotes, which likens it to the downfall of civilization After the Code was enforced, women characters such as the femme fatales in film noir who were not in traditional roles like motherhood were almost always in misogynistic situations, and again, viewers were shown that sex was perilous, and often meant death.LaSalle s writing style is informal and comes across as one old movie fan talking to another This can be both good and bad, as he s prone to making statements that are either wildly subjective or which made me wonder where he got his information, since the book had no footnotes e.g most boys in the 19th century lost their virginity to prostitutes He also has several groan out loud lines that should have been excised in the editing process, starting with him gushing over Garbo s beauty in embarrassing ways across several paragraphs She was beautiful She was really beautiful She was really really really Descriptions have never done her justice And then later It was all in the face Garbo s face made her body irrelevant Men lusted for her Women lusted for her But mostly from the neck up Ugh He also really phoned it in on lines like There is no such thing as a movie so good that it could not be made a little better by Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell s name in the credits is always good news My biggest criticism of the book, however, is that it has far too much focus on Greta Garbo and Norma Shearer They dominate the book from beginning to end, when it should have been balanced In part that s because of their landmark impact, but it s also clear that a part of this is because they were very attractive to him personally His own personal favorites always come through, and he even finds a way to work in a Flashdance 1983 reference which readers of his regular column in the San Francisco Chronicle will know he has a thing for Everyone has their preferences and it s his book after all, but I have to say, I preferred the scholarly, detailed, and balanced approach of Doherty in his book Pre Code Hollywood With that said, this book is a good one to read if you re interested in the subject It s chock full of little nuggets, many of which I extract below I also liked how clear eyed LaSalle was in assessing the interval in Hollywood that was subject to the Production Code, administered mostly by Joseph Breen, who was a political reactionary and very much an anti Semite He does not hold back, and as he puts it, Breen had the power to impose his pathetically narrow vision of life, art, and morals It s sad that the Code not only involved censoring new content, but also content upon its re release and in some cases, this resulted in footage being removed permanently.Quotes On anti Semitism, from Joseph Breen, who ended up single handedly having the most power over content produced in America for decades These lousy Jews are simply a vile bunch of people with no respect for anything but the making of money These Jews seem to think of nothing but money making and sexual indulgence The vilest kind of sin is commonplace hereabouts and the men and women who engage in this business are the men and women who decide what the film fare of the nation is to be Ninety five percent of these folks are Jews of Eastern European lineage They are, probably, the scum of the earth On censorship interesting to consider in light of the far left today After all, from the beginning of film, there had always been people calling for strict censorship Sometimes they d come from the left in the form of liberals wanting to socially engineer human behavior This time they d come from the right, from traditionalists wanting to enforce morality And this, from Mae West I resisted the type of censorship that quibbled over every line as if the devil were hiding behind each word On feminism, from Dorothy Mackaill in 1930 The modern girl is like Lindbergh, built for speed We have tremendous vitality of body and complete emancipation of mind None of the old taboos mean a damn to us We don t care This one from Ann Harding in 1929, about her military officer father who disowned her when she became an actress He was talking from his generation I was talking from mine, and never the twain shall meet And from Norma Shearer I feel that the morals of yesterday are no They are as dead as the day they were lived Economic independence has put women on the same footing as a man A discriminating man and a fastidious woman now amount to the same identical thing There is no difference On Garbo Depending on one s point of view, the bulk of Garbo s films can be seen either as touching Christian allegories or acts of subversion that use the metaphor of Christianity to assert the divinity and soul enriching power of erotic love I think they re both And this one, from Don Herold, a critic in the 1930 s, which I agree with Detach yourself from the Garbo spell at any point in almost any Garbo picture, slap yourself back to common sense, listen to her as you might to any woman, and you ll realize what horsefeathers most of the Garbo technique really is There is too much glum severity or knowing laughter with head thrown back It is all too thick, all too, too significant On Harlow, from biographer David Stenn With the cameras running for the rain barrel scene in Red Dust, Harlow stood up, topless, and shouted, Something for the boys in the lab On individuality, about Barbara Stanwyck At United Artists, a producer told her that her crooked front tooth would keep her off the screen, but he had a suggestion That one crooked tooth can be removed and a false one put in, he told her Not if you give me the whole studio, I won t, she answered It sounds like a moment from a Stanwyck pre Code a snappy comeback covering deep outrage and distress, from a woman with her back to the wall and only one thing to use in her defense her adamant sense of self On old movies, the last line of which I feel intensely The actresses of the pre Code era are one particularly vital aspect of the birth of the modern era, and it s impossible to watch them without admiration To see them is to marvel at how things are still the same It s to wonder when things will change again And it s to do that thing that can t be done, though movies come closest It s to stop time, hold the best of it in your hand And his one, actually from his April 14, 2019 column in the San Francisco Chronicle Clearly, people have different thresholds for what they find too offensive to enjoy, and different people have different reasons to take offense Still, I think it would be absurd to cultivate this sensitivity It accomplishes nothing It doesn t change the past, and it doesn t make us virtuous It just makes us, in the chronological sense, monolingual It would be much useful to cultivate the ability to see these movies as they were seen at the time On sexuality The prostitute movies of the pre Code era are guided by a single idea The idea is surrounded by lots of melodrama, high emotional stakes, and the clutter of plot and circumstances The idea is disguised by all manner of disaster and misery, possibly as an intentional distraction Still, it comes through loud and clear In this young century, these movies tell us, goodness and chastity are no longer synonymous Celibacy is not the same as virtue Virginity doesn t matter any Get over it And A few months later, Shearer was asked if she wore a brassiere in her newest film, Private Lives 1931 She answered that she hadn t and she didn t in real life, but why should that be news This one from an internal memo from the Studio Relations Committee to Jason Joy about Shearer s performance in Strangers May Kiss 1931 , where she plays a woman who goes on an erotic adventure in Europe after being dumped It would be difficult to exaggerate my revulsion at this picture The picture is a reflection of the initiatory stages of the degeneration of a people It embodies and personifies the warped moral sense that has disintegrated every previous civilized nation From Miriam Hopkins When I can t get to sleep, I don t count sheep, I count lovers And by the time I reach thirty eight or thirty nine, I m asleep And lastly this, about Kay Francis She is remembered for a real life incident, in which she showed up at a publicist s door, drunk and naked, saying, I m not a star I m a woman, and I want to get fucked On Shearer Like other pre Code stars who would soon emerge, Shearer was never unwilling to show her body In The Last of Mrs Cheyney, she argues and bargains and presses, half dressed and in complete command For her, as it would be for many actresses generations later, flimsy clothing was not a mark of vulnerability but a major weapon in her arsenal of self assertion And this one, from Clark Gable to his friends, after making A Free Soul with Shearer Damn, the dame doesn t wear any underwear in her scenes Is she doing that in the interests of realism or what On the vamp The image of the vamp embodies two fantasies, one paranoid, one romantic The paranoid fantasy is that sex can kill you The romantic fantasy is that it just might be worth it But as the social climate of the twenties got liberal, the atmosphere of danger that the vamp required for her existence had disappeared. I loved this book It s a thorough and joyful review of the leading ladies and their films in the late twenties and early thirties before the Code was enforced in Hollywood When you read about the actresses, their ambitions and independence, the influence they held and exercised in their work, the strength of the characters they played and the personas they inhabited it s all startlingly modern I came out of this book with a fresh and favorable view of Garbo as an actress her mystique somewhat escaped me but I understand her better now in the context of her times and what she and the other ground breaking actresses of the day were attempting to accomplish and a long list of movies to watch Fantastic read for any film buff Read Pdf ♂ Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood ♽ In The Pre Code Hollywood Era, Between And , Women In American Cinema 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 Before Then, Women On Screen Had Come In Two Varieties Sweet Ingenue Or Vamp Then Two Stars Came Along Greta Garbo, Who Turned The Femme Fatale Into A Woman Whose Capacity For Love And Sacrifice Made All Other Human Emotions Seem Pale And Norma Shearer, Who Succeeded In Taking The Ingenue To A Place She D Never Been The Bedroom In Their Wake Came A Deluge Of Other Complicated Women Marlene Dietrich, Jean Harlow, And Mae West, To Name A Few Then, In July , 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 LaterA Thorough Survey And A Tribute To These Films, Complicated Women Reveals How This Was The True Golden Age Of Women S FilmsTHORBIO 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 Mick LaSalle s central thesis is the pre Code offered the most complex portrayals of women in the classic studio era that this was the best time for actresses, so than the 1940s, because women were allowed to be real people and to have real fun on screen Although this argument might be persuasive and even true , most of this book is actually about how much LaSalle really, really likes Norma Shearer.The book is organized around in depth sections on Shearer and Greta Garbo As a result, LaSalle gives short shrift to other major actresses of the pre Code era For example, there s very little on Barbara Stanwyck, despite her work in essential pre Code films, such as Baby Face and Night Nurses At times, he does offer some great critical insight, such as his deconstruction of Marlene Dietrich s persona, which he sees rightly, I think as basically ironic Ultimately, though, LaSalle seems to present a very selective analysis history of the pre Code era.The book is also frustrating because many of the films mentioned aren t readily available Fortunately, I live in city that has great video stores While reading this book, I rented from Vulcan Video Born to Be Bad, with Loretta Young and Cary Grant Midnight Mary, also with Loretta Young Safe in Hell, with the neglected Dorothy Mackaill and the musical Wonder Bar Only one of these can be rented through Netflix, I believe Even though I m lucky to have access to resources than the average reader, the book kept taunting me with movies I d never be able to see Damn you, LaSalle So, I guess, this book also functions as a highly frustrating list of movie recommendations. I have some disagreements with LaSalle s assessment of Pre Codes He makes them out to be much progressive then they are and is a harder on the films that came after 1934 then I think is fair I do agree that the representation of women between 1929 and 34 was complicated, as LaSalle says They did often subvert certain gender norms and cultural expectations, but they were also products of their time and could be just as misogynistic as any film made later If anything, many of the films were honest and harsh about it and subverted things like rape culture almost accidentally because in their efforts to be the most shocking or sensational they dropped the romantic filter that distorts the violence and oppression of patriarchy All that said, I think part of why I liked the book so much was that I disagreed in places but remained engaged in the conversation LaSalle s style is incredibly accessible and he knows a lot about these films It made those places where I disagreed feel like a simulating debates and fueled my fascination The book made me want to learn and understand and I think that s the best compliment I could give any piece of historical research.This period of Hollywood history is one of its most interesting and even if you don t know a lot about these movies to begin with this book is a great place to start Historical and thematic context can be incredibly helpful in understanding and engaging with these films if you aren t already familiar with them and there really is no better place to start than this book other than maybe the documentary made based on the book It is a great primer and will add depth and complexity to how you view them. Entertaining and informative history of women s roles in the pre code late 20 s early 30 s era Warning this book will make you want to see all of the films mentioned in it But that s a GOOD thing. The preponderance of this book covers the female stars of Pre Code Hollywood The movies and actresses of this era reflected the new freedoms women had obtained as a result of changes in society In the movies women were empowered and on an equal footing as men Sex and romance combined to provide movie goers an idea of the new society Stars like Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo exuded a sensuality that enticed men and women into the movies Alas, reality was not to last Anti Semetic misogynists such as Joseph Breen, Christian fundamentalist Roman Catholic and Protestant , and the Legion of Decency saw to it that strict moralistic 19th century propaganda was placed on the screen Woman was subservient to man A man could commit adultery and would always be taken back by a smiling wife If his wife also cheated then she bore the consequences by dying It was forbidden to portray independent women succeeding and having a good life As a result, the Pre Code films makers and the actresses lost their appeal as they were confined by strictures of the code It wasn t until the last decades of the last century that the code was done away with, but the damage was done No longer was romance and sex intertwined Joseph Breen and his Legion of Decency has given us a cold blooded and often depraved cinema that gives us sex with no humanity, feeling, or tenderness Unfortunately, it seems there are those in this country that want us to return to the censorship which exposes their propaganda for their idea of morality. Fascinating subject and wonderfully written book These actresses deserve so much recognition that what they get Wow. I ve watched pre code movies since I read LaSalle His writing was so convincing and his cut to Breen s jugular so adept, I was carried along and convinced, although I m not usually so convincable Perhaps it was because he made Breen, the Censor who ruled over Hollywoodland from 1934 on so loathesome Also, like most Americans who consider themselves intellectual, whether that s justified or not, I am predisposed to find inanity in rigid controls and government interference in artistic portrayal Breen wasn t government, but he might as well have been.I m not arguing here for censorship, however, but having seen of the movies he extols, I find that LaSalle has misrepresented what pre code films espoused First, he claims that they decried the double standard Second, he said that they showed that women could be as independent as men Bosh Take The Divorcee with Norma Shearer It is true that when her husband cheats on her she retaliates by having a one night stand and telling him about it She justifies this because, when she rebukes her husband for cheating, he answers It was nothing When she repeats these words to him, he gets angrier with her and refuses to pardon her What is sauce for the gander is not sauce for the goose He even alludes to his shock at her being a loose woman Her response is to plead with him to forgive her When he won t, she says From now on my door will be open to any man except you Then she embarks on a career of doing what the worse of men do In short, she becomes a slut It is clear that soon she is weary of bed hoping, and, worse, she is consumed with guilt and shame She is no longer worthy of any decent man Fast forward to a man who does want to marry her Unfortunately, he is already married to a woman whom he disfigured while drunk driving When that woman comes to our heroine s house to plead her not to take away her husband, her plea is as old as sexism even if he doesn t love me, even if he supports me financially, without a husband, my life is nothing Needless to say, our heroine agrees This movie, and several others I bought the pre code DVD sets all uphold the double standard, view women only in sexual terms, and reinforce a woman s dependence on a man at all costs It is worth noting that the divorcee does have a lucrative career and is financially independent, but that isn t enough She has to take her husband s cheating or she is nothing Censorship was absurd Breen was a hateful man The studios were stupid for letting him police them and they did let him do it However, once censorship was imposed, women were no longer viewed as sex obects Censorship ushered in the age of the strong, independent woman The Thin Man series, Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy with their reversal of roles in Adam s Rib, Rosalind Russell in The Front Page and a slew of other movies with strong, independent women My good friend, Fr Ken Gumbert believes that having to butt against the code increased ingenuity in portraying women and, most important, it took women from the realm of sex objects to characters in their own right, not as mere appendages to men.Even if you re not a movie buff and even if you hate old movies, this book is of than casual interest If you start around Chapter 11 and read about Breen and censorship and his deleterious effect on American movies for decades, which eventually affected how Americans viewed women and other deviates, you d still gain insights into American culture up to today For those of you who do know the delights of the Studio Era, the chapters on pre code movies and actresses are a revelation These movies weren t just about depicting sex on screen In fact, they didn t do that They only depicted the prelude, like a man putting his hand on Barbara Stanwyck s thigh in Baby Face, or the after lude, like a satiated couple in bed together Yes, there is a lot of sex, and it is clear in that movie that she seduces her way up the social ladder However, precode movies are a lot than that They clearly violate the double standard and give the message that women should have the same freedom to play that men do If a man strays from his wife, she doesn t just take it in bravely She throws him out and goes out and has fun herself Then came 1934 and Joseph Breen, a Catholic who referred to the Jews who paid him as lice Yes, the Holywood moguls let themselves in for this nonsense because the Catholic Church had frightened them with their League of Decency The moguls, being insecure Jews who had lived through Pogroms, were petrified, not realizing that every time the Legion of Decency banned a movie, people attended than ever Movies are extremely influential because their larger than life imagery and closeups of faces stimulate people s emotions and feelings of bonding with the characters The messages they send out teach people how to act and what to think This is an important book and a good read BTW, you can see many of these pre code films on DVD Many had not been available for 70 years until the electronic revolution made it profitable to put them on tape and disk. I fell in love with fashion because of the movies from the 1930s and 40s What I failed to realize until I read this book is how much I actually missed by not seeing pre code films What a loss what a waste of talent and we are still living with the ramifications Worth reading.My only wish is that the author would mention race, i think he did once black maids I am bored with the idea that when we talk about women in American history we only mean white women That is as limiting as only talking about men But all in all a great lesson, quick and easy non academic read.