Complicated Women Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood

Mick LaSalle

St. Martin's Griffin



Trade Paperback

304 Pages



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Between 1929 and 1934, for five short years, women in American cinema were modern. They 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 1968. Before then, women on screen had come in two varieties—good or bad—sweet ingenue or vamp. Then two stars came along to blast away these common stereotypes. Garbo turned the femme fatale into a woman whose capacity for love and sacrifice made all other human emotions seem pale. Meanwhile, Norma Shearer succeeded in taking the ingenue to a place she'd never been: the bedroom. Garbo and Shearer took the stereotypes and made them complicated.

In the wake of these complicated women came others, a deluge of indelible stars—Constance Bennett, Ruth Chatterton, Mae Clarke, Claudette Colbert, Marlene Dietrich, Kay Francis, Ann Harding, Jean Harlow, Miriam Hopkins, Dorothy Mackaill, Barbara Stanwyck, Mae West, and Loretta Young all came into their own during the pre-Code era. These women pushed the limits and shaped their images along modern lines. Then, in July 1934, 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became the law in Hollywood and these modern women of the screen were banished, not to be seen again until the code was repealed three decades later.

Mick LaSalle, film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, takes readers on a tour of pre-Code films and reveals how this was the true golden age of women's films and how the movies of the pre-Code are still worth watching. The bold, pioneering and complicated women of the pre-Code era are about to take their place in the pantheon of film history, and America is about to reclaim a rich legacy.


Praise for Complicated Women

"LaSalle's marvelous Complicated Women is the best kind of film book, making us see with fresh eyes the women of pre-Code Hollywood, a truly revolutionary lot by any standards. LaSalle wittily and insightfully celebrates the multiform 'New Woman' of the late '20s and early '30s. The author does a persuasive job of reminding us of the contribution of lesser-known stars while rescuing the much-maligned Norma Shearer from her gilded cage as MGM's plastic princess and restoring her to her rightful place as a breathtakingly risky (and risqué) sensualist with plenty of career savvy. Bravo!"—Molly Haskell, author of From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies

"Mick LaSalle's Complicated Women isn't just a great title for life, it's an eye-opening examination of pre-Code Hollywood that retrieves lost films and overlooked careers. It's also a delight to read and argue with."—David Thompson, author of Beneath Mulholland and Rosebud

"Mick LaSalle is a guy who really knows his stuff. He's actually seen everything he writes about, evoking a whole era of forgotten movies in a refreshing style that's not just a series of rehashed plots, but a witty, insightful joyride without an ounce of pomposity or patronizing, while at the same time providing the unsuspecting viewer with a fun guide on how to 'read' pre-Code movies."—Bruce Goldstein, Director of Repertory Programming, Film Forum, New York

"Mick LaSalle's Complicated Women is a revelation: He takes us back, with wit, passion, and intelligence, to those brief shining years of the early 1930s when Hollywood women movie stars like Norma Shearer could be erotic, funny, and independent—with no hell to pay."—Kate Buford, author of Burt Lancaster: An American Life

"Sophisticated and provocative."—Entertainment Weekly

"An overdue examination of a historic conflict between Hollywood and would-be monitors of morality."—New York Times Book Review

"In prose as snappy and sassy as the movies he describes, LaSalle restores to their rightful stature smart, sexy actresses like Ann Dvorak . . . and especially Norma Shearer."—Elle

Reviews from Goodreads



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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. He lives in San Francisco.
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  • Mick LaSalle

  • 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. He lives in San Francisco.