This review of Mick LaSalle's book was originally published in the December 2000 issue of the Bay Review, an online liberal arts journal no longer in existence. If you wish to purchase the book, you may order it from Amazon.com or wherever you prefer to buy books.
A Review of Mick LaSalle's Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood (New York: Thomas Dunne Books-St. Martin's Press, 2000)
Steven C. Scheer
The Mae West character in I'm No Angel (1933) says at one point, "When I am good, I am very good. But when I am bad, I am better." A version of this delightfully suggestive witticism could easily be used to describe the pre-Code Hollywood so admirably depicted - nay, traced with tender loving care - in Mick LaSalle's splendid Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood: "When Hollywood is good, it is very good. But when it is bad, it is better." Books dealing with pre-Code Hollywood are fashionable these days and rightly so. There's Thomas Doherty's Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930-1934 (1999) and Mark A. Vieira's Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood (1999).
Mick LaSalle's version differs from the others in that it takes on the period from the vantage point of the female stars who dominated the years between 1929 and 1934, the year the censors struck. "The best era for women's pictures," he tells us, "was the pre-Code
LaSalle then goes on to highlight a number of careers by first resurrecting Norma Shearer's considerable contribution from the obscurity into which it had drifted after the Code's triumphant silencing of truly telling movies coming out of Hollywood, while at the same time exploring the work and contribution of other important female stars of the era, most notably Greta Garbo, Mae West, Jean Harlow, and many others. These women took stereotypes about women handed down by society and turned them into authentic art, art that was free to make significant statements about the complicated morality of the newly emergent modern woman (the "bad good girl" according to some critics, 95).
Norma Shearer's The Trial of Mary Dugan (1929) was the first in a series in which "whenever the audience's belief in Shearer's decency is in conflict with the audience's sense of right and wrong, and something has to give, the thing that gives, always and amazingly, is the audience's definition of right and wrong" (57, italics LaSalle's). In other words, Shearer's movies were capable of teaching us new lessons about complex moral issues, taking the veil off inadequate platitudes and pious impostures. The very thing about works of art that censors usually hate.
Greta Garbo also made a whole series of movies that had significant things to say about the modern woman. Her films usually deal with sacrificial and redemptive love. As LaSalle puts it, "[b]ut what was redeemed in these films wasn't just a soul from sin. It was sex from judgment. . . . Garbo's pictures were love poems to lasciviousness. They were serious hymns to the glory of loose ladies" (85). Her final movie before the Code struck, her masterpiece according to LaSalle, Queen Christiana (1934), for example, deals with the sexually ambiguous seventeenth-century Swedish queen whose abdication of power is seen as a personal triumph, the individual's right to a life of her own. The movie "celebrates true love, in all its forms, as something from God" (196). Thanks, in part, to the daring of this movie, Joseph Breen, one of the masterminds of censorship in Hollywood, was finally able to give the Code its power to take total "control of motion picture content" (190) in 1934 (the Code had actually been in existence since 1930, but no one paid much attention to it beyond the requisite lip service). After that, Breen had the wherewithal "to impose his pathetically narrow vision of life, art, and morals" (197).
Joseph Breen was hell-bent on saving "America from the movies and the movies from the Jews" (192). The trouble with censorship is always and ever the same. It's not that censors misread works of art, it's that they misread what art is for. Actually, the censors have no use for art, what they want is propaganda. Stories have to conform to preconceived notions of right and wrong, rigidly predetermined by what at one point LaSalle calls "tortured readings and misreadings of the Bible" (16). All roles are strictly defined and all action is rigidly restricted. Thinking isn't allowed, except of course along permissible lines. Life doesn't work this way, nor does art. Life changes and art questions our absolutes, which are never quite what they appear to be.LaSalle's statement (quoted earlier) about Norma Shearer movies prompting the audience to change its mind about what is ultimately right or wrong is what art has always been all about. The examples are too numerous, but perhaps we could mention a handful of writers who readily fit this questioning mold: Geoffrey Chaucer, Miguel de Cervantes, William Shakespeare, Henry Fielding (his Tom Jones is an excellent case in point of the difference between a "good bad boy" and a "bad good boy"- the former breaks lots of rules but has a heart of gold, the latter acts in socially sanctioned ways but is evil through and through), Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Henry James, William Faulkner. The list could go on. No, I am not suggesting all good movies are necessarily of the same caliber, but in that they question officially accepted views of truth and justice, which are seldom either true or just, they all partake of this glorious enterprise called art, without which life would be barren, a field without dreams, an arena without the light of intelligence.
Mick LaSalle's Complicated Women does a splendid job of exploring all this. He repeatedly shows, through the careers and works of complicated female stars, the glory of the pre-Code days in Hollywood. At one point he raises an interesting speculation and offers a final assessment: "What fun and vital films, what unfettered adult pronouncements, what cherished and uncompromised performances would we have today had the Code's arrival been delayed by a mere six months? Or a year? Or two years? Or forever? / As time goes on, and the distance stretches between the Code's end (in 1968) and the present, it becomes obvious and undeniable that the pre-Code era was not some perverse five-year anomaly. The anomaly was the three decades that followed it" (188). Like Keats's famous "thing of beauty," LaSalle's book should be "a joy forever."
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