Hollywood's Second Sex

Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood, by Mick LaSalle, New York: St. Martin's Press, 293 pages, $25.95

Fast-Talking Dames, by Maria DiBattista, New Haven: Yale University Press, 365 pages, $27.95

Dark City Dames: The Wicked Women of Film Noir, by Eddie Muller, New York: HarperCollins, 292 pages, $29.95

A curious problem arose while filming the 1948 noir classic Force of Evil. Director Abraham Polonsky wanted a traveling shot that followed female lead Marie Windsor as she sauntered up to star John Garfield. But at 5'9", Windsor was three inches taller than Garfield. What to do? Marie herself came up with a solution as bizarre as the problem: Once her legs were out of camera range, she'd bend at the knees until she reached an acceptable height. Even a progressive like Polonsky (who, for Cold War reasons, was prevented from making another film for 21 years) accepted the rule that a female love interest couldn't tower over her man.

There have been many rules, written and unwritten, that determined how women could look and act in Hollywood movies. Often these rules were what the audience -- men and women -- wanted, but nearly as often they were behind the times, failing to reflect social change or even give the audience what it was prepared to accept. Three recently published books discuss, with little overlap, how women were portrayed on the silver screen from the mid-1920s to the 1950s. Mick LaSalle's Complicated Women tries to rehabilitate the pictures made in the freewheeling pre-Code era, i.e., before Joseph Breen took over the Production Code Administration in July 1934 and transformed moviemaking. Maria DiBattista's Fast-Talking Dames looks at the romantic comedies of the 1930s (mostly post-Code) and early 1940s, when women, DiBattista argues, matched or surpassed their male co-stars in wit. After the war come the Dark City Dames, as Eddie Muller calls them, of film noir. All three authors make strong cases on behalf of their period while demeaning what was to come later, and all are sometimes blind to the flaws of the era they are celebrating.

LaSalle, film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, begins his account in the transitional decade of the 1920s, when the most popular screen images of women were the voracious vamp and the innocent ingenue. Women had just been given the vote, and the country was becoming more urbanized, more sophisticated, and, with Prohibition, less law-abiding. Hollywood took a few years to catch on to the changes, but by the middle of the decade there was a new kind of woman, one who could break the rules -- at least some of them -- and get away with it. Girls who just wanted to have fun.

LaSalle identifies two aspects of this new woman. One was embodied by the ethereal Greta Garbo, living life at too intense a level, willing literally to die for love. The other was portrayed by Norma Shearer, a woman of flesh and blood who was willing to live for love, and live on her own terms.

Garbo maintains her mystique, but time has been less kind to Shearer. LaSalle wants to fix that. He makes a solid case that she's unfairly remembered for her post-Code parts, such as her most famous role as the too-decent Mary Haines in The Women (1939). Actually, she made many movies in the 1920s and early 1930s portraying much wilder types. She's also remembered as MGM mogul Irving Thalberg's wife, with the implication she got ahead by sleeping with the boss. In fact, she was a star before she married.

LaSalle also discusses such pre-Code women as Ann Harding, Miriam Hopkins, Constance Bennett, and Glenda Farrell. These one-time stars made movies that weren't just "women's" pictures; they were for everyone. They featured plots where a woman would choose a lover over a husband, or sell herself to get what she wants, or shoot someone who was in her way -- and not be punished by the final frame. What happened to change it all? According to LaSalle, the Production Code. The Code, writes LaSalle, "ensured a miserable fate -- or at least a rueful, chastened one -- for any woman who stepped out of line."

In the aftermath of the 1922 Fatty Arbuckle sex-and-death scandal, nervous Hollywood producers installed a former postmaster general named Will Hays to "clean up" the movies. That was mostly just a public relations gambit to fend off censorship. By 1930, however, the notorious Production Code was created to guide film content. Originally, the Code was enforced by men who sided with the studios in their battles with state censorship boards. But in 1934, studio heads became frightened by threatened boycotts (and threatened federal censorship) and revamped the system. On July 1, Joseph Breen became chief morals enforcer.

Breen was not interested in protecting the studios and had little love for the art form -- he was there to protect America from purveyors of filth. It didn't help that he was an anti-Semite and that Jews ran most of the studios. (LaSalle gives ample evidence of Breen's feelings about the studio bosses, quoting from private correspondence. Breen called Hollywood Jews "a vile bunch of people" and "the scum of the earth" and referred to Jewish moguls as "lice" and "crazed with sex.") Once Breen took over, not a single film would be released until it passed the harsh strictures of the Production Code. To LaSalle, this was the end of paradise.

He makes a persuasive case. There's a myth that the Code didn't hurt movies -- that it even improved them as filmmakers came up with clever ways to get around the rules. In fact, the Code only made it tougher to produce good films -- whole genres and careers were destroyed, while well-written scripts were heavily cut or disallowed outright. The Code wasn't simply about getting rid of naughty words or translucent costumes. Breen saw immorality hiding behind the most innocent tales; some ideas, he felt, simply couldn't be expressed in any form. Popular novels and Broadway hits were gutted, if they could be adapted for film at all. Studios even needed permission to re-release old hits, and the Breen office would often hack them up first. (These edits are still in many prints today.) Sometimes, Breen would be so offended by a movie, such as Ernst Lubitsch's pre-Code classic Trouble in Paradise (1932), that he refused to let it be shown.

Above all, the Code came down hard on women, who had been having too good a time. Indeed, a prime reason for the Code was to put women back in their place. The good "bad" woman who had been delighting audiences simply disappeared. Women were no longer to be as independent or free. LaSalle gives a useful illustration: Mary Stevens, M.D. (1933) ends with Kay Francis affirming her place as both a woman and a professional, while The Flame Within (1935) ends with Ann Harding renouncing her career as a psychiatrist to marry a man who doesn't approve of her working.

LaSalle's fine book, both chatty and informative, demonstrates that there was something lost in Hollywood films for over three decades. Not only were such issues as race relations almost never dealt with, but when Hollywood did attempt to take on something controversial, the storytelling was usually neutered and the result often frustrating.

Who knows how many great lines, memorable scenes, exciting plots, intriguing themes, and promising careers were extinguished because of the Code? LaSalle surveys some of the wreckage. Many of his favorite performers were ruined, and the women who did survive had to play galling scenes at the end of countless films where they'd knuckle under to male domination. That's why, to LaSalle, rediscovering these pre-Code films "is more heartening than just uncovering a trove of amazing movies. It's like finding out you had a host of long-lost aunts and grandmothers, free and fascinating ladies about whom, for reasons of their own, your parents never told you."

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.


Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.