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."
In recent years, these long-forgotten pre-Code films have been turning up on cable and in festivals, giving us a glimpse of a lost world. Many of them hold up quite well, and it can be an education to watch old films do new tricks—though the era also featured a lot of formula weepies in which actresses embody clichés. In any event, the films LaSalle admires were on their way out—and screwball comedy was on its way in—even before Breen took over. Two new comedies that pointed the way, The Thin Man and It Happened One Night, were released in the first half of 1934.
It's not as if Hollywood stopped making good movies after 1934. The Code may have been a heavy burden, but many moviemakers were ingenious enough to adapt.
Ann Harding would fade in the Code's shadow, but a lot of the female stars of the early 1930s—Claudette Colbert, Myrna Loy, Barbara Stanwyck—flourished. Enter Maria DiBattista's Fast-Talking Dames. Since there couldn't be much sex on the screen, or even much talk about it, frenetic screwball comedy filled the gap. DiBattista, a professor of English and comparative literature at Princeton, writes with great understanding of and appreciation for the women of these films, despite her sometimes arid academic language and her unnecessary forays into Freudian interpretation. Screwball's been well mined by such writers as James Harvey, Elizabeth Kendall, and Jeanine Basinger. Still, DiBattista extracts new and provocative material from it.
According to DiBattista, the "fast-talking dame" of the 1930s and 1940s is "singularly American" and "one of the most impressive and influential creations of the talkies." The general type may go back at least to Shakespeare's Beatrice and Congreve's Millamant, but there's something distinctly American about this character's brashness, her head-on readiness to deal with life. Nor were these dames pushovers—they were often, as DiBattista calls them, female Pygmalions, molding their men even as they fall in love with them. Jean Arthur would do it to Gary Cooper in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and again to Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). What does the dame teach her soft-spoken man? What else but how to do a little fast-talking himself. Even when they're on the ditzy side, these women still know what to do. In My Man Godfrey (1936), ditz Carole Lombard pulls William Powell out of the city dump and teaches him self-respect.
DiBattista devotes whole chapters to the greatest dames in fast-talking history, from classy Irene Dunne talking her way out of and back into marriage with Cary Grant in The Awful Truth (1937) to breathless Katharine Hepburn weaving garlands of words around a befuddled Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby (1938) to con-woman Barbara Stanwyck convincing a dumbfounded Henry Fonda to fall in love with her in two separate incarnations in The Lady Eve (1941). The fastest-talking dame of all was "newspaperman" Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday (1940), who dueled with her editor (and screwball's indispensable man) Cary Grant while beating the boys to the scoop. Quite a sisterhood. (DiBattista errs when she invites slow-talking Greta Garbo into the sorority on the basis of her 1939 comedy Ninotchka.)
DiBattista justifiably bemoans what happened in comedies by the mid-1940s. The "quick and good women who seemingly had and could do everything" were suddenly an "endangered species." Claudette Colbert, one of the founding dames of screwball in It Happened One Night, was now submitting to men like the laconic John Wayne in Without Reservations (1946).
Smart women started disappearing. A romantic comedy might now star a "dumb blonde" like Judy Holliday or Marilyn Monroe. In the 1930s, even the "dumb" blondes such as Jean Harlow or Carole Lombard were wised up enough to know the score. But Marilyn Monroe in her greatest comedy, Some Like It Hot (1959), is the character who's not in on the joke. Reversing what Stanwyck did to Fonda, Tony Curtis fools Monroe in two separate disguises. Comedy queen Doris Day spent a lot of screen time acting outraged at the advances she imagined men were making toward her—something pretty rare before the war, when women either were the ones making the advances or knew how to get rid of a man with a snappy line.
A new type of film became possible, perhaps even necessary: film noir. Noir was the perfect response to the censors—the Code demanded that people be punished for their sins, and in film noir everyone pays. Noir offers a dark world where even the innocent can be destroyed. There, danger lurks and happiness recedes into the ubiquitous shadows. And there's always a woman, the femme fatale who will drag a man down before he realizes that it's too late. In Out of the Past (1947), somebody tells Robert Mitchum that nobody's all bad. Thinking of the movie's siren, Jane Greer, he answers, "She comes the closest." That's noir.
Eddie Muller, in his charming and well-researched book Dark City Dames: The Wicked Women of Film Noir, paints portraits of six such women: Jane Greer, Audrey Totter, Marie Windsor, Evelyn Keyes, Coleen Gray, and Ann Savage. These actresses might not be as famous as Katharine Hepburn or Ginger Rogers, but they did play some of the screen's most memorably bad women. Perhaps the reason they aren't so well-remembered is that film noir is mostly told from the point of view of its male characters—we rarely get to know what makes its women tick. Furthermore, the film noir woman is in many ways a throwback to the vamps of the 1920s. But vampishness was a notably visual attribute, and worked much better in silents than it did later in talkies. While such characters might have been fun to play, they were often one-dimensional.
Muller is a journalist as well as a movie historian. His book is not an analysis of the films but a look behind noir. (The story of Marie Windsor crouching as she approaches John Garfield is Muller's.) He has a chapter on each actress, discussing how she came to Los Angeles and established her career, all while keeping the Hollywood wolves at bay, or sometimes inviting the wolves in. Each gets a second chapter about what they've done more recently, after noir died out in the late '50s. All the portraits are sympathetic and fascinating.
Dark City Dames is a follow-up to an earlier Muller book, the well-regarded Dark City: The Lost World Of Film Noir. The new work lets the women get their chance, since the men, like Bogart and Mitchum, are so often the focus. Muller is less analytical than many critics, more into the fun of film (and, hence, often more enjoyable to read). To him, noir represents the darker side of America, a dimension that postwar Hollywood couldn't obscure. Still, as dangerous as it is, it's also an exciting—even enticing—world. The femme fatale he writes about is a central part of that enticement.
The late '50s and '60s brought an opening up of permissible onscreen subject matter. One effect was to help slay film noir. The sex and violence that previously had to be implied could now be met head-on. Politics—not just regarding the government, but in everyday life—could now be openly discussed. Misdirection in these areas was no longer necessary, and would seem quaint. As glorious as its plotting and dialogue could be, noir started to seem too artificial. In the 1950s, the Code was seen increasingly as old-fashioned. (In 1968, it was superseded by the ratings system that, with minor changes, still exists.) With more ways to explore the human character, film noir wasn't needed any longer. Noir thrived on shadows, the threat of what's hiding out there; the newer type of personal filmmaking that followed believed in shining lights into those dark corners.
This was the ultimate revenge on Joseph Breen. He and his successors had kept the lid on the "new woman" for 34 years. Now she was back with a vengeance. The late 1960s and early 1970s saw scores of Hollywood films that explored relationships with more openness than ever before. Not everyone was thrilled; many wanted to return to the films of the 1950s, films that reflected Breen's desire to return to the 1890s. But there was no turning back.
Or was there? Screwball still lives. Arthur (1981) was an attempt at it, though the old genre choice of love or money was thrown out the window when Arthur gets both. My Best Friend's Wedding (1997) and Runaway Bride (1999), a pair of Julia Roberts movies, are both attempted throwbacks to screwball, but the former subverts the form by having Julia fail to get her man, while the latter plays on the stereotype of the woman who can't make up her mind at the altar. A third Roberts film, Notting Hill (1999), suggests that the Code may still have its fans, too: Roberts plays a star who has to humble herself to get her man, even if she no longer has to renounce her career.
Fast-talking dames are still talking; their last stand is TV. Like old movies, TV programs are shot quickly and are full of dialogue. They actually synthesize both pre-and post-Code women of the 1930s. The women of Friends and Sex and the City all have jobs, but their main concern is still men. However, there's one obvious way in which the "new" woman has emerged: These women have sex, and they're not ashamed of it. Conflicted, yes, but not ashamed. Comedy's old bad girl who must be punished for her dalliances, the centerpiece of the Code, no longer exists.
Noir will never entirely die, but it will never be the same either. Body Heat (1981), for example, is a reworking of Double Indemnity (1944). But while in the original, femme fatale Barbara Stanwyck was punished along with her sap, Fred MacMurray, the updated version makes Kathleen Turner a mastermind who literally gets away with murder.
Today, most major roles for women are hybrid parts with old, beloved concepts (a "knight in shining armor") mixed with new ideas ("women can do anything a man can do"). In The Shop Around the Corner (1940), Jimmy Stewart is head clerk over saleswoman Margaret Sullavan, and she can't wait to be swept away and cared for. In the updated remake, You've Got Mail (1998), Meg Ryan owns a whole store (even if love interest Tom Hanks owns more). Losing her store is traumatic, not merely a stepping stone on the way to romance. (Perhaps Meg Ryan gave the performance that announced the new era better than any other: the deli scene in 1989's When Harry Met Sally.)
Apparently the trick today is to make a film's story seem new enough so the audience doesn't feel insulted, but with enough of the old-fashioned formula so that it still fulfills deep-seated audience desires. In Miss Congeniality (2000), Sandra Bullock got to play both an FBI agent and a beauty pageant contestant. Even Princess Fiona in the massively popular Shrek (2001), a woman who literally waits in a castle to be rescued by a knight, gets her chance to kick some butt. Thelma and Louise (1991) don't get away in the end, but they can can lead the police on a cross-country chase and have the film firmly on their side. A woman's place in the movies is now much like her place in society: ambiguous.