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Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood

4.01 of 5 stars 4.01  ·  rating details  ·  556 ratings  ·  50 reviews
In the pre-Code Hollywood era, between 1929 and 1934, 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 1968.

Before then, women on screen had come in two varieties-sweet ingenue or vamp. Then two stars came along:
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Paperback, 304 pages
Published December 19th 2001 by St. Martin's Griffin (first published 2000)
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Memo from David O. Selznick by Rudy BehlmerNorma Shearer by Gavin LambertBombshell by David StennCary Grant by Marc EliotThe Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Classic Film Books
12th out of 324 books — 47 voters
Falling Waters by Gary D. HenryMy Autobiography by Charles ChaplinClara Bow by David StennMe by Katharine HepburnThe Parade's Gone By... by Kevin Brownlow
Best of Old Hollywood
71st out of 243 books — 68 voters


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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 1,884)
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Elaine
I've watched more 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 por ...more
Collin Bost
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, more 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, La
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Rama
The fascinating history of the studio-era and pre-code Hollywood

This is a fascinating book that discusses the movies produced during pre code period of 1929-1934 and evaluates the impact it had on the careers of Hollywood's leading ladies. The movies of Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo are extensively discussed along with many other leading ladies and how it impacted the studios and the Hollywood culture. Shearer was a smiling subversive and her most characteristic film is the Divorcee and Riptide
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Bruce
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 ...more
Tereneh
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 more 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
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Bkwormmegs
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 more favorable view of Garbo as an actress - her mystique ...more
Holly Montrose
'Complicated Women' takes us back to Hollywood, before the enactment of the 'Hayes Code' in 1934. This code ripped the heart out of Hollywood movie making and brought us things like married couples sleeping in twin beds and only kissing on either the upper or lower lip, and other assorted ridiculousness.

Before the Hayes Code, men took a back seat in the movies. Women were the real stars, the box-office draws, the money-makers. Norma Shearer features heavily in the book and is obviously the write
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Jenny
Apr 30, 2008 Jenny rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: fans of Turner Classic Movies.
Shelves: non-fiction-film
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.
Sebina~☆~ClassicMaiden
I first read this book and it's follow up Dangerous Men: Pre-Code Hollywood and the Birth of the Modern Man in 2003. At that time, I had only seen a handful of Pre-Code cinema. What these two Pre-code books by Mick Lasalle did were catapult me into a passion for Pre-Code cinema that has lasted to this day. I still use this book as a reference and I love to go back and re-read it.
I cannot recommend his Pre-Code books highly enough!
Dyah Subagyo
Do you think that old and vintage somewhat means virtuous, unsullied, and pure? Do you equate the age when our grandparents were just wee children with the age of innocence? If your answers to those questions are yes, prepare to be surprised. In USA, at least, it was a wild and free age, at least before the enforcement of Hays Code.
This book is suitable for ones who are interested in movie history or simply love anything from the period of 1920s-1940s. The author, I think, is biased but it doesn
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J
It's been a few years since I read this, but a lot still sticks out to me, and not all good. Complicated Women was one of those books that managed to be entertaining while still being informative; it wouldn't surprise me if it was at least partially responsible for the resurging interest in pre-Code films, which has helped studios and distributors see the financial benefit in unearthing some of these louche treasures and re-issuing them on DVD, sometimes even in fabulous restored editions. As fi ...more
Catherine
Book 22: Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood - Mick LaSalle
8.5/10



This was a great look at women in Pre-Code. The author clearly worships the period and heavily mourns it at the same time making it very satisfying to read. Basically with Pre-Code, women were in control of their lives and afterwards their freedom was taken away by the punishing and suffocating women’s picture to come after. Films were being made that actually had women making decisions for them and were doing wh
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Faith
Fascinating insight into pre-code Hollywood in the early 20th century. Very reflective of different/opposing views/expectations for women. It particularly compared the careers of two women- Norma Shearer, and Greta Garbo-& related them to two traditional stereotypes of women. Interesting to read how socially advanced Pre-Code film were at for the time. And also, reflects on the influence of events on society, on culture. Very interesting. I especially enjoyed reading how many 1920s/early 193 ...more
Ashley
Having always loved old movies, I really enjoyed this book. It is an interesting, informative, and well-written look at early Hollywood and the forces that shaped its films. It gives credit to a host of wonderful early actresses and addresses the complex relationship between society and the movies. The author’s love for Norma Shearer is apparent early on, and, having seen a few of the films he recommends, I can see why. She really is brilliant. The book is worth reading, if only to gain a list o ...more
Jodi
Oct 04, 2007 Jodi rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Anyone interested in film, society, gender, or history
This book is righteous. It details a short, but fantastic period in film, from the time that talkies came into being, until the Hollywood Production Code of 1934 was put into place. This was an incredible time in our social history, what with industrialization and the end of the first world war, and the book discusses, in detail, the emergence of the modern woman (as well as the modern man, in 'Dangerous Men,' also by Mick LaSalle). The brilliance of this period in film is that it actually refle ...more
Shelley
Jul 02, 2007 Shelley rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: old movie fans and feminists
Shelves: history, media
"Between 1929 and 1934, women in American cinema were modern. They took lovers, had babies out of wedlock, got rid of cheating husbands, enjoyed their sexuality, lead unapologetic careers, and, in general, acted the way many think women acted only after 1968."

This spawned one of my favorite documentaries, so I was hoping it would live up to it. I missed seeing clips of what he was discussing, but I still greatly enjoyed it. I always love any Norma Shearer movie I see, and she was often the focus
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Kate
I adore old Hollywood flicks, and I love what they still say about society today. They are still relevant.

And LaSalle makes an incredibly compelling argument for many of these actresses that have sadly fallen by the wayside or mis-remembered because of the Hollywood Code.

It used to be that the biggest box-office hits, for men and women, were movies about WOMEN. Women's health and choices and their sides of the marriage and divorce, female prostitution and even issues of abortion. But all that
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hythlae
Fascinating non-academic, highly entertaining and pretty dead-on book about women in the movies in the 1930s. It will shock you with how bold, sexy and powerful these women were on screen and off. A must read for movie fans and feminists. These movies/women show how the past 80 years of movie-making were/are misogynist and boring by comparison. But mostly, it's just a great read.
Alex Severin
Complicated Women takes us on a journey into pre-code Hollywood – the early days before the ridiculous and diluting piece of legislation that was called the Hayes Code was enacted in 1934.

This was a time when women were the biggest stars and male actors were secondary. Women were the real driving force in pre-code Hollywood – not just ingenue or muse, but movers and shakers and box office dynamite.

Mick LaSalle has a real grasp of his subject and an obvious affection for the era. His obvious fav
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Tamara
I knew about pre-code films before reading this book. Truly liked some of the actresses who appeared in them. I now have a long list of films to watch when I find them...including a few of Norma Shearer's----Norma and Greta Garbo seem to be the only actresses the author really cares about (or, at least, the only ones worth focusing on)....
Margaret H.
I just happened to snag this book as I was stacking at my library, and what a treat. I know so much more about pre-code Hollywood, and LaSalle makes an extremely convincing case for Norma Shearer's status as a latent feminist icon. After reading about all her pre-codes, I am a little curious to see them, but I worry that they won't live up to LaSalle's exalted description. He doesn't seem to think much of the 30s screwball comedies I love with my whole heart, so it's likely we have different tas ...more
Dar
I think LaSalle did a good job capturing the Hollywood of the pre-code era. I love the old movies and think the portrayal of women was much more realistic before Breen et al; LaSalle gives the reader an in-depth history of why the Code existed without being boring. One thing he doesn't cover is how/why the Code passed out of existence.

It's fairly obvious that he loved Shearer and Garbo as he spent so much of the book on the films of these two women. I will watch Garbo films differently now than
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Christine Borgerding
Jun 26, 2012 Christine Borgerding rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: the classic movie buff
Very informative. Loved the appendix at the end that lists the movies discussed, where and if they can be found for viewing and the brief account of where the Ladies themselves ended up.

Gave very good accounts of the Movies that he discussed as most are impossible or extremely hard to find and watch for the average person. This book was written in a way that holds all other actresses up to Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo for comparison.

I'm excited to use this book as a tool to hopefully track do
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Kristine
Detailed, astute observations about women's roles in film and society in the Pre-code era (before 1934). The author takes you through the era's major stars and their films, including Norma Shearer, Greta Garbo, Miriam Hopkins, Ann Harding, and Jean Harlow. The author's knowledge and love of film is as apparent as his appreciation and adoration of strong women. Reading about some of these films is as close as you can get since many are unavailable or only available in their edited versions.
Michael Ladusau
Excellent history of an era in American film that most of us were unaware of.
Sarah
Jun 10, 2007 Sarah marked it as to-read
Everytime I watch movies made pre-code (before motion picture ratings), I'm intrigued by the freedom with which directors and actors were allowed to address their subject matter before the moral-police began enforcing the code. Some of the most striking pre-code/post-code differences can be observed in female roles which is why I'm looking forward to reading this book.
Dawn (& Ron)
The TCM month long celebration on pre-code films years ago, one of the best celebrations the network has ever done, is the reason I have all the "Forbidden Hollywood" box set collections. I have had this book on my wishlist and Christmas list (family and friends just haven't got the hint yet, I guess) since that time, I really need to get this and get it read.
Aimeslee
For any fan of the actresses of the films of the late 1920's and early 1930's, this is a must-read! I, of course, loved it for featuring my fave Norma Shearer, but I also learned plenty about several other stars (Garbo, Harlow, Crawford, Ruth Chatterton, Ginger Rogers, Marlene Dietrich, Mae Clark, Stanwyck, Loretta Young, Mae West, and on and on). Highly recommended!
Jason
A breezy overview of the major actresses before the Production Code came into force. Don't know who Norma Shearer or Kay Francis were? No problem, as Mick LaSalle introduces you to them and about a dozen other women whose careers reached their zenith as Hollywood tackled subjects like adultery, drug use, and domestic boredom.
Gabriel
id heard some negative stuff from a friend re: lasalle's brand of feminism so i was expecting the worst, but, while i disagreed a few times with lasalle's opinions of certain actresses, it ended up an overall interesting and worthwhile read. certainly have more movies on my to-watch list thanks to it.
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Censorship 1 7 Feb 13, 2010 10:49AM  
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  • Silent Stars
  • Silent Movies: The Birth of Film and the Triumph of Movie Culture
  • Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood
  • Louise Brooks
  • Vamp: The Rise and Fall of Theda Bara
  • City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s
  • Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming
  • Swanson on Swanson
  • Lulu in Hollywood
  • Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew
  • Hot Toddy: The True Story of Hollywood's Most Sensational Murder
  • A Cast of Killers
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Mick LaSalle is an American film critic and the author of two books on pre-code Hollywood. As of March 2008[update], he has written in excess of 1550 reviews for the San Francisco Chronicle,[1] and he has been podcasting them since September 2005.[2]

LaSalle is the author of Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood, a history/critical study of the actresses who worked in the film indu
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More about Mick LaSalle...
Dangerous Men: Pre-Code Hollywood and the Birth of the Modern Man The Beauty of the Real: What Hollywood Can Learn from Contemporary French Actresses Ann Harding - Cinema's Gallant Lady Joan Crawford: The Enduring Star

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“No longer stereotypes, these screen women had become complicated. This combination of sensuality, independence and playfulness, made them fascinating to watch and completely modern.” 0 likes
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