As San Francisco Chronicle film critic Mick LaSalle writes in Complicated Women (2000), the sexual power and freedom of women in many movies from the early-1930s was greater than in movies since then.
At the end of the silent era, Mary Pickford was the biggest star. “America’s sweetheart” was an eternal virgin, and, indeed, generally played the part of a child. There were also sirens bringing doom to men, the archetypal “vamp” being Theda Bara. The vamps were sexual, but did not seem to find much joy in sex: they didn’t enjoy sex as much as they enjoyed turning men into sex slaves and destroying them. Cast in the vamp mold in her first American movies, Greta Garbo turned from destroying those who loved her into being a martyr for love. For Garbo’s lusts, everyone in the vicinity suffered, herself most of all.
LaSalle’s model of the transformation from the good girl/vamp dichotomy involves Garbo remaking the vamp role and Norma Shearer transforming her screen persona from wholesomeness to sexual freedom. “A Free Soul” is the title of one of the vehicles of Shearer’s onscreen emancipation. (LaSalle suggests she was acting out fantasies of sexual adventures partially with energy not absorbed by her sickly husband, MGM production chief Irving Thalberg. LaSalle does not claim to know what she thought about sexual freedom for women offscreen, but she was eager to seize roles pushing the envelope onscreen, fighting her husband to get the parts that must have made him uneasy rather than being handed them because she was his wife.)
In “The Divorcee” (for which Shearer won an Oscar), she played a woman who listens to the news of her husband’s infidelity and his demand that she accept it by going out and having sex with his best friend. Her husband’s modern attitude does not extend to the wife having equal freedom to take other sexual partners (what is good for the gander is not allowed the goose). Rather than being “modern,” he maintains the venerable double standard about marital fidelity applying only to the wife. The viewpoint of the movie is that when fidelity is broken by one partner, the other partner has the same freedom, a viewpoint that remains audacious today. (LaSalle compares the restraint Julia Roberts must exercise in “Something to Talk About.”)
LaSalle gets carried away in his enthusiasm for early-1930s Shearer films. Her gowns were as slinky, clinging, and revealing as he says, but her gesticulations were excessive, and her characters mostly did not find happiness or acceptance. “Private Lives” (from the durable Nöel Coward play) is something of an exception in that her character recouples with her divorced husband played by Robert Montgomery. The social acceptability of this is vitiated by the fact that both are married to new spouses, though perhaps in the Catholic view of divorce and marriage their divorce is illegitimate and they are returning to their vows after recognizing their divorce and second marriages as a mistake (and possibly adulterous to “what God has joined together”).
Meanwhile, Garbo moved from playing the prostitute title role of her first talkie, “Anna Christie,” to the bisexual/transvestite “Queen Christina” who trades her throne for love. Christina dresses as a man and has relationships with both men and women, but she cannot have/keep it all and (yet again) sacrifices all for love.
Garbo was the only female superstar who made a successful transition to superstardom in talking pictures. Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford were stars whose wattage increased, while less-known players like Constance Bennett, Carole Lombard, Jean Harlow, Loretta Young, and Myrna Loy emerged from the background, Marlene Dietrich was imported from Germany (where she had enslaved and broken Emil Janning in “The Blue Angel” that was filmed in both German and English). From the New York stage came Barbara Stanwyck, Ann Harding, Claudette Colbert, Joan Blondell, Miriam Hopkins, Bette Davis, and, a few years later, Katherine Hepburn and Mae West. “They became famous, most of them, for playing ‘loose women.’… At the beginning of the era, the fallen woman was the movies’ favorite character [while] even relatively innocuous films took on sexy titles to lure in audiences.” Helen Hayes won an Oscar for playing a prostitute (Madelon Claudet) and other surprising women of the streets included Myrna Loy and Claudette Colbert. As for la Dietrich, “one almost has to search her early filmography for a movie in which she was not a prostitute, and yet every picture was on her side, and each one defined her as an honest woman” and, in the instance of “Blonde Venus,” a devoted mother. As the notorious “Shanghai Lily” in “Shanghai Express,” it is Doc’s lack of faith in her that is the problem: “The movie is not about her becoming worthy of him, but about the journey of faith that allows him to become worthy of her. Shanghai Lily doesn’t need to change. Her boyfriend needs a new attitude.”
Many of the males in many of the pre-Code movies had difficulty adjusting their attitudes, while the women plied other professions than the allegedly oldest one. Kay Francis played physicians, Crawford and Stanwyck specialized in sleeping their way from entry-level jobs to penthouse-suite positions (e.g., in “Grand Hotel” and “Baby Face”) and managed to have careers continuing beyond the imposition of censorship in which they shot or slapped men, connived and became successful in business (though in the late-1930s and through the 1950s they frequently surrendered power to males, not always choosing male partners wisely or trusting the trustworthy…)
LaSalle praises the work of a number of women whose careers did not survive the imposition in mid-1934 of preproduction censorship of sex (even marital sex, let alone extramarital sex) and female independence such as Miriam Hopkins, Ann Dvorak, Ruth Chatterton, Dorothy Mackaill, Mae Clark, and Ann Harding. He provides acute analysis of the truncated careers of Jean Harlow and Mae West, though I think he fails to do justice to the emotional power of Marlene Dietrich’s performances for Joseph von Sternberg (particularly in “Shanghai Express”). Moreover, the movies he advances as particularly daring, such as “Baby Face” and “Female,” end with the women surrendering their gains and their autonomy to me, every bit as much as the post-World War II propagandizing for getting women out of the labor force back “where they belonged,” entirely focused on being wives and mothers.
As good as is his sympathetic analysis of the pre-Code women-centered films made between 1919 and mid-1934, LaSalle’s account of the imposition of censorship may be even better. He exposes the subversion of his employers’ interests by Joseph Breen, who worked with the US Roman Catholic hierarchy to threaten to forbid Catholics attending any movies (a ban that was laid down by the bishop of Philadelphia, Cardinal Dougherty) in order to gain advance control over what could be filmed. Breen suppressed a study that showed box office receipts increasing when the Catholic Legion of Decency (an organization of which he was the secret parent) condemned a movie. The Breen office prevented pre-Code films from being rereleased, and the pre-Code films with emancipated women were too sexually forthright for television when old films started to air to tv audiences after World War II. LaSalle’s contention that censorship was primarily focused on preventing representations of independent women is well supported. Indeed, that “the Code liked dead women” is hard to argue. LaSalle concluded that
“although the Production Code administrators brooked no lewdness or nudity, their main goal was to censor ideas. The censors were absolutely fixated on the messages movies transmitted. For example, crime had to be punished—period. There was no leaving it unpunished subtly…. Women got the worst of it. Under the Code, it wasn’t only crime that didn’t pay. Sex outside of marriage didn’t pay. Divorce didn’t pay. Leaving your husband [no matter what the provocations on his part] didn’t pay. Even having a job often didn’t pay. The Production Code ensured a miserable fate—or at least a rueful, chastened one—for any woman who stepped out of.
“Accordingly, every female character in movies got her virginity back. If she lost it again, she was in big trouble. The price for nonconjugal relations was either death, permanent loneliness, or a profuse protracted, and degrading apology. At the same time, women became the humble protectors of marriage. If a husband strayed and wanted to return, a wife not only had to take him back, she had to smile as she did.”
LaSalle is sometimes overinsistent and somewhat oversells the quality of the early talking pictures, but the well-illustrated text moves along swiftly until the somewhat diffuse final two chapters on more recent revivals of Garbo and Shearer traditions suppressed by the Christian equivalents of the imams and ayatollahs imposing their views of what people can watch and hear from 1934 through the late 1960s. (It is also clear that anti-Semitism was common currency in the Breen/Catholic hierarchy plotting to seize control over what Americans could watch: “Breen wanted to save America from the movies and the movies from the Jews,” as LaSalle puts it.)
I wanted to read the book before seeing the one-hour 2003 documentary based on it . The documentary, narrated by Jane Fonda, shows LaSalle, Molly Haskell, and some survivors of the era, has some of the book’s best lines and some of the scenes described in the book. The chronology is much clearer in the book, though I’d highly recommend the documentary, too.
©2018, Stephen O. Murray