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About the Author

Mick LaSalle is the film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle and teaches a class at the University of California at Berkeley on pre-Code film

Works by Mick LaSalle

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Common Knowledge

Birthdate
1959
Gender
male
Nationality
USA
Occupations
film critic
writer
Relationships
Freed, Amy (wife)

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Reviews

The author is calling the five years between when talkies became the thing and the enforcement of the Production Code- 1929 to 1934. It’s a time that many don’t even know existed; they think that strong women who had sex, had out of wedlock babies, got divorced, didn’t exist until the late 60s. Two women in particular embodied the woman of the era (five years barely constitutes an era!): Greta Garbo and Norma Shearer. Now, everyone who has even a passing interest in film knows Garbo’s name, but many don’t have a clue who Shearer was. She was intensely driven and consistently strove to break barriers in film; she wore thin, close fitting costumes with no underwear, she had roles where she did the things women in real life were doing but weren’t considered ‘nice’. The fact that she was married to Irving Thalberg, boy-wonder producer at MGM helped; he gave her the green light for the movies she wanted to do.

Shearer and Garbo were the flag bearers, but they opened the way for many, many other female actors. The pre-Code era was the era of actresses: Mae West, Barbara Stanwyck, Dietrich, Loretta Young, Constance Bennett, Jean Harlow, and many more started their film careers during this era. The characters they portrayed were, as the title says, complicated women. They were women with choices, until the characters who were given the okay during Code years. During the decades of the Code, if a woman had sex outside of marriage she had to be punished- she died, got thrown in jail, lost her children, or found herself out on the streets. Women had to take whatever men dished out; they were martyrs to marriage and motherhood. If they had careers, they had to give them up or at least make them second to their duties as wives and mothers, and never have more success than their men did.

I found the book very interesting; I’ve been a fan of old movies ever since I was a kid. I knew vaguely about pre-Code movies, but didn’t realize how much was done during those five short years. The book gives both the history of the pre-Code years and the biographies of Garbo and Shearer- especially Shearer. She dominates the pages. And I can see why the author chose her as his icon of the era; while many thing of Mae West when they think about this era, her first movie wasn’t made until 1932. It was fun to read about this era but sad that the Code came into being; the movies weren’t just about sex but about women having their own lives and destinies rather than being appendages of men. They were about how women were really living their lives after the changes of the roaring 20s. They had careers, they didn’t put up with cheating husbands, they gave their opinions. The were complicated! Five stars.
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lauriebrown54 | 4 other reviews | Jun 26, 2022 |
What I love about this book is that Mick LaSalle sees the pre-Code era of American filmmaking for what it was: an exciting period with raw, uncensored content certainly, but also one that was often quite progressive and refreshingly feminist. He is insightful in articulating the view that this era empowered female sexuality without condemning it (or dooming its characters), questioned the institution of marriage, and examined issues like abortion, physical and sexual abuse, and economic disparity, often while telling women’s stories.

The period also showed that an everyday woman could simply enjoy sex for physical pleasure. LaSalle correctly points out that one underrated pioneer in this regard was Norma Shearer, who played average young women who were unapologetic about their sexuality in films such as ‘A Free Soul’ and ‘Strangers May Kiss’ (both 1931), and thus highly dangerous. After the Production Code descended this would not be seen for decades (LaSalle gives Susan Sarandon in ‘Bull Durham’ (1988) as an example). He recognizes the Production Code for what it was – mainly an attempt to put women back in their place – and cites many examples to make the argument.

I liked how he put the period in context, and pointed out the evolution of men’s fears of women’s independence manifesting in the ‘vamp’ character, the sexually voracious woman who would suck the life out of men (e.g. sex = death) from films in the 1910’s-20’s, and decades earlier in literature. For the brief pre-Code interval (1929-34) this was lifted to the fear and consternation of conservatives - see one of the below quotes, which likens it to the downfall of civilization. After the Code was enforced, women characters such as the femme fatales in film noir who were not in traditional roles like motherhood were almost always in misogynistic situations, and again, viewers were shown that sex was perilous, and often meant death.

LaSalle’s writing style is informal and comes across as one old movie fan talking to another. This can be both good and bad, as he’s prone to making statements that are either wildly subjective or which made me wonder where he got his information, since the book had no footnotes (e.g. “most boys in the 19th century lost their virginity to prostitutes.”) He also has several groan-out-loud lines that should have been excised in the editing process, starting with him gushing over Garbo’s beauty in embarrassing ways across several paragraphs (“She was beautiful. She was really beautiful. She was really really really … Descriptions have never done her justice.” And then later “It was all in the face. Garbo’s face made her body irrelevant. Men lusted for her. Women lusted for her. But mostly from the neck up.”) Ugh. He also really phoned it in on lines like “There is no such thing as a movie so good that it could not be made a little better by Joan Blondell” and “Glenda Farrell’s name in the credits is always good news.”

My biggest criticism of the book, however, is that it has far too much focus on Greta Garbo and Norma Shearer. They dominate the book from beginning to end, when it should have been more balanced. In part that’s because of their landmark impact, but it’s also clear that a part of this is because they were very attractive to him personally. His own personal favorites always come through, and he even finds a way to work in a ‘Flashdance’ (1983) reference (which readers of his regular column in the San Francisco Chronicle will know he has a thing for). Everyone has their preferences and it’s his book after all, but I have to say, I preferred the more scholarly, detailed, and balanced approach of Doherty in his book “Pre-Code Hollywood”.

With that said, this book is a good one to read if you’re interested in the subject. It’s chock-full of little nuggets, many of which I extract below. I also liked how clear-eyed LaSalle was in assessing the interval in Hollywood that was subject to the Production Code, administered mostly by Joseph Breen, who was a political reactionary and very much an anti-Semite. He does not hold back, and as he puts it, “Breen had the power to impose his pathetically narrow vision of life, art, and morals.” It’s sad that the Code not only involved censoring new content, but also content upon its re-release – and in some cases, this resulted in footage being removed permanently.

Quotes:
On anti-Semitism, from Joseph Breen, who ended up single-handedly having the most power over content produced in America for decades:
“These lousy Jews…are simply a vile bunch of people with no respect for anything but the making of money…These Jews seem to think of nothing but money-making and sexual indulgence. The vilest kind of sin is commonplace hereabouts and the men and women who engage in this business are the men and women who decide what the film fare of the nation is to be…Ninety-five percent of these folks are Jews of Eastern European lineage. They are, probably, the scum of the earth.”

On censorship; interesting to consider in light of the far left today:
“After all, from the beginning of film, there had always been people calling for strict censorship. Sometimes they’d come from the left in the form of liberals wanting to socially engineer human behavior. This time they’d come from the right, from traditionalists wanting to enforce morality.”

And this, from Mae West:
“I resisted the type of censorship that quibbled over every line as if the devil were hiding behind each word.”

On feminism, from Dorothy Mackaill in 1930:
“The modern girl is like Lindbergh, built for speed. We have tremendous vitality of body and complete emancipation of mind. None of the old taboos…mean a damn to us. We don’t care.”

This one from Ann Harding in 1929, about her military-officer father who disowned her when she became an actress:
“He was talking from his generation. I was talking from mine, and never the twain shall meet.”

And from Norma Shearer:
“I feel that the morals of yesterday are no more. They are as dead as the day they were lived. Economic independence has put women on the same footing as a man. A discriminating man and a fastidious woman now amount to the same identical thing. There is no difference.”

On Garbo:
“Depending on one’s point of view, the bulk of Garbo’s films can be seen either as touching Christian allegories or acts of subversion that use the metaphor of Christianity to assert the divinity and soul-enriching power of erotic love. I think they’re both.”

And this one, from Don Herold, a critic in the 1930’s, which I agree with:
“Detach yourself from the Garbo spell at any point in almost any Garbo picture, slap yourself back to common sense, listen to her as you might to any woman, and you’ll realize what horsefeathers most of the Garbo technique really is. There is too much glum severity or knowing laughter (with head thrown back). It is all too thick, all too, too significant.”

On Harlow, from biographer David Stenn:
“With the cameras running for the rain barrel scene in ‘Red Dust,’ Harlow stood up, topless, and shouted, ‘Something for the boys in the lab!’”

On individuality, about Barbara Stanwyck:
“At United Artists, a producer told her that her crooked front tooth would keep her off the screen, but he had a suggestion: ‘That one crooked tooth can be removed and a false one put in,’ he told her.
‘Not if you give me the whole studio, I won’t,’ she answered. It sounds like a moment from a Stanwyck pre-Code – a snappy comeback covering deep outrage and distress, from a woman with her back to the wall and only one thing to use in her defense: her adamant sense of self.”

On old movies, the last line of which I feel intensely:
“The actresses of the pre-Code era are one particularly vital aspect of the birth of the modern era, and it’s impossible to watch them without admiration. To see them is to marvel at how things are still the same. It’s to wonder when things will change again. And it’s to do that thing that can’t be done, though movies come closest. It’s to stop time, hold the best of it in your hand.”

And his one, actually from his April 14, 2019 column in the San Francisco Chronicle:
“Clearly, people have different thresholds for what they find too offensive to enjoy, and different people have different reasons to take offense. Still, I think it would be absurd to cultivate this sensitivity. It accomplishes nothing. It doesn’t change the past, and it doesn’t make us virtuous. It just makes us, in the chronological sense, monolingual. It would be much more useful to cultivate the ability to see these movies as they were seen at the time.”

On sexuality:
“The prostitute movies of the pre-Code era are guided by a single idea. The idea is surrounded by lots of melodrama, high emotional stakes, and the clutter of plot and circumstances. The idea is disguised by all manner of disaster and misery, possibly as an intentional distraction. Still, it comes through loud and clear: In this young century, these movies tell us, goodness and chastity are no longer synonymous. Celibacy is not the same as virtue. Virginity doesn’t matter anymore. Get over it.”

And:
“A few months later, Shearer was asked if she wore a brassiere in her newest film, ‘Private Lives’ (1931). She answered that she hadn’t and she didn’t in real life, but why should that be news?”

This one from an internal memo from the Studio Relations Committee to Jason Joy about Shearer’s performance in ‘Strangers May Kiss’ (1931), where she plays a woman who goes on an erotic adventure in Europe after being dumped:
“It would be difficult to exaggerate my revulsion at this picture… The picture is a reflection of the initiatory stages of the degeneration of a people. It embodies and personifies the warped moral sense that has disintegrated every previous civilized nation.”

From Miriam Hopkins:
“When I can’t get to sleep, I don’t count sheep, I count lovers. And by the time I reach thirty-eight or thirty-nine, I’m asleep.”

And lastly this, about Kay Francis:
“She is remembered for a real-life incident, in which she showed up at a publicist’s door, drunk and naked, saying, ‘I’m not a star. I’m a woman, and I want to get fucked.’”

On Shearer:
“Like other pre-Code stars who would soon emerge, Shearer was never unwilling to show her body. In ‘The Last of Mrs. Cheyney,’ she argues and bargains and presses, half-dressed and in complete command. For her, as it would be for many actresses generations later, flimsy clothing was not a mark of vulnerability but a major weapon in her arsenal of self-assertion.”

And this one, from Clark Gable to his friends, after making ‘A Free Soul’ with Shearer:
“Damn, the dame doesn’t wear any underwear in her scenes. Is she doing that in the interests of realism or what?”

On the vamp:
“The image of the vamp embodies two fantasies, one paranoid, one romantic. The paranoid fantasy is that sex can kill you. The romantic fantasy is that it just might be worth it. But as the social climate of the twenties got more liberal, the atmosphere of danger that the vamp required for her existence had disappeared.”
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gbill | 4 other reviews | Jul 5, 2019 |
I really enjoyed this look into the lives of the women who dominated the screen during this fascinating time in film history. I always pick up these books to fill in the gaps of my own education about the subject and boy did this book do the job. Most of the actresses (Harlow, Loy, Garbo, Colbert, etc.) I had already known and seen some of their pre-code and code movies but I learned about Norma Shearer and the affects the code had on so many women's careers. It was shocking to believe that something that affected movies back in the 1930's still has an effect on the movies and actresses performing today. I will now be on a pre-code kick for movies and I couldn't be more excited.

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IntrovertedBooks | 4 other reviews | Mar 26, 2018 |
So, this guy isn't a great writer but this book provides lots of interesting details about some obscure films I'll probably never get a chance to see. Nick LaSalle, is, like me, obsessed with Norma Shearer and her crossed eyes. We love you Norma.
 
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DameMuriel | 4 other reviews | Jan 26, 2008 |

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