not in our stars, but in ourselves
Don’t say I never gave you nothin’. That there is a TCM-produced documentary based on Mick LaSalle’s wonderful Complicated Women, a book I’d heartily recommend getting your grubby mitts on sooner than you can say “goddamned Production Code.” The documentary is worth watching for its inclusion of clips from the movies discussed, an advantage it has over the book of course; but I think that, if you’re intrigued by LaSalle’s thesis, you owe it to yourself to read the book. And, naturally, to see all the movies.
I will leave you with some food for thought, mostly from the last two chapters:
The basic premise at the heart of romantic films, that one person can be the doorway into everything wonderful, is something modern audiences have a hard time buying. Yet before we blame this reality on the coarsening of American culture, the sexual revolution, fluoride in the water, or any of the other usual suspects, we might well stop to ask what made modern audiences cynical about romance? For that answer we might look to the Production Code, which, by sucking the sex out of romance for the better part of thirty-four years, conditioned at least two generations to see romance as bland, chaste, and phony.
Before the Code, romance and sex were intertwined. It was the Code that wrenched them apart, and the divorce remains in effect today. A cold-blooded and often depraved cinema that gives us sex with no humanity, feeling, or tenderness is Joseph Breen’s most fitting legacy.
While the Garbo version of the fallen woman has largely gone underground since the forties, the Harlow variety – the partner and friend, for whom sex is a given – has remained a steady screen presence from Marilyn Monroe on up through the present day. Monroe came to stardom in the fifties advertised as the era’s answer to Harlow, and for several years there was speculation that Monroe might play her childhood idol in a biopic. Harlow and Monroe had in common blond beauty, an uninhibited physicality, and a certain quality of innocence. The similarities ended there. Harlow, an intelligent woman, may have resented having to play brassy blondes, but her assignments were nothing compared to the grotesque parodies of femininity Monroe often had to embody. Even when Monroe graduated to better roles, she remained soft, a gentle victim. Harlow was a victim of nothing, except the bad luck of having kidney disease in the days before transplants.
Once the Code became law, a woman’s life force was under attack, and to suggest that a single woman of ineradicable integrity could have an adult love affair – one that wasn’t miserable, shameful, or disastrous – was impossible. It was against the rules to suggest such a woman could exist. The Shearer type was illegal.
The result is that the sort of movie in which Shearer had most often appeared – the sex drama, told with an eye on contemporary mores, endorsing the woman’s behavior and point of view – was an immediate pre-Code casualty. These films didn’t just disappear. They disappeared for decades.
Actresses of the new millennium have to contend with a Hollywood in which there is little interest in women’s narratives, where women are turned into girls, where the most misogynistic creations of the male mind are palmed off as “strong” and “assertive,” and where the shelf-life of an actress is still half that of a man. It’s a Hollywood in which even a genius like Meryl Streep has trouble finding good roles.
Finally, from the introduction:
The best era for women’s pictures was the pre-Code era, the five years between the point that talkies became widely accepted in 1929 through July 1934, when the dread and draconian Production Code became the law of Hollywoodland. Before the Code, women on screen took lovers, had babies out of wedlock, got rid of cheating husbands, enjoyed their sexuality, held down professional positions without apologizing for their self-sufficiency, and in general acted the way many of us think women acted only after 1968.
They had fun. That’s why the Code came in. Yes, to a large degree, the Code came in to prevent women from having fun. It was designed to put the genie back in the bottle – and the wife back in the kitchen.
Read it, read it now. Marvel at the fact that women older than your grandmother were complex, witty, sexy, loving, independent creatures – and we’ve spent most of our time since 1934 trying to figure out how to get that back.