Controversial pre-Code movies liberated ‘Complicated Women’
Turner Classic Movies delves deep into the film vaults to air some of the most controversial movies ever made. For five years in the early 1930s, women ruled the box office by flaunting sex appeal and delivering spicy stories. Those films and the actresses who made them famous are examined in the documentary “Complicated Women,” based on the book of the same name by journalist and author Mick LaSalle.
Narrator Jane Fonda explains, “Hollywood produced movies that could be brutally realistic or filled with heady escapism.”
During the 1920s, the film industry was still young and relied on four stereotypes for female characters. Women could be saint, sinner, ingenue or vamp. But by the end of the decade, writers and directors were becoming bolder. The years from 1929 to 1934 offered movies that pushed the envelope in accordance to sexuality, infidelity and even nudity.
These were the years before the Hays Code, which basically outlawed any movie that it deemed offensive, was enforced.
Leading the charge through film freedom was actress Norma Shearer. A former ingenue, Shearer campaigned for and won the lead role in the movie “The Divorcee” (1930). Shearer plays a happily married woman who discovers her husband has been cheating on her. Depressed and lonely, she falls into the arms of her husband’s best friend. When her
husband confronts her about her infidelity, she doesn’t back down or apologize for her action. She boldly proves that if men can cheat then so can women. The movie was a hit and Shearer won the Oscar for best actress.
“You’ve got to be selfish to be successful,” Shearer said in an interview for a fan magazine, hinting that she lived the free-spirited roles on and off camera.
Greta Garbo helped lead the way to a new morality when she played a prostitute in the 1930 movie “Anna Christie.”
Soon there was a long list of women who could portray playful, sassy women who did not lead the most innocent lives. Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford, Joan Blondell, Marlene Dietrich, Frances Dee and Mae West became the bad women everyone loved.These women had affairs, multiple lovers, premarital sex, children out of wedlock and illegal abortions. They were prostitutes, wives, executives and criminals.
“These are smart women stifled by the times,” says Fonda. “It was the perfect time for notorious women.”
As with anything, movies continued to take risks to outdo earlier projects. “The Divorcee” started by talking about adultery, but by 1934 “Tarzan and His Mate” was featuring a totally naked Jane swimming in a lagoon.
By then, films were considered to be out of control and there were people willing to put an end to indecency on the movie screen. Joseph Breen lead the Legion of Decency to ensure that the Hays Code would be enforced. Suddenly there was no more nudity or even suggestive glances. Women were taken out of the boardrooms and returned to being two-dimensional characters who followed their men.
“Complicated Women” offers delightful scenes from many of the movies and interviews with the actresses who starred in the controversial stories. There are interesting discussions about characters and the women who played them.
The documentary lacks a clear explanation of how and why these movies promoted women in these roles and why after the code women fell out of power. There is a hint that the code wasn’t simply designed to clean up movies, but to put women in their place. It would be helpful to have more of an explanation of American society and politics during the 1930s to understand the rise and fall of these complicated women.
TCM will air 26 pre-Code movies every Tuesday in May. The schedule is:
8 p.m. “Complicated Women” (premiere)
9 p.m. “The Divorcee” (1930)
10:30 p.m. “Complicated Women” (encore)
11:30 p.m. “Design for Living” (1933)
1:15 a.m. “Anna Christie” (1930)
3 a.m. “A Free Soul” (1931)
4:45 a.m. “Downstairs” (1932)
8 p.m. “Torch Singer” (1933)
9:30 p.m. “Baby Face” (1933)
11 p.m. “Female” (1933)
12:15 a.m. “Queen Christina” (1933)
2 a.m. “Men in White” (1934)
3:30 a.m. “Ladies They Talk About” (1933)
4;45 a.m. “So Big” (1932)
6:15 a.m. “Frisco Jenny” (1933)
8 p.m. “I’m No Angel” (1933)
9:30 p.m. “Complicated Women” (encore)
10:30 p.m. “Shanghai Express” (1932)
12 a.m. “Complicated Women” (encore)
1 a.m. “Red Dust” (1932)
2:30 a.m. “Gold Diggers of 1933” (1933)
4:15 a.m. “The Smiling Lieutenant” (1933)
6 a.m. “Faithless” (1932)
8 p.m. “Morocco” (1930)
9:45 p.m. “Bed of Roses” (1933)
11:30 p.m. “She Done Him Wrong” (1933)
1 a.m. “The Animal Kingdom” (1932)
2:30 a.m. “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1932)
4:15 a.m. “Night Nurse” (1931)
5:30 a.m. “Employee’s Entrance” (1933)
8 Tonight, TCM