powered by AFI
The 2003 documentary Complicated Women explores the provocative role of women in pre-code Hollywood. Covering the years from 1929, when sound pushed movies into the modern era, until 1934, when the Hays Code virtually neutered film content, Complicated Women looks at the stereotype breaking films of this period, movies that no longer portrayed women as virgins or vamps. Instead, the liberated female of the pre-code films had dimensions; good girls had lovers and babies and held down jobs, while the bad girls were cast in a sympathetic light. And they did it all without apology.
Complicated Women is narrated by Jane Fonda and features interviews with author Mick LaSalle whose book Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood inspired the documentary. LaSalle would later follow up with a companion book on the subject, Dangerous Men: Pre-Code Hollywood and the Birth of the Modern Man. Also featured in the documentary is critic Molly Haskell, who wrote the classic of feminist film criticism, From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies. Complicated Women was directed by Hugh Munro Neely, who also made several other documentaries on early Hollywood women, such as: Louise Brooks: Looking for Lulu (1998), Clara Bow: Discovering the It Girl (1999) and Captured on Film: The True Story of Marion Davies (2001).
Despite its scholarly roots, the documentary relies primarily on film clips to tell the story. The clips are numerous, well chosen and many of them rarely seen since their original release. Best of all, the clips in Complicated Women make these early pictures more accessible and will leave viewers wanting to see the entire film and learn more about the pre-code stars.
One of the major pre-code stars is Norma Shearer, reigning queen of MGM, who persuaded the powers that be (including husband Irving Thalberg) to cast her as an adulteress in The Divorcee (1930). Shearer saw the role as an opportunity to change her image. In turn, The Divorcee was one of the first films to transform the image of the devoted wife. When her husband has an affair, Shearer's character takes matters into her own hands and has an affair of her own. On the flip side, Greta Garbo in both A Woman of Affairs (1928) and Anna Christie (1930) manages to make the vamp (and in the case of Anna Christie, the prostitute) acceptable. As Complicated Women puts it, "Norma Shearer took the ingnue into bedroom, and Garbo made the tramp moral."
Already the alarm bells were sounding among religious groups and the industry's moral watchdogs. The Hays code, which basically decreed what could and could not be portrayed in films, was issued while The Divorcee was in production. The code was more or less ignored for three years.
In the meantime, a new screen heroine emerged, one who was sophisticated and sexy without condemnation. Complicated Women includes clips from many pre-code standouts such as Design for Living (1933) with Miriam Hopkins, Ex-Lady (1933) with Bette Davis and Female (1933) with Ruth Chatterton. And there are, of course, clips from the quintessential Barbara Stanwyck pre-code films, Baby Face and Ladies They Talk About (both 1933). The documentary also features interviews with several actresses of the era, including Karen Morley, Frances Dee and Kitty Carlisle.
Apparently nudity was where the moral line was drawn. Tarzan and His Mate (1934), which featured full female nudity (in a swimming scene), drew outrage and is one of the films that helped secure enforcement of the Hays code. Complicated Women features a clip of the scene in question. The code went into effect in July of 1934 with help of Joseph Breen of the Hays Office and the Catholic League of Decency. Without script approval by the Hays Office, a film could not enter production. And a $25,000 fine was levied against any film that sought distribution without the Hays Office Seal.
The Production Code ruled Hollywood for thirty years and while it may have forced moviemakers to get more creative, it certainly didn't promote any sense of cinematic reality. As Complicated Women points out, the pre-code movies "set the tone for the 20th century"; the freedom portrayed in these films wouldn't reemerge until the 1960s when social attitudes shifted and consequentially the production code was lifted. It's also apparent from watching Complicated Women that terrific roles existed for women in the pre-code era, roles much richer and varied than what Hollywood offers actresses today.
Producer: Elaina Archer, John Flynn, Andie Hicks, Keith Lawrence, Hugh Munro Neely
Director: Hugh Munro Neely
Screenplay: Andie Hicks, Hugh Munro Neely
Cinematography: Harry Dawson
Film Editing: Andie Hicks, Hugh Munro Neely
Music: Nigel Holton
Cast: Jane Fonda (Narrator), Frances Dee, Kitty Carlisle, Molly Haskell, Mick LaSalle.
BW&C-55m. Closed captioning.
by Stephanie Thames