An overdue tribute to the myriad of strong and independent women film stars of pre-Code Hollywood (1929–34).
LaSalle provides a detailed summary of an important five-year period in Hollywood history—the interval that preceded the strict censorship of films by the Production Code Administration under the leadership of Joseph Breen. Typically, the "Code" era is remembered in film histories as an age of production that was bound by the suppression of nudity and the proscription of obscene language. LaSalle argues cogently that the Code more dangerously demanded an adherence to conservative and rigid gender roles. Pre-Code films, he points out, were filled with self-reliant, intelligent, and sexually independent women. This was a period dominated by powerful female stars—Mae West, Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Myrna Loy, Claudette Colbert, Jean Harlow—whose power and talent were undermined by a Code that made impossible all but the most chaste and wifely female roles. LaSalle, the regular film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, provides reviews of the films from pre- and post-Code Hollywood with loving detail; photos accompany the reviews and there is a helpful index of film stars and a filmography of the period. LaSalle, however, fails to unite his excellent reviewing skills with a much-needed social analysis of the era. The Code that consigned women actors to the sidelines appears as if out of nowhere, and LaSalle accuses Breen of single-handedly knocking Hollywood to its knees. Also, LaSalle has a none-too-subtle preoccupation with Norma Shearer—a powerhouse from the pre-Code days who, unlike West or Garbo, has remained unappreciated in the film annals of today—and he risks, at times, slipping into unmitigated Shearer adoration.
By no means a social or cultural history of the period, LaSalle nevertheless offers an engaging and often-affectionate account of the strong women who dominated the films of this pre-Code Hollywood.