Companion volume to LaSalle’s Complicated Ladies (2000), about female stars of Hollywood’s aesthetically rich pre-Code era.
In 1929 the advent of talking movies opened the door to more provocative Hollywood filmmaking, often imbued with strong social commentary. But in 1934, reactionary forces succeeded in establishing the Production Code, a mechanism that allowed a small group to decide what was acceptable for the nation’s movie screens—a form of control that held sway for the next quarter-century. LaSalle’s premise is that the five-year pre-Code era of 1929–34 was a seminal period in American movie-making that helped foster the very ideal of the modern man, caught between his own sense of right and an increasingly mechanized, conformist society. Those years offered directors opportunities to express serious concerns about American society while featuring an array of leading men—Clark Gable, Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, Rudolph Valentino, among others—who were “dangerous” in that they broke with the smiling, swashbuckling heroes of the ’20s silents. They questioned and resisted authority, shaded the lines between good and evil, challenged concepts of law and order, and introduced caddish and even cruel behavior in screen romances. Above all, they were the key players in an emboldened Hollywood that made movies about and for a generation disillusioned by WWI and the Depression. This is film studies and not social history, yet LaSalle’s descriptions of films and stars can’t help but illuminate America at a time that was uncertain. The author’s erudition is great, and his writing is lively, precise, and witty in his discussions of classic films such as Public Enemy, Gold Diggers of 1933, 42nd Street, I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, Little Caesar, Central Park, All Quiet on the Western Front, Wild Boys of the Road, and Son of the Sheik.
Trenchant film-by-film analysis from an author clearly in love with his subject. A compelling introduction to one of Hollywood’s golden eras.