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Complicated Women (2003) Film Review only
Film:  Very Good    
DVD Transfer:  n/a  
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Genre: Documentary / Film History  
Documentary based on Mick LaSalle's book of women's roles in pre-Code Hollywood films.  



Directed by:

Hugh Munro Neely
Screenplay by: Andie Hicks, Hugh Munro Neely
Music by: Nigel Horton
Produced by: John J. Flynn, Andie Hicks, Keith Lawrence, Hugh Munro Neely

Frances Dee, Molly Haskell, Mick LaSalle, Mae Madison, Karen Morley, Mark Vieira, Virginia Madsen, Jane Fonda (narrator).

Film Length: 55 mins
Process/Ratio: 1.33:1
Colour / Black & White
Anamorphic DVD: n/a
Languages:  English Stereo
Special Features :  


Comments :

Adapted from eponymous the book by author Mick LaSalle, Hugh Munro Neely’s documentary examines thirties actresses and the distinctive roles they managed to play before the Motion Picture Production Code was firmly enforced in 1934, and radically curtailed frank sexual dramas, personas, language, and subject matter aimed at thinking adults.

Lavishly larded with stills and rare film clips, the narrative of Complicated Women is loosely anchored around Norma Shearer, one of MGM’s top stars who used the advent of sound to break her ingénue mold and portray aggressive characters troubled by utterly adult conflicts – divorce, fidelity, and a desire to reshape oneself after a traumatic social event. 

Shearer, like her contemporaries, gambled with her career and in her case, she found great creative and critical rewards in adult-themed dramas and comedies.

Shearer struck Oscar-winning gold with The Divrocee (1930), a drama where a two-timing husband gets offended when his wife decides to have a fling; in Anna Christie (1930), Garbo played an ex-hooker determined to find true love and happiness; Miriam Hopkins enjoyed two male lovers in the comedy Design for Living (1933); Virginia Bruce refused to apologize to her husband for her infidelity in Downstairs (1932); Claudette Colbert portrayed an unwed mother in Torch Singer (1933); Kay Francis chose to be a working single mother in Mary Stevens, M.D. (1933); Ruther Chatteron walked the streets and eventually set up her own brothel to support her single mother family in Frisco Jenny (1932); and an abortion, although never directly referenced, was part of the drama in the in Men in White (1934).

As historians and authors Molly Haskel and Mark Vieira explain, women weren’t just having sex in films; they were living out realistic, complicated lives that ran against the airy fluffy musicals of their era.

Director Neely also focuses on films wherein women chose careers that were often traditionally held by men. If countries could be ruled by queens, it makes sense they could run huge factories, as was the case of auto boss Ruth Chatteron in Female (1933); Joan Blondell could be a tough crime boss in Blondie Johnson (1933); and Barbara Stanwyck played tough, entrepreneurial characters in Baby Face (1933), Ladies They Talk About (1933), and So Big! (1932).

As characters who commit murder, dark reasons and consequences were dramatized in films like Midnight Mary (1933), The House on 56th Street (1933), Mandalay (1934), Wonder Bar (1934), and the cause and effect courtroom drama of rape/murder in The Story of Temple Drake (1933), based on William Faulkner’s novel Sanctuary, which censorial bigwig Joseph Breen characterized as “The vilest book in present years” (even though he’d never read it).

Busby Berkeley’s musicals featured masses of girls who were sometimes reduced to furniture, or members of a choreography team in minimal (optional?) clothing; and  Marlene Dietrich sang about ‘hot voodoo’ in a gorilla suit and sported an African ‘fro in Blonde Venus (1932) when not playing other characters with potent libidinous drives in her batch of now-classic pre-Code films.

Even Tarzan wasn’t immune to a little T&A, although Jane’s nude lagoon swim was quite artfully filmed in Tarzan and His Mate (1934); it wasn’t exploitive, but there was no doubt her bare tushie was real.

Other highlighted films include Blonde Crazy (1931), Inspiration (1931), Strangers May Kiss (1931), A Free Soul (1931), Mata Hari (1931), Night Nurse (1931), Safe in Hell (1931), The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), Strangers May Kiss (1931), The Animal Kingdom (1932), Arsene Lupine (1932), Faithless (1932), Grand Hotel (1932), Red Dust (1932), Red-Headed Woman (1932), and Shanghai Express (1932).

During the final pre-Code years Neely excerpts material from Blood Money (1933), Dinner at Eight (1933), Ex-Lady (1933), Hold Your Man (1933), Queen Christina (1933), She Done Him Wrong (1933), and Riptide (1934).

The handful of interviewed actresses from that golden era (Karen Morley, Frances Dee) also offer a few funny recollections, like Jean Harlow’s chilling of her peaks before a take, Mae West’s flirting ‘with herself,’ and Kitty Carlisle Hart’s memories of the musical number in the banned Murder at the Vanities (1934) that was devoted to the pleasures of marijuana – a plant whose name she through was a musical instrument.

Once the Code became law and all films required approval in script and release print stages, the freedom to portray diverse female characters was ratcheted down to familiar and oft-used archetypes.

Controversial best-selling books were either cleaned up in scripts or became impossible to adapt, and elements of sexual playfulness, maturity, complexity, and convincing relationships with men had to be snuck in through stealth dialogue. Historian Vieira poignantly observes that the Code “kept mature thought from an audience that was ready for it.”

Breen’s power also extended into the lives of Catholic parishes when he helped set up the Catholic Legion of Decency (whose acronym amusingly spells CLOD). The Legion used a ratings system that spanned “A” (Morally Unobjectionable), “B” (Morally Objectionable in part), and “C” (Condemned); for wayward Catholics, ignoring the highest rating would result in some ‘pain of mortal sin.’

Perhaps the doc’s most poignant moment is the finale from the post-Code film The Flame Within (1935), where Anne Harding plays a head shrink who gives up her career for her husband. As narrator Jane Fonda points out, the music, dialogue, and lighting all make the woman’s decision as a moment of marital celebration, yet Harding’s performance unsubtly infers her character’s mental and emotional demise in a drama that betrays the integrity of all female characters in Code-era films.


© 2010 Mark R. Hasan

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