Synopsis by Hal Erickson
Before the Motion Picture Production Code transformed virtually all movie heroines into unworldly virgins in the year 1934, actresses were able to get their teeth into meaty roles which allowed them the full gamut of emotions, a vast array of sexual experiences, and, most importantly, an innate wisdom beyond their years. Based on the book by Mick LaSalle, the 60-minute cable documentary Complicated Women provides modern viewers with fascinating glimpses of celebrated Hollywood actresses during the pre-code years (1929-1933). Highlights include Norma Shearer's advocacy of an open marriage in 1930's The Divorcée (a role which earned her an Oscar); Jean Harlow's casual carnal hijinks with Clark Gable in 1932's Red Dust; Barbara Stanwyck sleeping her way to the top of the business world in Baby Face (1933); Greta Garbo's knowing portrayal of the bisexual Queen Christina in the 1933 film of the same name; and, of course, the censor-baiting innuendoes of Mae West. The premise of Complicated Women can be summed up thus: they weren't all "good girls" in those pre-code years, but they were certainly far more interesting and multilayered than the corsetted iron butterflies of the post-code era. In addition to vintage film clips, the documentary features interviews with a handful of survivors from Depression-era Hollywood, among them actress Frances Dee, whose portrayal of a masochistic thrill-seeker in 1933's Blood Money still packed a wallop seven decades later. Narrated by Jane Fonda, Complicated Women kicked off a month-long festival of pre-code films on the Turner Classic Movies cable channel.