Jean Harlow in a publicity still.

IN PRAISE OF COMPLICATED WOMEN
Consider the 1950s and its post-war melodramas celebrating domestic femininity and nuclear families, and then its opposite: the emancipated 1930s, particularly in that brief and glorious pre-Code time when morality censors of so-called bad behaviour on screen did not require characters be punished in the plot. As Megan McGurk outlines in her survey of nuanced woman's pictures of the Depression era Sass Mouth Dames, any subversive message that undermines authority is more relevant for today than ever.

The entertaining novel Woman Enters Left by Jessica Brockmole mines the contrast with dual timelines of the late 1920s and 1950s, and covers two very different generations of female ambition in rapidly-evolving 20th century America. A young actress in the 1950s inherits the estate of her mother's friend Florrie Daniels, one of the few female screenwriters at the time (modelled on real-life pioneers like Dorothy Arzner, who worked their way up from scenario girl to screenwriter).

She soon unravels the story of a fateful road trip undertaken thirty years prior between the best friends, à la Thelma and Louise. Reading old journal entries and passages of an unpublished script, she packs her own faded wicker suitcase and hits Route 66 to retrace their journey from California to Las Vegas and evaluate her own life. The novel offers much food for thought—there are subplots about the legacy of the Korean War and the radium girls - but it's also a timely reminder about the kinds of films about strong and successful women that George Cukor and Edmund Goulding once directed and were enormously popular.

"Stories about smart, darting, resourceful women," Brockmole writes, "doing more than blushing and sighing up at their leading men." As actresses of all ages are demanding strong and empathetic heroines like Wonder Woman and more realistic depictions of women on screen, it couldn't come at a better time.

BEHIND THE SEAMS
With a record-setting eight Academy Awards and more than 1,100 film credits to her name, Edith Head was one of the most prolific and influential costume designers ever to work in Hollywood. A terrific new mystery series set in and around the Paramount Studios wardrobe department debuted last year and casts Head as the partner in crime to Lillian Frost, a would-be actress turned amateur sleuth. Their first outing was Design for Living, set in 1937, and this summer's follow-up is Dangerous to Know. It edges forward to 1938 and brings in real historical figures like Jack Benny and J. Edgar Hoover to solve a crime related to early Communist paranoia. Written in the pseudonym Renee Patrick by husband wife journalist team Vince and Rosemary Keenan, it's meticulously researched, peppered with fun dishy bulletins from a fictional gossip columnist Lorna Whitcomb that set the tone, and it's also a just plain fun whodunit.

STILL HUNGRY FOR BACKSTAGE DRAMA?
Biographical novels like C.W. Gortner's Marlene pick up the strands, as does Platinum Doll, where Anne Girard charts the transformation of Carlean McGrew into Jean Harlow. Laini Giles' latest in her ongoing series about forgotten actresses is The It Girl and Me, this one set on the periphery of the Jazz Age as a portrait of silent-era star Clara Bow told via her hairstylist. Alcott's previous novel A Touch of Stardust considers the lives of Carole Lombard and Clark Gable during the making of Gone with the Wind—the epic movie shoot that's also the basis for Susan Meissner's Stars Over Sunset Boulevard, about two Selznick employees and their very different perspectives on the machinations of the company town. And in The Pictures, Guy Bolton puts a world-weary LAPD detective who moonlights as a fixer in 1939—to clean up all the messes made by real people to perpetuate the fantasy.

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