SPOTLIGHT: Sizzling Pre-Code Stanwyck (II)

Welcome to a new Film Friday and the continuation of our spotlight series on the Pre-Code work of Barbara Stanwyck (1907-1990), one of Hollywood’s most respected leading ladies. Known for her snarky and cigarette-filled performances, many of Stanwyck’s Pre-Code films have become notorious for their delightful disinterest in adhering to the provisions of the 1930 Production Code. Surprisingly, we’d only covered one Stanwyck film here before, Night Nurse (1931). We started the series off last week with Ladies Of Leisure (1930). Today…


Illicit (1931)


Young free-thinkers turn conventionally jealous when they marry. Starring Barbara Stanywck, James Rennie, Charles Butterworth, Joan Blondell, Natalie Moorhead, and Ricardo Cortez. Written by Edith Fitzgerald and Robert Riskin. Screen adaptation by Harvey Thew Directed by Archie Mayo.


“Dick Ives, a wealthy New Yorker, and Anne Vincent, a beautiful and liberated young woman, are lovers. Despite Dick’s eagerness to marry Anne, she refuses, afraid to lose the romance in their relationship. When they learn from their friend Georgie Evans and from Dick’s father that they have become the subject of scandal, the couple succumbs to social pressure and marries. Their wedding is threatened by one of Anne’s ex-lovers, Price Baines, who begs her to reconsider, but Anne refuses to leave Dick. Price tells Anne that he will be waiting when she tires of marriage. After a year of marriage, Dick and Anne are taking each other for granted, and Dick starts seeing another woman, Margie True, who has always been in love with him. Anne learns about his affair when she goes to a nightclub with friends Georgie and Helen Dukie Childes and sees Dick with Margie. Later, he lies to Anne about it, and deeply hurt by his actions, she leaves him and takes her own apartment. Dick and Anne continue to see each other, but when he finds Price at Anne’s apartment one day, he begs her to come home with him. When Anne refuses, Dick tells her that from now on he will live his life with complete freedom. Dick plans to go abroad with Margie, but at the last minute he returns to Anne, and they resolve never to separate.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)


Illicit is the first screen adaptation of an unproduced play that was later remade in 1933 as Ex-Lady, which I covered last year in our mini Bette Davis series. (Read that here.) My sentiments regarding both films are similar, so I’m going to employ some direct quotes, first used in the aforementioned Ex-Lady post. “… [T]he premise of the film is the tired back and forth on-again/off-again shtick that plagues way too many plots that deal with matrimony, monogamy, and the contrasting ways with which humans relate…  I wasn’t thrilled with the story; it’s repetitive and derivative of a whole number of films that explore similar themes. And while those themes are fascinating, there’s really nothing new here…” Although there are variations in the characters, which receive only moderate definition (only fleshed out, really, by the players in the playing), both stories and their trajectories are almost identical. Thus, they share all the same flaws — most importantly, they’re too dull.


Ex-Lady was benefited with some really sensual direction that added sparks not inherent to the story. Unfortunately, Archie Mayo’s direction of Illicit is listless: stagy and unexciting. And with an unexciting overly-talky script (and Illicit wins the award for most dialogue), Mayo’s photographic limitations do nothing but expose the story’s shortcomings. However, given that this is the first time the unproduced play was adapted for the screen, there’s a sense that the authors’ thesis about modern sensibilities of marriage is less diluted. That is, there’s more integrity and authenticity in the otherwise routine story here than to be found in Ex-Lady‘s spruced-up cinematography, which pretends to enhance the narrative, but really tries to disguise it. As a result, I give a slight — ever so slight — storytelling edge to Illicit, even though it is probably the less entertaining of the two pictures.

In my discussion of Ex-Lady, I determined that Bette Davis was the film’s main attraction. Her shockingly erotic vitality is usually a blessing to any picture, and the novelty of seeing her as a Pre-Code heroine never wears thin. But, truth be told, Barbara Stanywck makes better sense for this story. She’s more believable as the modern ingenue who possesses contemporary values but still retains traditional airs of femininity. Like the script, there’s more truth in her performance, and this honesty, coupled with her own electricity as an actress, makes her this film’s main attraction. While I won’t try to pick between Davis and Stanwyck, I do think that Ex-Lady‘s leads exude more chemistry, even though Illicit is the better cast film: boasting greats like Butterworth, Blondell, Moorhead, and Cortez — each of whom brings something memorable to the picture. Thus, I recommend Illicit primarily to fans interested in the filmography of one of the cast members. For the casual Pre-Code fan, or even the causal film fan, neither Illicit nor its 1933 remake are must-sees.




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