Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! This month’s Pre-Code is another notable non-essential. These films, though not possessing some of the qualities that could make them worthy of being called seminal representations of the era, are nevertheless entertaining and worthy of our attention. Up this month is…
Double Harness (1933)
After tricking a playboy into marriage, a woman sets out to win his love honestly. Starring Ann Harding, William Powell, Lucile Browne, Henry Stephenson, Lilian Bond, George Meeker, and Reginald Owen. Screenplay by Jane Murfin. From the play by Edward Poor Montgomery. Directed by John Cromwell. Distribution by RKO Radio Poctures.
“After her extravagant, irresponsible sister Valerie marries, Joan Colby sets her sights on John Fletcher, a notorious San Francisco playboy… In spite of [her old fashioned father’s] disapproval, Joan pursues a romance with John and announces to Valerie that, while she does not love John, she intends to marry him… marriage is the business of women and that love is a complication to be avoided. Although John responds deeply to Joan, whom he regards as ‘virginal’ yet alluring, she worries that he will soon return to his previous lover, Monica. While Joan woos the marriage-wary John, Monica begins to telephone him and makes known her desire to rekindle their affair. Consequently, Joan arranges with Valerie to have their father show up at John’s apartment one night when she is alone with him. As hoped, the colonel is shocked and demands that John marry Joan immediately. Because Joan is willing, John agrees but, as he explains to Joan on their honeymoon cruise, intends to divorce her… in six months.”
Two months later, John is already feeling anxious about his captivity, but tells Joan he appreciates her efforts to make a legitimate businessman out of him. To that end, Joan has arranged with her father to have his friend, Oliver Lane, the postmaster general of the United States, meet John at a dinner party in the hope that Lane will grant the Fletcher shipping line a profitable government contract. At the same time, Valerie confides in Joan that she needs $1,000 to pay clothing debts but is afraid to ask for the money from [her husband], who has threatened to leave her because her extravagances have repeatedly landed her in debt… Valerie secretly asks John for a loan, lying that she needs $1,000 to cover household expenses… Overhearing John giving Valerie a check, Joan denounces her sister and demands that she grow up and resolve her financial problems on her own. Furious, Valerie reveals Joan’s marriage trick to John, and stricken by the truth, John leaves and goes to the waiting Monica.”
“Joan follows him to Monica’s and, after apologizing for her deception, confesses that she has truly fallen in love with him. Joan then returns home, where Lane and her other dinner party guests are waiting. To Joan’s delight, Lane agrees to give the absent John his business. Then, just after a drunken but repentant Valerie prepares to tell her husband the truth about her spending, John returns to his devoted wife, bringing her a box of gardenias, her favorite flower, to signify his love.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
Ann Harding headlines this quiet Pre-Code drama that contends with wedded bliss, one of the era’s favorite subjects, and explores a variation of the “let’s have a modern marriage” theme. Here, a couple’s matter-of-fact arrangement (in this case, our heroine calls it a “business arrangement”) falters in the face of true, genuine sentiment, thus proving that love, even during the Depression, conquers all. Based on a play that was itself adapted from a turn-of-the-century novel, there’s nothing truly novel within the premise; we’ve explored these ideas before in alternatively more passionate, at best, or garrulous, at worst, pictures. For this reason especially, there’s nothing about the film’s subject matter that would make it a serious contender for being an Essential. But as with the other films in this year’s casual Pre-Code series, Double Harness ably showcases the era, and the ideas it aimed to espouse through its entertainment. One watches this picture and returns to a notion that comes up almost every month in our Pre-Code discussions: honesty. We’ve often decried the limitations that the Code placed on storytelling — subverting truth for idealistic formula — and praised the sense of freedom with which the films in this era were allowed to explore the human condition.
Again, Double Harness doesn’t gain any credit here for projecting honesty through its narrative — yes, the screenplay is well-modulated enough so our disbelief is seldom in jeopardy of non-suspension, but this type of film has, by now, become a formula onto itself. So we find the film’s sincerity within the performances, particularly those of our headliners, Ann Harding and William Powell. The latter, one of those classic Pre-Code rascals whose work has been featured periodically over these past few years, is ideal for the role of the casual, but substantive playboy whom the heroine ensnares in marriage — a legal commitment, intended, by both parties, to be temporary. The former, Harding, has only come up a few times — but, of note, in two Essentials, The Animal Kingdom (1932) and When Ladies Meet (1933), both adult pictures that also deal, in some fashion, with matrimonial monogamy. As always, she’s a revelation, enriching every portrayal with an emotional depth that’s psychologically realized but not self-consciously supplied. That is, in Harding’s quest to project truth in her performance, there are no pretenses beyond the character itself. No pomp or circumstance; just humanity. And because her character drives this film, it’s Harding who delivers its humanity, making it certifiably Pre-Code.
But the material itself reflects the era, mostly in subtle ways — this is indeed a quiet picture whose stage-bound roots remain perceptible — like the sexually charged dynamic between the leading players before they’re legally bound. This representation also comes from the foundationally classic “marriage as arrangement” premise, hinged on these Depression years’ ongoing debate about the strength of love in tough, changing, modern times. To this point, I think it’s important to note just how romantic the film decides it wants to be — not just in its happy ending (anticipated from the jump based on the construction), in which what started as an arrangement not founded on love eventually finds the love needed for support, but also in the very emotional presence of Harding’s character. Despite claiming her crusade for marriage is scientific, she seems awfully sentimental — very early on in the narrative — about notions held regarding her intended partner. In fact, her scheme to trap Powell’s character into marriage is clearly independent, both in the playing and the scripting, of business-minded (if this were a Blondell or the like, we’d say “gold-digging”) objectives — and this is despite the perfunctory scenario suggested by the premise, which needs this suggestion for its third act conflict. So this romance is an undercurrent throughout the entire drama.
Does such sincere emotion undercut the picture’s ability to say something of interest about its subject, matrimony? Yes, a little. After all, with conflicts of this ilk, we need to both understand and believe that loveless scenarios hold merit to these characters, particularly as a means of complicating what is usually an inevitable: the couple’s mutual reconciliation to love’s supremacy. Additionally, the idealism within this protagonist makes her less morally complex than we typically expect of leading ladies from the era. However, never once is honesty hindered — based, as discussed above, on the strength of Harding’s work — nor does the clear sentiment undermine its Pre-Code sensibilities, for the picture’s romantic reinforcement of the way humanity always returns to the wonderful power of love (even in this modern age) is perfectly in-keeping with what the films here ultimately hoped to project about the unique beauty of human honesty — dark sometimes, bright in others; the very fact that we’re human is the beauty. We, as cinephiles, delight in the depravity that censors would mitigate under the Production Code, but equally important in this era is the simplicity of interaction: human to human. That’s what Double Harness offers.
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard entry! And tune in on Tuesday for more Dream On!
While I do love the precode films and there are so many. Thank goodness for the the enforcement in 1934 because Hollywood was on the very tip of getting out of hand. Of course that is exactly what has happened now. Even with the rating system they have now there is no filter whatsoever. Everything you can imagine that was forbidden by the code is running rampant. Its change I guess but not for the better.
Hi, Matt! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I think you’re right — it’s often easy to use salacity as a gimmick to distract from earnest character-driven drama. I am of the opinion that the enforcement of the Production Code in ’34 staved off the medium’s descent into poor taste (generally a good thing), but did so while removing a lot of the humanity that the Pre-Code era, including this film, uniquely offered.
While the Code forced the studios to be more creative with their pictures’ utilization of violence and sex, honest reflections of contemporary morality gave way to an imposed projection of what a few people thought society should resemble. As a result, truth was de-emphasized, and it was harder to connect to the human subjects. Instead, we connected through the medium’s inherent glamour, escapism, and fantasy. Ideally, all these elements need to be reconciled against each other, and the Code didn’t ensure that.
But I think DOUBLE HARNESS is an odd place to inspire such a discussion; the picture is far from controversial or offensive. This May’s Pre-Code Essential, MURDER AT THE VANITIES (1934), is a different story though — and makes a better case for how the Pre-Code era started to undermine its own human objectives. You can revisit my thoughts on the subject here.