Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday and the last recurring installment (for now) in our series of posts comparing the Pre-Code and Under-the-Code versions of several classic films. This time we’re covering When Ladies Meet, based on the 1932 stage play by Rachel Crothers (this is one of the marvelous playwright’s slightly-less-esoteric works; for a real rarity, check out my thoughts on 1921’s Nice People here), which was first produced by MGM in 1933 and remade by the studio eight years later. As usual, we’re here today to compare and contrast the two!
Here’s an encapsulation of the plot — from a TCM article on the 1933 film: “Myrna Loy plays a novelist who’s enamoured with her publisher, Frank Morgan, who is married to Ann Harding. Loy’s boyfriend, Robert Montgomery, tries to break up this budding romance by introducing Loy to Harding without telling either lady who the other is. When the cat is let out of the bag, Harding gives Loy some common-sense advice about straying husbands and the fireworks begin. Adding terrific energy and humor to the proceedings is Alice Brady as their cynical hostess; she almost single-handedly steals the movie.”
This witty and literate film is obviously an adaptation of a work intended for the stage, and one has the impression that not much was changed during the drafting of the screenplay. In fact, one of the initial complaints by reviewers of the time found the work far too wordy for a medium that was designed to tell stories primarily through images. However, this isn’t an uncommon feature of this era’s motion pictures, and modern day viewers generally come to Pre-Code films not for the breathtaking cinematography, but for the scandalous content. And this is where the ’33 When Ladies Meet is sure to excite, for the entire premise is centered around adultery, mining both the comedic and dramatic beats from the arranged meeting of the mutually unknowing wife and mistress. It’s a deliciously adult idea — typical Crothers — and this adaptation of her text allows the characters the maturity, along with the humanity, to play, as Loy’s character aims for her work to be, “true.”
The success of the story is only made possible by the supreme casting. Montgomery is in his element as the cheeky hero, whose scheme to get his love away from her lover could otherwise come across as manipulative and reprehensible, if not for the glib charm that adds to his character’s likability and infuses the film with its fun and flirty pace. Meanwhile, Harding and Loy are cast in type as the wife and mistress, respectively, with the former radiating an etherial femininity and the latter employing the sophisticated spunk of a modern woman who thinks she knows what she wants. The strength of both ladies’ performances makes the climactic sequence in which the two characters engage in a lengthy conversation, during which the wife realizes to whom she is speaking, the most exciting and electric part of the film. But this isn’t the action-packed or explosive set piece that we’d find in most dramatic films; it’s quieter, and built entirely upon the emotional stakes for the two characters. Needless to say — it’s powerful.
If there’s a complaint with the 1933 film, it’s that Frank Morgan (forever remembered as the titular bumbler from MGM’s The Wizard of Oz) is far less personable or desirable than Montgomery, making both women’s affection for Morgan seem misplaced. In fact, Loy’s character always seems poised to fall, in the end, for Mongtomery’s, and one almost expects Harding to follow suit, especially given the repartee established between the two performers during the characters’ initial charade. But Harding’s nobility delivers her from temptation, thus focusing the bulk of the emotional arc on Loy — the writer whose ability to write the inner life of the “other woman” is naturally superior to her skill at crafting the wife. That is, until she’s granted the opportunity to understand the wife’s perspective, courtesy of the wife herself. This parallelism, although obvious, is the work of a capable author, and grants the film’s story a tightness that enhances its narrative finesse.
Interestingly, the 1941 adaptation utilizes a script that is often verbatim to its predecessor’s, and despite the “conventional morality” that threatens to impede upon the crux of Crothers’ story, the bulk of the subject matter is able to play without constriction. Of course, it’s difficult to neglect noticing the tip-toeing that occurs in the piece’s defining of the varying characters’ sexualities, and this lack of tension (both blatant and repressed) gives the film a languid pace. Running 20 minutes longer than the Pre-Code version, every scene plays longer than it should, and given that the script is already light on action (and heavy on chatter), this is a cardinal sin — barring the ’41 film from earning the audience’s ability to lose itself within the story.
But the principle hinderance with the later adaptation is the comparatively weaker casting and their unsuitable modes of performances. As with before, the husband (Herbert Marshall) over which both ladies are in an unawares competition, is far less appealing than the hero (Robert Taylor). But while Marshall performs his duties with a capability commiserate to Morgan’s, Taylor is simply unable to walk the fine line that Montgomery managed to tread, and because Taylor comes acres as less of a sophisticate than Montgomery, he feels very out of place. Furthermore, he lacks strong chemistry with the two women — Joan Crawford, the mistress; and Greer Garson, the wife. (Spring Byington takes on Brady’s role as the flighty hostess.)
Now the teaming of Crawford and Garson creates more star power than did the latter duo, but given the era’s over-emotive, but rationally stilted mode of playing (in other words, everything is played for possible drama, but often without the logical undercurrent that makes the performer relatable to the audience), neither one manages to live up to the expectations. While Garson is great at projecting an interesting combination of fire and ice on the screen, she never makes choices that surprise or excite. And Crawford, although quite adept at playing the mistress (see The Women), holds herself back here in a misguided attempt to display the indefinable mixture of maturity and naiveté that made Loy’s initial portrayal of the character so perfectly attuned to believability. In other words, Garson’s dull and Crawford’s false.
Thus, unlike past films that we’ve compared over the past few months, I can steadfastly recommend one picture over the other. Take the Pre-Code version. For once, it’s not because the story is better handled with the fewer restrictions, but actually because the production is superior — from the casting to the timing; simply, the earlier adaptation is the better film.
Come back next Wednesday for a new Wildcard post! And tune in on Monday for another forgotten musical!