Welcome to a new Film Friday and the conclusion of our brief spotlight series on the Pre-Code work of the wild Bette Davis (1908-1989). Though this diva of the silver screen’s best and most well-known work came in the late ’30s and ’40s after the enforcement of the Production Code, Davis made severable notable Pre-Codes in her earlier career. We’ve covered The Man Who Played God (1932) and The Cabin In The Cotton (1932). Today…
A female artist is torn between her belief in free love and the constraints of romance. Starring Bette Davis, Gene Raymond, Frank McHugh, Monroe Owsley, Claire Dodd, and Kay Strozzi. Story by Edith Fitzgerald and Robert Riskin. Screenplay by David Boehm. Directed by Robert Florey.
Another entry that explores the terribly Pre-Code question regarding the essentiality of marriage, Bette Davis plays an artist who doesn’t believe in it, but agrees to wed her lover anyway. However, when her husband strays, she blames not the man, but the institution of wedlock itself. Their relationship becomes an “open” one, but, as you can probably predict, that arrangement won’t work out either. Based on an unproduced play that was adapted for the screen as Illicit with Barbara Stanwyck just two years earlier, Ex-Lady is one of the few chances to see Bette Davis as a top-billing Pre-Code heroine. But is it a good film?
“Helen Bauer, a beautiful young artist with modern ideas about sexual relationships, is in love with Don Peterson. The couple scorns marriage, but when Helen’s conventional father, Adolphe, condemns their lifestyle, they acquiesce and marry. Soon, Don’s advertising business troubles put a strain on the marriage and Helen discovers that he is seeing one of her married friends, Peggy. Helen is convinced that it is marriage that drove Don away and insists that they live separately, but remain lovers. One night when Don goes to see Helen, he finds she has a date with Nick Malvyn, a man about town. Don’s jealousy sends him back to Peggy and Helen reacts by going to Nick’s apartment. There Nick’s amorous intentions are thwarted by the arrival of a mutual friend. When Helen returns home, though, she finds Don waiting and ready to forgive her. They reconcile their differences and agree that although marriage is not perfect, their love will survive it.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
Because the 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, it is a blessing that the film comes in at a fast-paced 67 minutes. Ordinarily, that running time would be considered short, but with a premise as thin as this one’s, any longer and the audience would lose interest. As you may have ascertained, 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 in terms of the storytelling. However, if you can get past that — there’s stuff to enjoy.The direction is innovative and the movement of the camera exudes sexuality in almost every scene. This picture has a look — it doesn’t seem like a run-of-the-mill assembly line film. The cinematography is part of the story, and that’s not always the case with films of this era. The score is beguiling (if a bit loud at some parts), and there’s a cohesion among the narrative and the presentation. So, it’s a well-produced film.
As usual with Pre-Code films of this type, modern audiences will be captivated by the sheer maturity of the characters and their predicaments. Freedom, sex, commitment, sex, infidelity, sex. Sure, we’ve seen them in all types of films, even the most sophomoric, but everyone in Ex-Lady carries him or herself with a confident frankness that’s most appealing. These are grown-ups having grown-up interactions, and the film works best when the story brings their pointed, yet often truthful conversations to the metaphorical forefront. And to its credit, the script does a fairly excellent job of keeping the dialogue fresh and engaging.
Of course, we must credit the actors, who do a uniformly solid job of being both believable and entertaining. Bette Davis, naturally, is the main attraction, and she makes her potentially unlikable character a captivating force. She’s often quite sexy here (thanks in large part to Florey’s knowingly sensual direction), and shockingly, has great chemistry with Gene Raymond. Had the pairing not worked as well, this picture would undoubtedly be inferior. For with an already tired premise, we need a pair of high quality performers. And thankfully, Ex-Lady delivers in that regard. So, there’s no way I could recommend this film on account of its script; this one’s only for fans of its stars.
Come back next Friday for the start of our spotlight series on Tallulah Bankhead! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week on That’s Entertainment!