After fifteen film roles in two years, Bette Davis was upped to star-billing for this poorly received retread of ILLICIT/’31, an early Talkie for Barbara Stanwyck. Here’s Bette:
I wasn’t box-office enough yet to carry a film, and a more unsuitable part in a cheaper type film I don’t think could have been found to launch me into stardom. It was a disaster. The Hollywood Reporter review I have never forgotten. It said, ‘Why didn’t Warners shoot the entire script of EX-LADY in one bedroom on one bed.’
Tawdry stuff, even for Pre-Code days. But perhaps that’s what makes this so interesting now. Davis, a successful commercial artist, and boyfriend Gene Raymond, running a small advertising agency, are perfectly content sans marriage. Or they have been. Now, Raymond’s changed his mind and wants to tie-the-knot even if Davis thinks that having to share their lives, rather than wanting to, will upset everything. And that’s just what happens. Retreating to separate living quarters helps, at first, but now they suddenly turn jealous over little flirtations: Hers with Monroe Owsley; His with Kay Strozzi. Maybe it’s not that you compromise for your marriage to work; maybe marriage is the compromise, and no more than the best of a bad bargain. There’s a modern (well, post ‘60s) tone of sexual liberation vented plainly, if carefully here that remains striking. Something that wouldn’t be fully worked thru for decades in mainstream Hollywood. Some of the dialogue and attitudes, especially from Davis’s female POV, could have fit right in to a film like TWO FOR THE ROAD/’67.* Under Robert Florey’s laissez-fare megging, it’s really not much of a movie, and the drama, structure & dialogue all get short-changed in one way or another. But Davis, at her sleeky blondest, in outfits keyed to match her platinum hair, is already a riveting presence; while the naturally platinum Raymond gives what may be his best perf which, alas, isn’t saying much. But one scene, a painful bore of a dinner party given by a soused Frank McHugh, shows what might have been.
DOUBLE-BILL: *As mentioned, Stanley Donen’s non-linear/New Wave rom-com TWO FOR THE ROAD.
LINK/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: In the ‘30s, female reporters were always modeled on Hearst news gal Adela Rogers St. Johns; female evangelists on Aimee Semple McPherson; female aviatrixes on Amelia Earhart; and female commercial artists on Neysa McMein. Less known then the other three, she was to ‘McCall’s’ what Norman Rockwell was to The Saturday Evening Post (though she did many Post covers, too). A famous hostess & general gal pal to the Algonquin Round Table wits, she even had a longstanding ‘open marriage’ like the one contemplated by Davis. Here’s a link to some of her best magazine work: http://www.americanartarchives.com/mcmein.htm