May 28, 2013
Today’s Hollywood has a reputation for unoriginality, but the classical era was also rife with recycling. Before Robert Riskin became Frank Capra’s favorite screenwriter, he was a struggling playwright with co-writer Edith Fitzgerald. When their 1930 sex comedy Many a Slip became a modest hit and was adapted at Universal, Warner Brothers optioned one of their un-produced plays and cranked out two movie versions in three years. Illicit (1931) and Ex-Lady (1933), both available on DVD from the Warner Archive, reveal a studio in flux, scrambling to grab the audience’s waning attention during the Great Depression. Both cast energetic young ingenues in the role of a liberated woman who thinks marriage is a prison, but gets hitched anyway for the sake of the man she loves. Illicit stars Barbara Stanwyck and opts for escapism, taking place among the leisure class of NYC, from Manhattan townhouse hangars to Long Island mega mansions. The story gets downsized in Ex-Lady, with Bette Davis given a middle-class job as an illustrator for an ad agency. The shift is an early and unsuccessful attempt (Ex-Lady was a flop) at Warners’ downmarket move to court blue-collar dollars, which would pay dividends soon after with saucy Busby Berkeley backstage musicals and gritty James Cagney gangster flicks.
Barbara Stanwyck had become a hot commodity following her breakthrough role in Frank Capra’s Ladies of Leisure (1930), and Warner Brothers ponied up $7,000 a week to Columbia Pictures to secure her services for Illicit and director Archie Mayo. Stanwyck was a self-described “party girl” in Ladies of Leisure, and in Illicit she has no life outside of night clubs and boudoirs – Annie (Stanwyck) opens the film in her lover’s airy loft and ends it begging to go back. Despite her quick wit and initial refusal to get married, any sense of freedom is illusory. What’s real are the monotonous interior two-shots that Mayo frames, in which Annie is either aside her lover Dick (James Rennie) or crying for his return. So regardless of the ebbs and flows of the plot, which presages the slapstick comedies of re-marriage in decades to come (epitomized by The Awful Truth), there is no doubt it will end in marriage.
What pleasures there are derive from Stanwyck and her supporting cast, including Joan Blondell (as “Duckie) and Charles Butterworth as alcoholic comic relief. Stanwyck, still only 23 years old, is lends a mischievous unpredictability to her underwritten character. As she teasingly runs down a list of her ex-lovers to Dick, she lowers her voice into that of a sober news anchor and conducts her words with a jabbing index finger, hoping to bore jealousy straight into his heart. There is too little of Blondell, but she lends her usual wide-eyed effervescence, while Butterworth works in slow motion. His drunk looks as pallid as a corpse but with slightly faster reaction time, a character that would be dreadfully sad if he wasn’t so funny.
Louella Parsons called Illicit, ““as smart as next year’s frock, as modern as television, and as sophisticated as a Parisian hotel clerk”, so it did well enough for Warners to revive the material in 1933, re-titled Ex-Lady and directed by talented journeyman Robert Florey. Florey worked as an assistant director to Louis Feuillade, Chaplin and von Sternberg, and made a name for himself with the experimental short The Life and Death of 9413 – A Hollywood Extra (1928,), made with Slavko Vorkapich and Gregg Toland. A mournful satire of an artist getting chewed up by the movie business, Florey would go on to have a long career in the Bs and then on television. Whether it was Florey’s influence or screenwriter David Boehm (Gold Diggers of 1933), Ex-Lady provides a far more nuanced portrait of a woman’s position in society. It was Bette Davis’ first starring role, after receiving raves in a supporting part in Michael Curtiz’s Cabin in the Cotton (1932). She plays Helen, a more aggressive version of Stanwyck in Illicit. She carries on an affair with Don (Gene Raymond), but is also a highly sought after advertisement illustrator. She has a life and career outside of romantic entanglements. So when Don proposes awkwardly, “Let’s get married so I’ll have the right to be with you”, Helen retorts, “What do you mean…right? I don’t like the word ‘right’. No one has any rights about me, except me.”
Annie framed her objection to marriage as a way to keep a relationship fresh, whereas for Helen is expressly a matter of personal freedom, which is why Jeanine Basinger writes in A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930 – 1960 that Ex-Lady, “is a liberated statement to its audience.” This liberation also extends to her sexual desires. During a trip to Cuba, Helen is visibly aroused by a nightclub act and raises an eyebrow to Don – they slink out to a nearby bench while the camera tastefully descends behind it. Davis is clad in revealing deshabille throughout, but she gives the initiative in the most explicit scene in the film. Her desires and her abiding love for Don lead to a temporary union, built on ever-shifting compromise, overturning one of Helen’s earlier zingers that “compromise is defeat.”
There is no stability in Ex-Lady, even in its conclusion. Where in Illicit Annie says, “What have theories to do with love”, destroying her previously stated princples, the climax of Ex-Lady provides a more complicated, bittersweet view. After Helen and Don have both drifted towards other lovers, Helen opines that open relationships and marriage both hurt, but that she guesses marriage hurts less.