October 20, 2015


When Helen Hayes was cast in the 1926 Broadway production of What Every Woman Knows, she was not yet “The First Lady of the American Theater”. According to the show’s producer William A. Brady, she had previously been “deep in the high heels and lipstick business – flapper roles”. It was with the part of the pragmatic “Maggie” in J.A. Barrie’s 1908 play, a Scottish battle of the sexes, that she established the Hayes persona, her civilized veneer holding back a mischievous spirit. The show ran for 268 performances and rave reviews. After further Broadway successes in Coquette (’27) and The Good Fairy (’31), she signed with MGM in 1931 to extend her career into the movies. It seemed natural to have her return to her breakthrough role, and What Every Woman Knows was directed by Gregory La Cava in 1934 – available now on DVD from the Warner Archive. But it was a frustrating experience for all involved, hampered by poor test screenings and re-shoots. Hayes was so disappointed in the process she stopped acting in films for nearly two decades. Regardless of the off-screen dramas, the film itself is a charming comedy about a smart young spinster who manipulates the men in her life into prominence, becoming a behind-the-scenes power broker. It is a rare treat to see Hayes reprise her star-making role, and it is a layered performance built on hundreds of stage repetitions, in which every glance is like a conductor’s wand, controlling the men around her.


Hayes may have first become wary of cinema during that initial Broadway run of What Every Woman Knows at the Bijou Theater in 1926. As she was performing,  MGM’s epic WWI movie The Big Parade was screening next door at the Astor, and the live accompaniment was so loud it would reportedly startle the Bijou performers (per Ken Bloom’s BroadwayAn Encyclopedia). She would recover enough to take MGM’s money and immediately win a Best Actress Oscar for The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931), and was radiantly innocent in Frank Borzage’s adaptation of A Farewell to Arms (’32).


What Every Woman Knows had already been filmed in a 1917 British version and a 1921 Paramount Production starring Lois Wilson. But enough time had passed for MGM to take their shot, and they had the definitive “Maggie” to go with it, so they paid Paramount $65,000 for the rights to J.A. Barrie’s play. It is set in the village of Kilburne, Scotland and concerns Maggie Wylie (Hayes), a plain, rather brilliant 26-year-old whose family fears she will become a spinster. With her mother passed on, she is surrounded by her father Alick (David Torrence), and her two brothers James (a delightfully dopey Dudley Digges) and David (a starchy Donald Crisp). A few betrothals have fallen apart, and the male Wylies become desperate to marry her off, while Maggie endures them with a twinkle in her eye. The family sees an opportunity in John Shand (Brian Aherne) when they catch him breaking into their library to study, for he’s too poor to attend school. So the Wylies propose to pay for his schooling if he signs a contract promising to marry Maggie after his graduation in five years. The contract is adhered to, and suddenly John is thrust into a race to become MP. Maggie is by his side, and his ear, guiding him to higher positions. The only threat to her ascent is the beautiful socialite and political operator Lady Sybil (Madge Evans), who has her own designs on John, but Maggie has a plan for her too.


Maggie operates in a suffocating patriarchy in which her only value to her family is through marriage, so while they love and adore her, they are desperate to get her out of the house. The early scenes are fascinating for how lightly Hayes plays them as her fate is decided by men sitting around a table. She blames her lack of “charm” for not getting a husband, and continues to flit around the house seemingly oblivious to the monumental changes her life is about to undertake. Whether she is accepting a present or a husband, her reaction is the same, with a benign, half-smiled acceptance. This false “lightness” is conveyed through her lilting Scotch burr as well as her walk. The one aspect of her that can’t lie is her eyes, and director Gregory La Cava, a wonderful director of actresses (Bebe Daniels in Feel My Pulse, Constance Bennett in Bed of Roses), has the blocking in the frame dictated by her gaze. Men are the filaments to her magnet, shifting around her as she tilts her head. While she cannot run for political office due to her sex, she can control their actions from her boudoir.


After a poor test screening in Los Angeles, La Cava brought the cast and crew back into the studio for retakes, saying, “every Joe Miller Scotch joke ever written” would be thrown in to please the audience (Joe Miller’s Jests was an English joke book from 1739), though Hayes recalled that none of the 18th century bon mots made it into the film. She was unhappy with the production, though it received decent reviews (the NY Times called it “heart-warming and decidedly effective”. She threatened to no-show her next assignment, Vanessa: Her Love Story (’35), but did the job to avoid getting sued. Through with Hollywood, she would devote the rest of her career to the stage, returning to TV and film intermittently (memorably so in Leo McCarey’s My Son John (1952)). What Every Woman Knows was a project La Cava and Hayes would both like to forget, but my job is to keep people from forgetting. It is a loose and amiable film with an alert, masterful performance at its center.

MY SON JOHN (1952)

February 2, 2010


Last Wednesday, TCM presented the first television screening of Leo McCarey’s My Son John in decades. It screened as part of the “Shadows of Russia” series, which tracked Hollywood’s depiction of the country from Tsarist times through Soviet rule. Programmed by the NY Post’s Lou Lumenick and the Self-Styled Siren‘s Farran Smith Nehme, it offered a wonderful chance to catch up with McCarey’s underrated rarity. The reason for its obscurity lies in its politics. Produced during the height of the House Un-American Activities Committee (for which McCarey was a friendly witness), it is strongly anti-communist, and has been dismissed in many corners as mere McCarthy-era hysteria. As Robin Wood wrote in Sexual Politics and Narrative Film, the film is generally presented in a condescending manner: “typically introduced with an apologetic chuckle signifying, ‘Nowadays, of course, we can laugh at this.’” The usually sage Robert Osborne adopted this attitude in his introduction to the telecast, referring to it as an embarrassment, and our own astute Morlock Jeff emphasizes the “hysteria” over its other virtues in his article on the movie.  I have to respectfully disagree with my colleagues.

To reduce the film to a kitschy red scare product ignores the complex dynamics occurring in the family unit. Dean Jagger plays the father, Dan Jefferson, an earnest American Legion member who can’t conceive of a world outside his small-town newspaper. He’s an ingratiating buffoon with a quick temper and a taste for the beer barrel at the Legion hall, likeable enough until he starts singing nativist jingles and tossing his son across the room. He is an intentionally ridiculous character, as McCarey told Peter Bogdanovich in Who The Devil Made It?, as unbending in his conservative beliefs as John is with his communist ones. Personally, McCarey may have gravitated more to the father’s view, but his artistic temperament, which cherished improvisation and spontaneity, would never allow a such a monolithic man to be a hero (hence Renoir’s famous quote that McCarey understood people better than any other Hollywood director). Instead he is thrown through a series of farcical scenes – the song, a drunken rant, an absurd whack of the bible – that display his child-like pettiness and his inability to adapt to the times. His paranoia is proven accurate, but this does not alter the boorish nature of his character. His wife Lucille is the one who uncovers her son’s secret, and is the true dramatic center of the film.

Lucille, played spiritedly by Helen Hayes after a 17 year absence from the screen, is the pragmatic one, calming Dan’s fears, enduring his rages, and attempting to understand John’s point of view. She is patient with her husband but also fiercely independent, evidenced when she secretly dumps the pills he foists on her for her “anxiety”. She coddles him like an impudent pup, with a condescending kind of love. He provides the bombast, but she is in control of the relationship. Hayes’ performance is a bit of a high wire act, managing swings from manic energy to swooning depression with a few broad strokes – her darting eyes and sing-song voice ease the way down to the tragic conclusion. I think she succeeds wonderfully, evincing a rock-ribbed faith in God (in the eyes), paired with a mischievous sense of humor (her staccato laugh).

There is an especially moving scene where John is describing the world’s duty to help raise up the poor, and she finds a connection to Catholicism’s similar tenets to tend to those living in poverty. The joy in her face at this empathetic moment is beautiful and devastating , because she has yet to understand the basic incompatibility of their world views, and hence their imminent separation (and also because of the intensity of McCarey’s close-ups). Her inability to transcend the barrier between these ideologies turns her into the central tragic figure of the film, and is why Dave Kehr calls it McCarey’s most “emotionally demanding movie after Love Affair“. Her capitulation to Dan, when she tells him he was right about their son, is another scene of devious power, with Lucille’s ashen face on a different plane from Dan’s obliging attempts at apology for his drunken antics the night before. It is a drama of generational feuding and familial fissure more than anything else, as Martin Scorsese has also noted.

John is played by the incredible Robert Walker with icy disdain, a callow kind of condescension that college boys convey upon returning home from their first few philosophy classes (I recognized a bit of myself in him). It ended up as his final performance. Walker died near the end of the shoot, necessitating a total rewrite of the final sequences, and some awkward matte work which included some shots from the final carousel sequence in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. It is these final scenes that have marred the reputation of My Son John more than anything else, as John’s dramatic turn away from communism had to be cobbled together out of scraps of old footage and stand-ins, rendering this already difficult arc impossible to pull off. Without an actor to improvise off of, the subtleties of McCarey’s character work fall away, the family drama fades into the background, and McCarey’s staunch anti-communism dominates, turning the last act into more of the straight propaganda film its critcs claim it is. But it still contains echoes of the emotionally wrenching work that came before, in the few shots of Helen Hayes’ eyes.

McCarey claims it could have been his best film if Walker had survived, perhaps an impossible claim with The Awful Truth and Make Way for Tomorrow on his resume, but it lies at the center of his thematic world – at the nexus of personal freedom and familial responsibility that winds through his greatest work. It may not be his best film, but it is an essential one.