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 Broadway: An 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.