As the film The Common Law (1931) opens, we meet Valerie West (Constance Bennett). She has just informed her lover Dick Cardemon (Lew Cody) that she is leaving. Dick is angered by her departure, and is sure she will return. Valerie, however, is determined to make it on her own and applies for a modeling job with artist John Neville (Joel McCrea), who is struggling with a painting for which he needs the right model. He finds that model in Valerie, and finds too a woman to love.
Though struggling to make it as an artist on his own income, John is the son of the wealthy John Neville, Sr. (Walter Walker). John, Jr.'s sister Claire Collis (Hedda Hopper), who we know is not thrilled by his career choice, is horrified when she discovers that her brother is in love with such a - to her view - common woman. So, Claire devises a plan to break up the relationship.
There is a real chemistry between Constance Bennett and Joel McCrea. It was evident in their other movies together (this is the fourth of their four films together that we've viewed and discussed). An article on the TCM website (in a discussion of Born to Love) talks about Bennett telling McCrea that he was to be her co-star in that film, and the fact that many in Hollywood thought there was more to their relationship than just work.
Certainly this film falls nicely into the Pre-code realm. We watch Valerie shyly drop her clothing as she poses nude for painter John, and we see a number of paintings that make it clear she doesn't wear a whole lot of clothing for the series of pictures he does of her. And then there is their relationship. Terrified he will be driven away if they marry, Valerie agrees to a relationship with John ONLY if there is no marriage involved. As in the film Illicit, it is the woman who opts for the "common law" relationship. The men in these films are much more desirous of marriage than the women.
John is clearly more conventional than Valerie - his double-standard is quite pronounced when he learns of her prior affair with Dick. But it does not bother him in the least that she is willing to pose in the nude. And, while they are in Paris, John and Valerie live together openly, when they return to New York, John feels compelled to hide their relationship.
This film is also notable for the presence of notorious gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. Her Claire is annoying from the minute we meet her. She is dull and conventional, has no understanding of her brother, and is more interested in her position and reputation than his happiness (unlike John's father, who just wants John to be happy). We don't learn a whole lot about Claire Collis - she seems to be either a widow or a divorcee, as we never meet a husband, nor is he even mentioned. In the TCM article about this film, Hopper's relationship with Bennett is discussed. Bennett did not like her one bit; even though at this point in her career, Hopper was still primarily acting. However, she had started selling stories to the press about her colleagues. It was after she realized how much more lucrative being a member of the press would be that Hopper changed her career focus (though, even after she was a columnist, she still appeared in films, most notably, as Dolly DePuyster in The Women.
The film opens with a stock shot of Paris from the 1930s which was quite fun to watch. The clothing this time was by Gwen Wakeling. We were not familiary with her, but as always, Bennett's clothing is gorgeous; but quite honestly, Constance looks good in anything.
All in all, this is an enjoyable film. We heartily recommend it.