Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Bette's Love Nest

In our continuing search for interesting pre-code films, we found Ex-Lady (1933) starring Bette Davis.  Ex-Lady is a remake of Illicit (1931), starring Barbara Stanwyck, which we discussed last year.  That the two were related was a nice surprise (thanks, Robert Osborne for the information).

Helen Bauer (Bette Davis) is in love with Don Peterson (Don Peterson); their affair is quite open, much to the disgust of Helen's father (Alphonse Ethier), who effectively disowns her.  Though Helen is convinced that marriage destroys love, Don convinces her that their marriage will work.  However, as Helen's reputation as a  commercial illustrator grows, and Don begins to have problems within their business, the couple's relationship begins to strain.  The intrusion of Nick Malvyn (Monroe Owsley) and Iris Van Hugh (Claire Dodd), former lovers of the Helen and Don, put more pressure on an already threatened marriage.

Davis' Helen is bright and ambitious.  She works for a living, and is good at what she does. Helen doesn't want children, she enjoys working, and she enjoys her freedoms.  Davis imbues Helen with an independence the pervades every scene.  As discussed in this TCM article, this was Davis' first headlining role. She would make her big breakthrough a year later in The Petrified Forest. 
Early in the film, we get a telling image of Helen's youth - a cold, authoritarian father and a passive, downtrodden mother (Bodil Rosing).  With that one scene, we begin to understand Helen's aversion to marriage, and her determination to not become the passive target of male domination.  It's also interesting that the parents are clearly immigrants, setting up a comparison between the Old and New World morals.  It also floats in a negative picture of European culture, in an era of increasing American isolationism. 

In contrast to Helen, Gene Raymond's Don is not exactly the brightest bulb in the pack.   He doesn't seem to know how to run a business - he and Helen go on vacation, but he doesn't leave proper instructions for his staff, and ends up losing accounts.  Helen, on the other hand, who works with Don, gains business, making Don petulant and resentful. 

We are increasingly impressed with Monroe Owsley.  He again plays a total rotter; he makes the character of Nick oily and rather revolting.  And even though this is a relatively short film (67 minutes), he manages to flesh out the character quite a bit. We discussed him at some detail when we looked at Ten Cents a Dance, and refer you there for more information on the brief career of this interesting actor.

In a  New York Times review, we were presented with very negative comments on Davis' lingerie (the costuming was by Orry-Kelly) but positive remarks on the film's screenplay.  We rather liked the costuming and sets (by Jack Okey), and refer you to the trailer below for a quick glimpse into the film.  Next week, we'll take a comparison look at Illicit


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