February 24, 2019
Ex-Lady – U.S., 1933
There’s was something about Bette Davis that just screamed rebel. You can see it in her eyes, even when she’s smiling, that expression that conveys an unwillingness to settle for whatever society expects of her as a result of her gender. In fact, if her character never offered a line of explanation, we would know it was there, acting as her impetus. Davis was so good in this role that if you were to describe a character in an old movie as driven and non-conforming in both her career and pre-marital relationships, Davis would likely be one of the first actresses you’d picture in the role.
Robert Florey’s Ex-Lady, Davis’s fifteenth film, finds her playing a headstrong artist named Helen Bauer. In two early scenes, we watch as Helen explains to her boyfriend and then to her father that she has no interest in marriage and its trappings. In her words, she wants to stay her a bit longer. Of course, such a bold decision leaves her vulnerable to the advances of..well, pretty much every man she meets, be he single or married. Interestingly, she is able to rebuff double entendres and indecent proposals so skillfully that her pursuers never really feel personally rejected.
Helen’s beau is Don Peterson (Gene Raymond), and he is not quite as opposed to marriage as Helen. And for good reason. While there’s intrigue and excitement in a secret relationship initially, after a while what was once glorious can begin to lose its luster. After all, Don probably reasons, why must two people as truly in love as they obviously are keep their feelings a secret? So, after a rather casual proposal of marriage is turned down, Don ends their relationship and storms out. This can’t last, of course – they miss each other too much for that, so soon we see them back in each other’s arms and agreeing to get married. In true rebel fashion, though, it is Helen who does the proposing this time. The rest of the film focuses on one central question: Was Helen’s initial rejection of marriage the right decision after all?
At just 67 minutes, Ex-Lady doesn’t have a moment to spare, and as a result, much of what follows their marriage feels rushed. We go from a newspaper announcement of their wedding (accompanied by a photo in which Helen feigns being a traditional wife) to a time when job stress and financial pressures have taken a toll on the couple’s witty banter and strong connection. This is realistic, but I would like to have seen what brought it on. In no time at all, we see Don brazenly flirting with another woman, and we’re left to wonder just what happened to his and Helen’s relationship. Later, we can be forgiven for wondering how they got it back, for just as quickly as temptation rears its rather attractive head, the two of them are back in each other’s arms whispering sweet-nothing’s in the other’s ear. Perhaps it is as simple as that old axiom absence makes the heart grow fonder.
However, if that is indeed the film’s message, it is a bit of a cop-out, a band aid placed on a sore that is quick bigger and more deeply bruised than one might care to admit. Let’s start with Helen’s abhorrence of marriage. Just where did it originate? Does it have something to do with her seemingly weak and submissive mother? Maybe, but we only have one very brief scene to justify that impression on As for Don’s sudden change of heart on marriage, the film offers no explanation either. And just why does Helen, as liberated a character as I can remember in a film from this time period, seem to accept Don’s disrespect and disloyalty? It seems more in character for her to just walk away, while confidently proclaiming that a man who doesn’t respect her doesn’t deserve her.
I have a theory about this, of course, and it goes something like this. For all their breaking of cinematic taboos regarding content and immorality, the films from the Pre-Code days could still be rather conventional in that they gave viewers what they felt they wanted in the end – happy endings for heroes, death or capture for villains, love and marriage for the attractive leads, justice for the morally fallen. Perhaps America wasn’t ready to hear other messages – that sometimes marriages fall apart, that criminals aren’t always caught and brought to justice, and that not everyone yearns to fit society’s conventions. Maybe that is why Ex-Lady spends over an hour establishing a character for whom traditional relationships may not be the answer, only for her to accept one at the very end and smile in such a way as to reinforce the old adage that all a woman needs to be happy and safe is a husband. As I said, it’s a cop-out, but an understandable one. You can’t expect today’s such personal narrative complexities in a film from an earlier, much more innocent time – cinematically speaking, that is.
In the end, Ex-Lady is a decent film about a pair of likable characters in a rather compelling situation. Florey gets great performances from Davis and Raymond, who have real chemistry in early scenes, and he perfectly convey the strain they are under later on. He also demonstrates a knack for shooting meaningful close-ups, ones in which characters’ silence, subtle glances, and stillness are incredible revealing. He doesn’t get everything right. There are a few eccentric characters that I could have done without, in particular, Don’s friend Ben. However, there’s a gravity to the film. As its dramatic climax demonstrates, the world was not always decent to single woman, and marriage did provide cover from some of its dangers. Still, by ending with such a crowd-pleasing manner, the film negates much of what was most interesting about it earlier, settling finally on a message that is decidedly neutered. A product of its time perhaps, yet a pretty good one regardless. (on DVD as part of Forbidden Hollywood Volume 7)
3 and a half stars