You Never Know Women – US, 1926
The 1926 promotional poster for William A. Wellman’s You Never Know Women features the head of Florence Vidor (ex-wife of legendary director King Vidor) looking down upon two men, the first looking rather dapper in a finely pressed three-piece suit, the other donning garb reminiscent of the type worn by squatting and kicking Russian dancers. The implication is that the woman is pulling these men’s strings, manipulating them, perhaps playing them off each other for financial gain or making fools of two would-be suitors. Viewers with this impression might turn on the film expecting a light comedy or a tale of dramatic comeuppance - I know I did, and I couldn’t have been more wrong.
In the film’s opening scene, Vera Janova (Vidor) a young Russian vaudeville artist on her way to the theatre, is nearly crushed by a falling girder. While she is saved by a quick-acting construction worker, she does not stay conscious long enough to see the face of her hero clearly. Equally quick-footed is Eugene Foster (Lowell Sherman), a millionaire who just happens to witness the near catastrophe. Springing into action, he rushes beside the true hero and tells him, “I think I can do this sort of thing better than you,” before taking the unconscious lady into his own arms and ensuring that his smiling wealthy face is the first she beholds upon regaining her senses. Interestingly, not one person in the crowd surrounding them thinks to inform her of the ruse. Maybe she wouldn’t have believed them anyway. After all, fairy tales tell us damsels in distress are rescued by princes and knights, not blue-collar workers in dirty overalls.
The set-up is perfect, and in the right hands, it would be ample fodder for a screwball comedy about a rich man trying to keep up the pretense of being brave and romantic. In this version of events, Vera would eventually learn the truth and decide to use it to her advantage, thereby justifying the symbolism hinted at by the puppet strings in the promotional material. Instead, Vera, already late for the evening’s performance, dashes off, arriving to find her fellows performers patiently waiting, despite the fact that their waiting makes the audience wait.
There, we are introduced to Ivan Norodin (Clive Brook), acrobat, magician, escape artist, master chef (alright I made that last one up), and one look at him and his attire is enough to know that he’s the other man having his strings pulled on the poster. Unbeknownst to the two of them, Vera has been tailed, and her tailer (is that even a word?) is soon spotted sitting in the audience, looking up (literally) at Vera as she flies around the theatre on wings magically gifted to her by the extremely talented Ivan. If only he had just made Eugene disappear. Soon Eugene’s visiting the theatre nightly, and Ivan’s feeling replaced. Luckily, there’s a musically-inclined, goose-kissing clown (El Brendel) around to try to make Vera see the light.
Wellman’s career was still in its early stages when the film was made (it was his tenth film overall), and so it is easy to surmise that the film was selected for him. He would go on to direct the first Best Picture winner, as well as 1928’s Beggars of Life, The Public Enemy (which made a star of James Cagney), the Depression-era socially conscious films Heroes for Sale and Wild Boys of the Road, the first incarnation of A Star Is Born, and the 1942 masterpiece The Ox-Bow Incident. (That last one alone would be enough to earn him a place on my list of favorite directors.) Those are films in which his detailed directing is in service of excellent scripts, and the result is pure cinematic magic. Here, though, he is saddled with a story that never takes advantage of its vast possibilities. Instead, we get one character brooding, the other scheming, and the third caught in the middle, never fully aware of what is transpiring right before her very eyes. (Again, thank goodness there’s the clown.)
Yet while the narrative gets bogged down in a standard, paint-by-numbers love triangle, the conclusion of which is never in any doubt, Wellman’s depiction of the Vaudevillian world of his characters is lively and enthralling. Performers unmask to reveal additional masks, plates are thrown across a room only to boomerang back to the person who threw them, acrobats tumble, jump, roll . The performers are alive and in constant motion, regardless of whether the action drives the plot or simply occurs in the background. And Wellman’s camera is vibrant as well, in one scene capturing Vera flying above the audience, in another making it seem as if a performer on swaying boxes were about to crash into the audience. He makes you believe you are witnessing a live performance, and the show goes on regardless of the sappy love triangle playing out in the foreground.
So impressive is Wellman’s camerawork that I’m tempted to recommend the film based solely on my esteem for it. And I might have, were it not for the finale. If I understand correctly, a character decides that in order to spare one person a certain kind of pain, he will inflict another potentially more debilitating kind on not just that person but everyone in said person’s inner circle. And if that weren’t bad enough, when he eventually reappears, not a single person holds a grudge. But then again, this is a film in which the most humorous line, I think I can do this sort of thing better than you, is uttered more than once to people who have no incentive to stay silent and still Vera’s misguided illusion is allowed to persist. You know what they say about friends like these. (on DVD and Blu-ray from Kino)
2 and a half stars
*You Never Know Women is a silent film.