Saturday, March 8, 2014

Warner Archive Pre-Code Bounty Part I: Bette Davis in '33

For lovers of pre-Code films, particularly those originally produced by Warner Bros., First National, RKO, and MGM, the Warner Archive's been a blessing.  I've recently written about Parachute Jumper, Mandalay, and Downstairs, and to these I'll add a few notes about The Working Man and Ex-Lady.  One Way Passage, The Hatchet Man, Skyscraper Souls, and Employees' Entrance will follow shortly.

Similar to the way that Humphrey Bogart was indebted to Leslie Howard for boosting his career, so it was that Bette Davis had George Arliss to thank for giving her sagging career some much-needed help. An established star of stage and screen in the early '30s and an Academy Award-winner for Disraeli (1929), Arliss had the clout to get young Davis, who had recently been let go by Universal, a key role in his 1932 vehicle, The Man Who Played God.  Davis won raves for her performance and was signed to her first long-term contract at Warner Bros., which would be her home studio for the next two decades.  Stars Arliss and Davis and director John G. Adolphi returned in '33 for The Working Man. It's a prototypical Depression-era drama, with comic touches, which bears some similarities to My Man Godfrey, as shoe manufacturing company owner Arliss goes undercover and masquerades as a "working man" in his late rival's firm in order to keep the spoiled heirs (Davis and Theodore Newton) from squandering their fortune.

Arliss and Davis have a wonderful father-daughter-type chemistry and there's no shortage of amusing scenes in which the rich behave foolishly while "working folk" like Arliss set them straight. It's a light and entertaining piece with a dramatic arc that moved me in spite of its predicability; for modern viewers, however, an air of unintended sadness hangs over this production because Adolphi would die only a month after its release in a hunting accident while supporting cast member Gordon Westcott, a pre-Code mainstay, would be killed in a polo accident two years later.

Next out of the WB chute for Davis was Robert Florey's Ex-Lady. Released only a month after The Working Man, in which Davis played a naive, post-adolescent, Florey's film pushes the calendar ahead several years, casting Davis in the titular role--a seasoned pro--one which she fills convincingly.  It would be the first time she was top-billed at WB. Here, she's an archetypal pre-Code woman--often played by contemporaries like Norma Shearer or Barbara Stanwyck--smart, sassy, independent, and not ready to settle or settle down. She plays a highly successful graphic artist content to keep her passionate love affair with ad exec Gene Raymond nuptial-free, despite the loud protestations of her traditional German-American father (Alphonse Ethier).  When they do tie the knot, each finds that it's difficult to resist the urge to stray a bit.

In spite of her much-critiqued (by male studio execs) physical appearance, Davis has no problem being sexy and alluring in Ex-Lady, while also getting in some great, progressive speeches about wanting to be able to live life to its fullest and achieve individual successes without being married.  Gene Raymond is a bit of a cad here, but I still like him; he's particularly winning with Loretta Young in Fox's Zoo in Budapest, released only a couple weeks prior to Ex-Lady. The young John Heard, as seen in films like Chilly Scenes of Winter and Cat People, reminds me of Raymond, both physically and in temperament.

Invaluable WB company player Frank McHugh brings his dependable brand of humor, often of the drunken variety, to his role as Davis and Raymond's wealthy pal.  The beautiful Claire Dodd, so often the "other woman," is seen too briefly for my tastes as Mrs. McHugh, whom McHugh pretends he's cold to for fear that she'll leave him if he reveals how crazy he actually is about her.

Monroe Owsley, who was tragically felled by a heart attack at only 36, is delightfully and slimily frisky as an uber-persistent suitor who makes clear that he only wants to lay Davis so that he can finally remove her from his list of unconquerables...this one ain't pre-Code for nothin', folks.

Hands on.

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