I viewed the Library of Congress print of "Mamma's Affair", restored from a British nitrate print with the British exhibition certificate. With a title like "Mamma's Affair" (that's how it's spelt in the credits), I assumed this was a comedy. I kept thinking so during an amusing prologue set in the Garden of Eden, featuring Adam (in a leopard skin), a shapely Eve (in a fetching leaf costume) and a hand-puppet serpent. Eve eats an alleged apple that looks more like a pomegranate. The prologue establishes that a woman will get what she wants if she throws a tantrum. "I want my rib back!" says Adam.
So, I was expecting a comedy ... and happily surprised by what followed that prologue. "Mamma's Affair" is a serious character study about a modern Eve (Constance Talmadge) who is under the thumb of her deeply neurotic mother Grace and the mother's manipulative friend Mrs Marchant. Eve Orrin can never leave the house without her disgraceful mother Grace, and whenever she tries to assert herself her mother always has a seizure.
Eventually a doctor is summoned, played by handsome Kenneth Harlan (an excellent actor). From this point, I expected a conventional meet-cute romance between him and Eve. Once again, I was happily surprised. The relationship between Eve and the doctor is unexpected yet refreshingly adult and utterly believable. Meanwhile, Eve's mother and Mrs Marchant are planning to marry Eve to Mrs Marchant's wet son Henry. At one point, Mrs Marchant addresses Eve's mother as 'Grace darling', as if she were the English lifeboat heroine: that line likely got an unintended laugh in Britain.
The entire cast are excellent and deeply plausible. I've met manipulative mothers like the one here, accurately described in one title card as a 'vampire'. Only one note didn't ring true. Eve's mother Grace decides that Eve will marry Henry on her own (Grace's) birthday. I couldn't believe this: an attention-seeking woman like Grace Orrin would want to keep her birthday sacrosanct as *her* day, when she alone must be the centre of attention.
Constance Talmadge has never been one of my favourite actresses: she's not even my favourite Talmadge sister. (That would be Natalie.) But she gives a subtle and nuanced performance here, and she gets to be a fashion-plate: wearing a different outfit in each sequence, all of them elaborate and quite pretty.
Director Victor Fleming is sure-footed throughout, except for one odd scene when he cuts just before a key moment and then begins the next shot immediately after that moment, omitting the moment itself. There are a few bits of intentional comedy in "Mamma's Affair", but it's an earnest drama about emotional relationships. The comedy prologue, funny in itself, is extremely misleading. I'll rate this excellent movie 9 out of 10.
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