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In Paul L. Stein's 1931 film "The Common Law", Constance Bennett plays Valerie West, a "kept woman" who decides that she needs to leave her sugar-daddy boyfriend Nick and make a go of it on her own. She ends up working as an artist's model for painter John Neville, Jr. (McCrea), and while they begin their relationship as friends, the two soon become lovers. Unfortunately, there are a number of factors against them, namely Valerie's past as a kept woman and John's sister Claire (Hopper), who believes that Valerie is less than acceptable for their blue blood family. During his bouts of indecision, he succumbs to fits of jealousy about Valerie's past and finds it hard to trust her to be true to him, especially when she suggests they wait until they are absolutely sure of their love before they get married. Valerie, on the other hand, knows that she loves John but is afraid she will get hurt, particularly when she sees the rich life of which John's family are members.
There are a few notable things about "The Common Law", despite its relatively simple plot and short running time. Being a Pre-Code film, the role of Valerie is juicy without being compromised and saddled with social morays. It is clear that Valerie lived with both Nick and John and was married to neither of them, something that just was not expressed in post 1934 films. (The irony of this censorship doesn't escape me either; one would think that there would be a progression as the medium grows and not a recession.) This is where the title "The Common Law" is derived, and it is only near the end of the film when Valerie begins to feel personal and social pressure that she acquiesces to marry. It is left to the audience to interpret whether she is entirely comfortable with the situation, but she does not hide her apparent joy over her ultimate decision; it almost seems like a weight has been lifted off her shoulders.
Also notable are various obvious innuendos (like when Valerie is leaving Nick and he suggests, not cruelly, that she could perhaps survive well as a call girl) and the first scene in which Valerie poses nude for John, not five minutes after he hires her as a model. She is clearly uncomfortable, but loses her inhibitions quickly and though her form is not clear, the scene ends with a long shot showing her lying naked on the platform. This would have been unheard of in a post-code era where even the amorous Nick and Nora Charles were relegated to twin beds.
Constance Bennett, one of the most popular screen sirens of the pre-code Hollywood era, plays Valerie as tough, savvy and intelligent, but with one look she is able to express vulnerability and sadness. Her incredible beauty and impeccable style (her clothes not only look like they were made specifically for her, but are timeless as well) are literally breathtaking. There is no doubt that she is a star of enormous quality and talent. Particularly during this early period of "talkies", there were a plethora of actors and actresses who may have looked gorgeous but couldn't act their way out of a paper bag. It was those who could that became immortalized and revered, and Bennett more than deserves a place in this upper echelon. Unfortunately, this praise can't extend to the rest of the featured cast. Joel McCrea obviously hadn't hit his stride yet, though he had made over a dozen pictures before this one. Though he plays his usual role, the handsome, earnest and ruffled hero, it would be a few more years before he shows some of the greatness that he exhibited in films like "These Three" or a decade later in "Sullivan's Travels". While he is likable in this film (other than when he is being a jealous ass) it is obvious that there are times when he is waiting for his cues, and the delivery is wooden. I have never seen Hedda Hopper in a film other than when she had a cameo in "Sunset Boulevard", so I was first surprised when I saw her name in the credits and even more surprised when I did more research and saw that she actually did 82 other films BEFORE this one was released. And here I thought she was simply a gossip columnist though if her work in "The Common Law" is indicative of the rest of her repertoire, then she found her true calling about 130 films too late. Unfortunately, her nosiness and rumored bitchiness in real life could not be channeled into her role as McCrea's bitchy and nosy sister because she was just terrible.
"The Common Law" is a fine example of Hollywood's pre-code era, when women didn't have to be saints, or if they were "subversive" (by Hays Code standards) they would be punished in the end. Instead we have a strong female role in which her strength is complimented by moments of vulnerability, and despite a non-adherence to a strict moral code dictated by some sects of society, there is a happy ending after all. 6/10 --Shelly
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