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The common law in "The Common Law" is that a girl is better off married
living in sin. That's a message that the Hays Code censors could have
gotten behind, but they never could have approved this 1931 film. In
the Hays Code was in effect but the Production Code Administration and its
tough boss Joe Breen, which rigidly enforced the Code, didn't come into
existence until 1934. As a result, the studios were able to ignore the
and get away with sexual themes that would soon become utterly
This was a necessity in 1931 because sex brought people into the theaters
and the industry was desperate to sell tickets during the depths of the
Valerie West, an American in Paris, makes her living by being the mistress of a rich American, Dick Cardemon, but she dumps him and starts a career as a nude model. She models for a mediocre but rich American painter named John Neville who falls madly in love with her. However, he evidently assumed she was a virgin because he dumps her when he finds out about Cardemon.
Later Valerie manages to pick up John once again at a very sexy Artists' Ball (there's a still photo of the ball in Vieira, "Sin in Soft Focus" (1999), p. 56). This time Valerie and John decide to live together without getting married, but that causes quite a scandal back home. John's snooty family tries to break them up, but...
The film is a very effective attack on the sexual double standard and on American upper-class conspicuous consumption, snootiness, and prudishness. Attacks on the upper class were quite popular in the early 1930's, given people's desperation in the Depression and the natural tendency to blame the rich for what happened. The film also shows that a smart, spunky, and beautiful girl can make very good despite having engaged in lots of free love (not to mention nude modeling) with rich men. Valerie is not punished for all that sin--in violation of the so-called "compensating values" norm later enforced by Breen and the Production Office. That norm would require that she receive some horrible punishment for engaging in extra-marital sex--but quite to the contrary, Valerie comes out just fine.
The film is an exceptionally interesting example of the kind of movies that were made at the beginning of the sound era but before the curtain came down in 1934 on candid treatments of sexual behavior.
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
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
It was said, possibly by David Niven, that Constance Bennett would walk
into a room at night to play cards and emerge the next morning looking
exactly the same as when she went in. I can believe it. Her beauty,
glamor, and freshness are beautifully showcased in "The Common Law"
about living and loving (freely) in Paris.
It seems strange that a movie made in 1931 should seem more modern than later films, but we can thank the Hayes code for that. In The Common Law, Bennett, when she's not shacking up with some guy, is a model for an artist, played by boyish Joel McCrea. The two fall in love, go through a breakup and reconcile. She is reticent about getting married. Then McCrea's conniving sister, having heard all the rumors, lures both she and McCrea back to America.
McCrea and Bennett made several films together, and they are a beautiful couple. He's big and wholesome; she's delicate and sophisticated. And of course, they're both incredibly beautiful.
It's always interesting to catch a pre-code movie, and The Common Law is a good one.
This movie has a lot of interesting things to say about marriage.
its message is that marriage is a social convention. Women get married
because marriage offers "protection." The emphasis in this movie is on
social protection: marriage will protect women from malicious social
and from other lecherous males.
John Neville (Joel McCrea) asks live-in girlfriend Valerie West (Constance Bennett) to marry him because he's "in love." She says she wants to wait because she wants to be sure that their love will last. When she marries, she wants it "to be for keeps." As she says, "I'm really quite an old-fashioned girl -- well, with some modern decorations." Valerie soon changes her mind when John's sister (played by Hedda Hopper) arranges a boat cruise inviting his father (played by Walter Walker), her former lover (played by Lew Cody), and another girl interested in John. Unable to stand the social awkwardness, the gossip, and the blatant advances of her former beau, Valerie decides that perhaps getting married even though she's not sure it will last is the best way to go after all.
A critique about society's views of women and marriage, this movie also boasts strong performances by Hedda Hopper as John's sister and Walter Walker as John's father. Hedda is particularly good as the nasty, bitchy hypocrite Claire Collis, who does all she can to break John and Valerie up while feigning ignorance about it. Constance Bennett also gives a strong performance as Valerie.
Being that this was a pre-Code and Constance's character was supposed to be a nude model, I had hoped that they might have snuck in some flashes of skin. Unfortunately, they don't. Even the portraits of Constance nude cover up the private areas. There is some nudity in the film though, a long shot of a group of presumably naked women posing on a float during a raucous French party.
Given the performances and the interesting message the movie has, I'd give it a 7/10.
Joel McCrea plays an American artist living in Paris. He hires a woman
(Constance Bennett) to be his nude model and eventually they fall in
love. However, when he learns she has a tawdry past, he runs off to
brood. Later, at debaucherous party, they meet once again. Soon, he
asks her to marry him--she suggests they cohabitate to see if he really
wants her. When the scandal of this relationship reaches his rich
parents' ears, his mother schemes to pull the two lovers apart.
However, in a strange scene, McCrea's on-screen father says that he
heartily approves of the pair living together and wishes them the best!
What happens next? See this odd film for yourself to find out for
If you haven't guessed, this film is CLEARLY an example of Pre-Code sensibilities. What I mean by that is that up until mid-1934, Hollywood's sense of morality was FAR looser than most folks would believe today. This was especially true from 1930-34--where adultery, premarital sex, violence, foul language, abortion and partial nudity were not terribly uncommon on the screen. But this moral code was not in line with America and soon folks started avoiding movies and ticket sales dropped. Soon, to lure back families, a strengthened Production Code was enforced--and films became, at times, a bit over-sanitized--but very family-friendly. Because of all this, there is zero chance this film could have been made after the Code was enforced--at least not without LOTS of revisions as well as a clear message that such immorality MUST be punished. But here in "The Common Law", the villains are NOT people who flaunt morality but the narrow-minded folks who don't approve and who, in some cases, are simply hypocrites! So is it worth seeing? Well, the film is well-acted and interesting. And, I do enjoy seeing many of the Pre-Code films because they are so strange and confusing--and entertaining!! So, I'd say this is very much worth seeing and a fine example of the genre.
If this isn't a plot that screams 'I'm a Pre-Code film!', nothing is!!
The Common Law according to The Films Of Joel McCrea casts Joel for the
very first time in white tie and tails, costuming he would get quite
used to as his career progressed. Fortunately for him he would never
get typecast in them the way Franchot Tone was.
This was also one of four films McCrea would do with Constance Bennett, a number that would qualify them as a screen team of sorts. The Common Law is one of those escapist dramas that Depression Era audiences just loved. This certainly showed a lifestyle that they dare not even dream about.
Joel is a rich young man who has gone to Paris to sow a few wild oats and play at being a Bohemian artist. While there he meets up with Constance Bennett another expatriate American who is living as kept mistress to Lew Cody, a really smarmy Frenchman. But she quarrels with Cody and hires out to McCrea as an artist's model. Naturally the two of them click.
But Joel's got a society sister in Hedda Hopper who is scandalized by such goings on. She'll break up McCrea and Bennett and save the family name and honor as she conceives it is.
The Common Law refers of course to marriage without benefit of clergy or at least civil sanction. This PreCode film while not condemning common law relationships does say women are better protected with a marriage license. An attitude easily understood today.
Robert Williams who later made such a hit in Frank Capra's Platinum Blonde has a supporting role as an perpetually inebriated playboy friend of McCrea's. His performance in this film confirms what a tragic loss he was to the big screen.
The Common Law is far more modern than a few films of today are even, definitely worth a look.
An American artist in Paris falls in love with his model and wants to
marry her, but she say's no. They argue and part. Bennett is beautiful
and bohemian. McCrea is handsome and conventional. They meet again at a
wild Artist's ball, Bennett wearing a gown and skull cap of glittering
sequins that's a knockout. She's irresistibly charming as she woos
herself back into the arms of the grumpy object of her affections.
This was another Bennett blockbuster. Variety's reviewer wrote, "It's from the customary Bennett mold (that) will make each a little less strong at the b.o." Those words proved prophetic. Reviewer also criticized the star's acting, "It's becoming as stereotyped as the stories themselves." I liked Bennett's acting, but what awful posture. On the other hand, Hedda Hopper knows how to stand up straight and keep her hands where they belong, but she can't act. Everyone else acts A-OK. The plot of this "risqué" movie is irrelevant. The only reason to watch it - then or now - is to see Bennett work her magic. That's why she was paid $5000 a week.
Joel McCrea was one of the great stars of Twentieth Century movies. I'm
not thinking of the Westerns for which he was best known, eventually,
but for his light comedy, slapstick, and serious comedy. Not to mention
his starring role in one of Hitchcock's very best: "Foreign
Correspondent." It seems as if many of the fine directors wanted to
work with him. In addition to Hitchcock, Preston Sturges used him --
twice. In "Sullivan's Travels" he is certainly an alter-ego for the
Early in his career he did light fare, often paired, as here, with Constance Bennett. He also worked with Miriam Hopkins on several occasions, including the far from comic "These Three." Here he is a painter in Paris. He's from a rich family but he's rebelling. He uses Bennett as a model -- and we see her nude. Not totally but first in her undergarments and then with a towel covering the parts we aren't allowed to see.
So how come he is such a prig when he finds out she is a lady with a past? He sure is, though.
The movie is filled with thudding quips and boring banter. It is fun overall but it definitely could have been a great deal better.
... because there is nothing at all remarkable about the plot. At the
beginning of the film Valerie West (Constance Bennett) is seen packing
a bag, ending a "common law" relationship with Dick Carmedon (Lew Cody)
as he tells her she will have only prostitution to fall back on if she
leaves him. Nothing keeps a gal from leaving you like telling her you
have such a high opinion of her! Valerie's reply is "That gives me an
idea". (HOW???) and she takes a job as a model for an artist, John
Neville (Joel McCrea). It's a nude modeling job, and Valerie is shy
about this. Probably the highlight of the film at that time (heck, now,
too!) is a long shot that follows in which it appears you have a full
nude side view of Constance Bennett, but it is far enough and blurry
enough that she must have had some kind of skin tight outfit on. The
precode days had their limits you know! This has all the earmarks of
any number of films in which rich guy (McCrea) falls for poor girl
(Bennett) with shady past but good character while others (his sister,
her old lover) try to undermine the situation and break them up. There
are some things that distinguish it. One is Joel McCrea as an American
in Paris who is not even trying to hide his natural western twang,
which really comes out whenever he is playing the part angry It does
get funny at times, especially when you meet the rest of his family -
understanding dad and plotting sister - and realize that they don't
sound western at all! Where on earth did this accent come from? I fault
the director here, because McCrea had modern dress parts before and
after this and was able to sound not so Western when the role required
Let me also commend Hedda Hopper here. She was great as McCrea's snobby sister who is smiling the whole time she is trying to manipulate Valerie out of her brother's life. She almost steals the show, but then nobody steals a show from Joel McCrea in my humble opinion!
"The Common Law," a rather common film for its time, begins with the driving, climactic music of Ferde Grofe's "Metropolis" over the opening credit roll followed by stock footage of Paris. The drama goes downhill from there. This is the old story of the fallen woman who must win the respect of the upright man in her life. The woman in this case is the stylish Constance Bennett, who unfortunately is draped too often in backless gowns which reveal the least attractive portion of her anatomy. She has just broken off a common law arrangement with an older man (Lew Cody, in a convincing portrait of aging dissipation) when she is hired as a model by a wealthy young American expatriate painter (Joel McCrea). Predictably, the young people fall in love but are forced to part when her tainted past becomes known via the gossip circuit. Among the unsavory tattlers are McCrea's plummy older sister (Hedda Hopper) and an alcoholic party boy (the entertaining Robert Williams). The resolution comes about as it always does in these fallen women pix, after much talk, flattering close-ups of the comely young stars and at least one extended scene at a social gathering, usually a night club or house party with lots of live music.
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