'The She-Wolf' would be totally implausible if it were not inspired by a real person. Hetty Green (1834-1916) was a miser financier who inherited $7.5 million from her Quaker father. Investing this in Civil War bonds and then in railway shares, she was worth at least $100 million when she dropped dead while haggling over the price of a bottle of milk. All of her wealth was built through her own business acumen, rather than passive investment. Her miserliness surpassed anything in Dickens. This millionairess once spent an entire night searching for a lost 2-cent stamp. She lived in the cheapest possible rooming-house, never used heat nor hot water, never washed, ate the cheapest possible food. She owned precisely one dress (black, of course) and only one set of undergarments, wearing these clothes until they wore out before she purchased others. When her son injured his leg, Hetty Green took him out of hospital (she was too mean to pay the medical bill) and tried to find a free clinic that would admit him as a charity case; eventually, the boy's leg became gangrenous and had to be amputated. Even then, Green haggled over the price of a prosthetic limb! When her peg-legged son reached adulthood, Green sent him hundreds of miles to deliver some valuable bearer bonds for her; when he reached his destination, the bond certificates turned out to be fake. (Green was testing her son's honesty.)
In 'She-Wolf', actress May Robson gives a standout performance as Hattie Breen, a character clearly based on Hetty Green. Hattie is the millionaire widow of a financier who spent his life competing with rival magnate William Remington. Although not quite a miser in Hetty Green's league, Hattie Breen is a right piece of work. For 15 years, she has been 'investing' the wages of her housemaid Maria; now, when Maria demands an accounting, Hattie claims to know nothing about it. She sacks her stenographer David Talbot, after exploiting him. Hattie's son Tom works for her, but she exploits him ruthlessly and she is hostile to Tom's pregnant wife Peggy. Hattie's daughter (annoyingly named 'Faire') is also exploited and harassed. Eventually, Remington offers Tom millions of dollars to come work for Remington's interests ... but this will require Tom to betray the business secrets of his mother, who has done everything conceivable to ruin his life, his health and his marriage. (Sounds like a no-brainer to me.)
This movie is Robson's all the way. An extremely talented actress who spent most of her career in obscurity, but who was fortunate enough to reach near-stardom in lead roles at an advanced age, Robson displays a wide range of emotions here in a role that could easily have toppled into melodramatics. The script gives Robson several long speeches: the movie stalls at these points, but Robson's characterisation is excellent.
SPOILERS COMING. After going to such lengths to establish Hattie Breen as an utterly ruthless businesswoman who cares about nothing but profits (and controlling other people), the movie then does a volte-face and reveals that, deep down, Hattie has really got (all together now) a heart of gold. Astonishingly, her son and her former secretary both decide to remain loyal to Hattie: this is barely plausible for the son, but not remotely plausible for the secretary. Hattie comes through for the cheated housemaid Maria. The last scene is extremely annoying, as it requires Hattie to set up a highly contrived situation merely to pull a pointless 'joke' on her son. Hattie tells Tom that his wife Peggy is intimately entertaining the president of the Mohawk Central Railroad. It turns out that Peggy is nursing her infant son ... whom Hattie has just appointed to the presidency of a railway she owns! (Must be an interesting stockholders' meeting.)
'The She-Wolf' is a bizarre film. Significantly, the least plausible portions of this film are the fictional inventions and contrivances, while the most plausible portions are the scenes in which Hattie Breen's behaviour emulates that of the actual Hetty Green. I'm astonished that nobody has yet made a film about the real Hetty Green, whose true story is far more fascinating than anything in 'The She-Wolf'. I'll rate this Hollywood concoction 7 points out of 10.
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