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It is 1915 in Vienna and the Great War has caused many casualties. Elsa decides to answer the patriotic appeals and help by working in the hospital, but her reputation causes her to be rejected. Because of her past, military intelligence wants her to find out whether an army major is spying for the allies. She meets the major at a dinner and they agree to meet later, but before she can keep the date, she is courted by a young naval officer named Karl. Falling in love, she ignores her spying assignment, but knows that she can never tell her new love about her life. When Karl has a chance to go on a heroic mission, Elsa sends him away with a dear Karl letter. However, the paths of these three people cross again and she decides what she must do. Written by
Tony Fontana <email@example.com>
A WOMAN OF EXPERIENCE (1931) is a rather interesting pre-Code melodrama set during WWI.
Helen Twelvetrees plays a "registered woman" (prostitute) in Vienna. With the outbreak of war, she patriotically offers her services as a nurse, but is turned away. She's then recruited as a spy, assigned to use her feminine charms to keep tabs on a suspected traitor in the Austrian army. But her assignment is derailed when she unexpectedly falls in love with a naive young naval officer who sees in her his ideal of female purity.
The naval lieutenant (William Bakewell) doesn't realize that Twelvetrees is "a woman of experience", and she hasn't the heart to wake him from his delusions. Meanwhile, all this romance is sidetracking Twelvetrees from her sworn duty. She can't tell the young lieutenant that she's a prostitute and she can't tell him that she's a spy, either.
When the lieutenant volunteers for a dangerous submarine mission, Twelvetrees finally has the opportunity to play Mata Hari. She tries to break things off with the lieutenant gently with a letter, explaining that she's found someone else in his absence, but her heart belongs only to him. He's the only man who's ever treated her halfway decent, ignorant as he is of her past.
It's not a particularly notable movie, but what stands out is the story's interesting combination of socially doomed romance (the notorious woman and the young aristocrat) with wartime intrigue. Not only is a woman -- a prostitute, no less -- recruited as a spy for her country, but that same prostitute also falls in love with an innocent young man from a respectable family.
On the one hand it's "Can this woman (of experience) prove to be a valuable citizen when her country needs her?" and on the other it's "How long can this love affair last before a.) the truth about her past, b.) his disapproving mother, or c.) unforeseen tragedy get in the way?" It's like two plots woven together into one.
I also found it interesting that the officer in charge of counterintelligence was shown with an actual book of "registered women", complete with headshots and vital statistics. The officer (played by H.B. Warner) symbolically removes Twelvetrees's photo when she accepts her assignment, but later replaces it when she fails to make headway.
With early talkies you sometimes hear unusual pronunciations of everyday words, for whatever reason. What amused me with A WOMAN OF EXPERIENCE was listening to all the characters pronounce "lieutenant" as "LOOT-nint".
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