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Commercial artist Helen Bauer believes marriage kills romance. She lives with advertising writer Don Peterson. He convinces her to marry him. He later carries on with client Peggy Smith; Helen takes up with Don's competitor Nick Malvyn. In the end, the couple agree to give marriage another chance. Written by
Ed Stephan <firstname.lastname@example.org>
100 years after her birth, in 2008, to the credit of the greatest actor of the 20th century, it's impossible to separate the personal empowerment of Bette Davis' viewers from societies becoming more gender & sexually egalitarian.
"Ex-Lady" is the film version of an unperformed (1931) play "Illicit." By 1933, the blatant sexuality of "Ex-Lady" was close to being considered censor-able. Warner Bros'. production explores the subject of open marriage way before it was popular. Brazen director, French Robert Florey accentuates the acute blend of delicious dialog, succinct script, on-point performances & sensual cinematography.
Helen Bauer (Bette Davis at 25yo) is a sexy, fashion illustrator. Don Peterson (Gene Raymond at 22yo) is an advertising executive who's proposed marriage to Helen; but, she initially refuses not wanting to give up her independence. Much to the chagrin of Helen's overly moralistic father, Adolphe Bauer (Alphonso Ethier), the unwed couple is obviously having a live-in sexual relationship. Had this film been released later, these sexual aspects of an unwed relationship would've been censor-able due to the Hayes Code.
What's more, after Miss Bauer eventually becomes Mrs. Peterson, Helen's reluctance to marry comes across like the woman has intuition, when her husband begins a sexual flirtation with the bored, flapper wife, Iris Van Hugh (Claire Dodd), of his alcoholic business rival, Hugo Van Hugh (Frank McHugh). When Helen tries to platonically date a handsome rouge, Nick Malvyn (Monroe Owsley), he unsuccessfully attempts to make an adulteress of her!
Several examples of delightful dialog make my points plain:
Don (Raymond): "I'm just about fed up with sneaking in...let's get married so I'll have the right to be with you." Helen (Davis): "What do you mean 'right'? I don't like the word 'right'." Don: "Let's not quibble about words." Helen: "No, I'm not quibbling, 'right' means something. No one has any 'rights' about me, except me."
Helen soft & sincerely conveys what Bette Davis believed: women are men's equals. Part of the reason such films appeal(ed) to Davis' audiences so much is because she portrays empowered women. Helen 'says without saying' that she has the 'right' not to get married & enjoy her sexuality, too (in 1933!).
When Helen (Davis) says: "I don't want babies," Davis commented later in her life (1971), there'd be fewer divorces if couples didn't marry simply to have sex & babies. If her point, that couples who get married ought to do so because they are very strongly committed to one another, hasn't been socially adopted in the US yet, & couples still wed for moralistic reasons, Davis' Helen conveys a higher moral reason for marriage: a feminist one that holds very heavy weight today, since equality between women & men is all the more prevalent, as this early 20th century dialog reveals:
Don (Raymond): "You're a successful woman; I ought not to like it." Helen (Davis): "You're a pretty successful man; I ought not to like it." Don & Helen simultaneously: "I'm a man!"
As usual, Bette Davis' unique set of physical & verbal expressions convey a woman's power; this time without disempowering her man. This remains her appeal to women & men: as a woman's role model who is eventually actualized & an independent woman who men do love. In this sense, Bette Davis' characters, as role models of empowered women, have far reaching effects upon changing the social status of women to be equal to men and reveals that men do like it.
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