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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.
I saw this on TCM one day & was so delighted I actually recorded it. It
is a rare gem and I found the screenplay and acting both believable and
enjoyable. As many reviewers have noted, it is Pre-Code, meaning that
women are allowed cleavage and men and women were portrayed in a
natural way- that is sleeping in the same bed. (I actually remember
asking my mom one time why Ricky Ricardo & Lucy slept in separate beds
if they were married? What did they do, squeeze into that tiny bed the
night Ricky, Jr. was conceived?! Preposterous! As most of the post-code
But the 2 main strong points of the movie are Bette (of course) and the dialog. Bette plays Helen Bauer, a successful commercial artist and Gene Raymond plays Don Peterson, a successful advertising manager. There's a part early on in the movie when Helen & Don are discussing their relationship and it goes like this:
Don: "I'm just about fed up with sneaking in... let's get married so I'll have the right to be with you." Helen: "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."
And it's the WAY she says it, that means so much. She is able to say it and really mean it- without offending him.
Her character believes that women have the same rights as men. This is something I've always believed in very strongly myself, so I admit this is part of the reason the movie appeals to me so much. She also believes that she doesn't *have* to get married. And there's one part of the movie where she actually says the "dread" line, "I don't want babies." I look for the smelling salts as I write this! All kidding aside- good luck finding a female character this independent nowadays. I have to be honest- if more people thought like her, there would be less divorce. Her point is well taken- you should only really enter into marriage if you really want to. People marry for all kinds of reasons that have nothing to do with it. Helen's character even holds to her beliefs in the face of a very disapproving father. Even in the confrontation scene, she maintains her dignity and her beliefs without criticizing her parents' beliefs. There's another bit of dialog that shows how she thinks:
Gene: "You're a successful woman; I ought not to like it." Bette: "You're a pretty successful man; I ought not to like it." Gene & Bette in unison: "I'm a man!"
--- and Bette's body language says it all- she conveys the strength of will without robbing the man of his- something she has always been able to do so well and enigmatically. This also shows she's realistic- she's knows the times she lives in. And people that think that way will always be modern and contemporary. It definitely gives viewers a reason to watch something this amazing- especially considering it was made in 1933!
The rest of the cast if good and her partner in the movie played by Gene Raymond does a very nice job. They have a good chemistry on screen. As this is a pre-code movie and early Bette, I suppose those 2 reasons alone would make it worth watching- but the script and acting are also really good.
- update: I was looking at this movie today on IMDb and saw that 5 out of 10 people found my review helpful....what? did I hit a nerve with baby comment? or was it the one about only entering into marriage for love? I dunno but I thought I reviewed the movie and gave info that would help someone decide if it's the kind of movie they want to watch. Isn't that what the reviews are here for? to help?
Then I noticed ALL the reviews are like that (12 out of 24, 5 out of 10) so I guess somebody out there just doesn't like this movie. Maybe a post-code mentality?? ;)
Going into Ex-Lady I really didn't expect Bette Davis to have that much
chemistry with Gene Raymond, who has never been a particular favorite
of mine; I always considered him too feminine a leading man, with that
blonde hair and non-threatening, laid back physique. However in this
film I was pleasantly surprised: I think working with dynamo Bette made
Gene a much better actor. I get the feeling he really went to school
watching her, and gave a performance to match. I like him a lot better
here than in Red Dust, for instance.
The plot of Ex-Lady dances around a provocative subject quite deftly, with witty dialog and great pacing. Bette plays a successful commercial artist who is in love with a fellow who wants to marry her, but she is unwilling to take the plunge. She'd rather live in sin with her beloved. Even when confronted by her parents she defies tradition. However eventually she decides to marry her lover so that she doesn't lose him. The marriage has some jittery ups and downs, and in the interim we are treated to some fine character actors playing mischief makers popping in and out of the couple's life, creating mayhem.
Frank McHugh is quite funny and breezy as their ultimate matchmaker - even though he has his own secret yen for the artist, he does what he can to resolve the situation sacrificially. Monroe Owsley ("Private Number") is a leering confrontative distraction to Bette. Striking Kay Strozzi makes her play for the husband too desperately for her own good. All this makes for wonderful fun. However once again, as with most precode films, we have a traditional, conservative ending to our story. This may be realistic, it may not, to each his own. I prefer happy endings myself.
9 out of 10.
I saw this film expecting an early Bette Davis effort of somewhat
questionable value. Instead I found a highly entertaining film which
made an artistic mark. The acting by Davis is, of course, always worth
watching, but what really set this film apart was the script and the
The script, while not a masterpiece, is considerably above the norm. It is witty, and understanding of the desires, pride and foolishness of young, intelligent people in love. Bette plays it superbly with a slightly bored, worldly-wise exterior, and a passionate but somehow innocent interior. She is the focus of the film, the other actors being mainly satellites around her. They do a competent job, but the show is all hers.
The Deco sets were designed by someone with an obvious artistic talent and a flare for that style. Just looking at the sets and the costumes is worth the price of seeing the film. What is a real surprise is that the director used Bette as a kind of art object. The way she would pose and slouch, the style and color of her hair, the way she would hold her cigarette, her glass, the way she would arrange her body, and her expression so completely complement these lavish sets as to be a art display in themselves. This movie would be entertaining if you turned off the sound track and just watched the visuals - it is that good.
I am completely unfamiliar with the director, Robert Florey. In looking over the names of his films, none stand out for me as films of importance. Apparently he was awarded a French medal for his contributions to Cinema. If this film is any indication, and if he is truly responsible for the artistic elements in this film, then he is a very overlooked and important director.
Good acting and a slightly snappy script keep your interest afloat for this light sex comedy about marriage and early woman's lib. Decadent 30's New York is the background for this I-was-checking-out-while-she-was-checking-in (thank you, Don Covay!) tale of wavering fidelity.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Ex-Lady was important as a film way ahead of it's time in content and
expression. This was one of Bette's least favorite films, but she also
said that it was ahead of it's time. The premise here is that a woman
can think and behave the same as a man when given the opportunity.
Bette plays a successful artist, Helen Bauer, who's in love with an equally successful ad man, Don Peterson. (Gene Raymond) At the beginning of the movie, Helen's father has a showdown with Don, sort of like old world meeting new. This gets Don to thinking, and he suggests to Helen that they get married. Helen thinks that marriage kills romance and personal freedom, so she refuses him initially. Later in the movie, she accepts his proposal and they marry, combining their careers. This would be quite a challenging proposition even today, and the inevitable happens. Don becomes somewhat insecure and begins an affair with the bored wife of a client.
Bette decides that this is all the fault of a traditional marriage, just like she had told Don in the beginning. They decide on a trial separation, but when this doesn't work any better than the ordinary marriage arrangement they had before, they agree to make a go of their marriage.
There are two very surprising, but not so surprising moments in this pre-code film. One is at the beginning of the movie, when Don lets himself into Helen's apartment after a party and it's obvious that the two have an ongoing relationship sans marriage. The other is while they're on honeymoon in Cuba and it's apparent that something is going on under the table and behind the shrubbery at a nightclub/restaurant! See this movie to see a stunning, blonde Bette Davis at the beginning of her career and for pure pre-code, lighthearted fun!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Helen Bauer was a woman way ahead of the times. She's having an affair
with Don Peterson, an advertising executive. When we first meet them,
they are seen at a party at Helen's apartment. Helen chases everybody
out because she has to go to bed, but later on, her door is opened by
Don Peterson who clearly intends to stay the night. What makes matters
worse is the unexpected arrival of Helen's parents the following
morning. Don is seen in silhouette adjusting his tie in Helen's
bedroom, sending Mr. Bauer into shock.
Don proposed to Helen, who accepted reluctantly. She hates to give up her independence, but finally says yes to Don. As a couple Helen and Don are struggling making his business work. The marriage is not exactly a bed of roses for Helen and Don. When she proposes that each live apart, he reluctantly approves. The "open marriage" situation comes to a head as Helen spies Don with another woman and it becomes clear the experiment, instead of uniting them, keeps them apart.
This 1933 Warner Bros. picture is daring in treating the idea of an open marriage way before it became fashionable. "Ex-Lady" was an exception in the films Bette Davis was made to appear before her confrontation with the studio chief Jack Warner. Bette Davis was taking whatever roles came her way in unforgettable films. "Ex-Lady" is a bit different in the way it dealt with the subject, something that was to change soon after.
Bette Davis appears as a blonde. Her Helen Bauer has brilliant moments in the film, although the screen play is not the best asset in this film. Gene Raymond, a bland leading man, makes one of his best appearances; perhaps playing opposite Ms. Davis inspired him to excel. Frank McHugh, one of the best character actors of the era, is seen as the couple's rich friend. Monroe Owsley has a small part as Nick, Helen's admirer.
The film packs a lot in its 67 minutes running time, helped no doubt, by Robert Florey's direction.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Finally, Warner Brothers got the story right in this still average but
definitely better remake of 1931's "Illicit", a pre-code drama that
didn't quite hit the scandal button in its story of a single couple
obviously having an open sexual relationship then finding that marriage
bores them both to tears. That version starred a rising Barbara
Stanwyck who added the only touch of class to an otherwise middle of
the road youth drama that needed a spark to get it off the proverbial
ground. Another rising young actress (somebody named Bette Davis) took
on the same part, and fortunately, the writers and casting directors
were on her side this time as she got a more exciting leading man (Gene
Raymond) and a much snappier screenplay.
The premise and formula are pretty much the same, although some of the details have changed. This time, the leading female character has a career (artist) which adds different dimensions and makes her much more interesting than just a Park Avenue socialite with nothing more to do than attend parties and complain about her boredom with the marital game. Rather than an understanding father of the male lead, the heroine's parents show up, obviously European immigrants who have very old fashioned ideals about the sanctity of marriage. There's a much more humorous version of "Illicit's" Charles Butterworth character, here played by Frank McHugh. When first seen, he is imitating the curves of an unseen drawing which the audience assumes to be the female anatomy. Later, he disrupts a potential liason between the now married Davis and Raymond, and their change of plans (which doesn't include him) brings in more much needed humor.
A shot of Davis and Raymond sleeping in the same bed is quite amazing for this day and age, showing the ridiculousness of the censor's insistence of couples (married or not) having at least one foot on the floor if seated or lying on a bed. This makes for an even racier version of an already told story, and at more than ten minutes less than its predecessor, the heat is definitely on a higher range than what had just been two years before. Davis and Stanwyck are certainly equals in the talent department, and it is a shame that Barbara didn't get the same opportunities that Bette did. While this film is far from a classic, it represents pre-code at its juiciest and is definitely far superior than the original script which it was based upon.
Bette Davis Pre-Code film about a "free-spirit" (Davis) who doesn't
believe in marriage. Eventually she caves to pressure and marries beau
Gene Raymond (dig those eyebrows). Marriage takes its toll and ol' Gene
starts fooling around on Bette. That's not good. Hope these two crazy
kids can make it work.
So-so soaper is a remake of the Barbara Stanwyck movie Illicit. This version is less creaky than that one but still its only real value is to Pre-Code buffs and those who admire its unconventional subject matter, which was daring for the time. Despite poor posture, young Bette looks great in one tight dress after another. She enunciates every word in that manner that was so popular among "sophisticated" people in movies back then (fatha, motha, stahved, etc). Fun stuff. If you're a big fan of Bette, check it out. Otherwise, I wouldn't bother.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
It isn't that the plot is thin. It isn't that the plot is superficial.
The problem is that you have about 45 minutes of real plot in a 67
The story is pretty simple, though obviously pre-code: Man and woman are in love and spend a very long time deciding whether to really be married or not. Okay, not a bad premise, but presented in a very wishy washy way. I wanted to shake both of them and say, "Make up your damn minds!" If you're a Bette Davis fan...as I am...you ought to watch this film (even though I found it tremendously disappointing); no one else need suffer through this yawn. Gene Raymond, with whom I was not familiar, was passable as the husband. I wasn't familiar with Kay Strozzi, who played the other woman, but based on this film she may very well be the worst actress of all time! Frank McHugh is terribly cast here.
Honestly , it's a wonder the film industry didn't turn back to talkies after having to listen to this banal script. Pass it by while pinching your nose. (And just for the record, Bette Davis is my favorite actress).
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