Of Devotion and Decency: When Ladies Meet (1933)

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A Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Production ~  Director: Harry Beaumont and Robert Z. Leonard, Based on a play by Rachel Crothers, Screenplay by John Meehan and Leon Gordon, Art Director: Cedric Gibbons,  Costume Designer: Adrian

What a clever movie this is, made by a clever group of people.  By emphasizing tasteful costumes, set designs and repartee, it comfortably explores the sometimes tawdry complications between the sexes without the slightest hint of vulgarity or tacky dis-ease.   It is a fine example of the sometimes sophisticated adult nature of early 1930’s film.

When Ladies Meet offers some witty dialogue to elucidate the relations between men and women and marriage.  Disguised initially as light banter the script soon reveals itself to be a crackling social commentary on sex outside of marriage particularly that within the confines of infidelity which turns out to be just as constricting for the women involved as marriage itself. Careful viewing reveals a multitude of sexy double entendres.

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Robert Montgomery and Myrna Loy~When Ladies Meet, personal collection

Robert Montgomery plays journalist and man about town Jimmy, smitten with author Mary, portrayed with determined naiveté by Myrna Loy.  Mary’s heart is committed to her editor, Rogers, a measured and middle-agedly handsome Frank Morgan, working against type as an intelligent yet shallow married man who enjoys variety in his relations with women. He is married to Clare, depicted by a solid, yet poignant Ann Harding, a bright, pragmatic and supportive spouse who has tolerated his affairs thus far. His dalliances are long-lasting but short-term and if that seems a contradiction it is; Morgan’s Rogers is a man whose true character is hidden from the women with whom he nurtures bonds, playing upon their loyalty and love to keep his own world an interesting one.  The inherent selfishness in his maneuvers only becomes clear once the extent of his deception and truth about his intentions is laid bare.  Jimmy has his number all along.

Jimmy is an interesting one too.  It is a testament to Montgomery’s appeal that he is able to say lines like the following and still retain the audience’s sympathy:

Mary:  You don’t know anything about women.

Jimmy:  Oh yes I do. All kinds, good and bad, straight and loose.  Some of the loose are the best; they’re honest anyway.  A woman pretends to be decent and isn’t, she’s just a so and so. When she’s good she’s good, when she’s bad she’s bad and that’s all there is to it.

Mary: Oh that’s just Victorian bunk.  You’re even out of touch with your own sex Jimmy.

Jimmy: Would you do what that girl in your book does?

Mary: A book’s a book.

Jimmy:  A man wants a decent woman to stay decent.  And if she doesn’t he bawls her out for doing the one thing that he’d always told her was the greatest thing a woman can do: giving him all for love.  Your girl ever did what she’d wanted to do the guy’d get so sick of her in about a year he’d poke her in the nose.  Gosh, I’ve persuaded so many women and hated ‘em afterwards.

Montgomery delivers these last lines with a bit of skillful staging.  Loy has her back to him as she deftly arranges a vase of flowers, precluding her from having to react, and sparring us the reaction shots that would overemphasize statements that are slipped in casually yet pointedly.  We are left then with our own reactions and glimpse into this man’s double standards, as he proceeds with what seems at times to be a monologue.  These sentiments were not unusual but what was unusual was that they were generally left unspoken.  This scene begins stripping away the romanticism of this tale before it has even begun.  But this exchange also underscores the motivation for him to essentially rescue Mary from a compromising affair with Rogers.  It’s not just that he’s in love with her.  It’s that he perceives her as one of the decent ones and despite her resolute devotion to Rogers he is determined to keep her on the good side of morality. Montgomery’s playfulness thinly veils the worldly cynicism of a man who has ‘lived,’ (hence the journalist occupation, which we never actually see him perform), and able to discern the motivations of another sophisticated man.

The film is based upon a stage play by Rachel Crothers who empathizes with her female characters and the situations that may develop due to their trusting natures.  Crothers’ women as shown here are straightforward, forthright and unabashedly honest, even regarding matters of sexual liaisons.  They expect the same from their men but don’t always get it.

The film retains some of its stage bound confines, primarily due to the heavy reliance upon dialogue.  There is little if any action but much is implied.  The plot moves by way of situations and arranged meetings, some by chance, some by deliberate machination.  The conversation above takes place in a beautiful enclosed garden with the couple then moving to a sunny terrace.  There we meet our comic relief Bridget (Alice Brady), a modern woman with a knowing way with a bon mot, a raised eyebrow and a man.  She punctuates scenes with humor and adds sardonic irony in a manner that sometimes makes us wonder if she fully knows the true import of her statements.  My guess would be she does.  She has a companion who seems to be little more than a bedmate, Walter (“Well I’m going back to bed. Come along Walter!”), played with amused youthful ambiguity by Martin Burton, who she dominates. His presence further breaks up this film’s dramatic moments, which come fast and furious as the film progresses.

The country house where the final half of the movie takes place is beautiful, with a lovely attention to detail, and a relaxed elegance that perfectly fits its characters and cast.  It is not surprising to find that Cedric Gibbons was nominated for an Oscar for Best Art Direction for When Ladies Meet, one of thirty-eight such nominations.  His sumptuous set design keeps the eye busy, despite the constraints of the confined cottage, which mirrors our characters predicaments.

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As expected by the title, Rogers women come together in a meeting of the minds, discussing the novel alluded to above in such a way that Clare begins to understand that the book is not entirely fictional. Harding is heroic and knowing, sometimes a bit too focused on the distant horizon with her delivery but able to quietly convey a strong woman whose world is falling apart while she does not. Loy is unabashed and perfectly natural in her part, seeming to channel her true self and her own clear-eyed Midwestern idealism.  It’s always a delight to find Morgan playing the straight man.  His true acting abilities shine, generally through eyes that convey resignation,  irritation, detachment or a mixture of all three.  He conveys a great deal in a quick glance.  It is fun to see this smart group of people play off one another.

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As sometimes is so, Montgomery is the smartest one in the picture.  Weaving deftly between his fellow actors, his expressive face handles comedic moments with a bit of exaggerated emphasis, reminding one of a narrator in a centuries old play.  Montgomery can be a bit of a scene-stealer without detracting from the film.

There’s some unpredictability in this little pre-Code number that sets it apart from many films of the Golden Age, and a fresh sensibility regarding women and the hazards of sexual freedom in a world still managed by men. It is this type of film whose loss I sometimes mourn the most with the advent of the strict enforcement of the Production Code.

Recommended, especially for lovers of language and melodrama.

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This post is a part of “The TCM 2016 Summer Under the Stars” Blogathon hosted by Kristen Lopez of Journeys in Classic Film

 

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Notes and Extras

  • This film is available through Amazon as a part of Warner Archive Collection’s Forbidden Hollywood, Volume 9.
  • Mick LaSalle has some discussion regarding this one in his outstanding book Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood, relishing in the movies frank and refreshing approach to marriage.  LaSalle notes that the movie “remains on the side of the women – both women – while the philandering man is the villain”.  This is indeed one of the delights of this film.
  • Movies were made very quickly in the 30’s, particularly in the early years.  While saying little about the actual making of this movie, Myrna Loy notes in her fascinating autobiography Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming, that she, Montgomery and Alice Brady “became a little coterie of three, occasionally going to [Brady’s] house or having something to eat after work.  That kind of easy camaraderie is rare in pictures”.
  • Harding and Loy had previously worked together in The Animal Kingdom, with the male lead being Leslie Howard, and Myrna again playing the other woman, yet with an entirely different outcome. Loy writes that although When Ladies Meet gave them several scenes together, Harding was a withdrawn person, a wonderful actress lacking a star temperament, a good quality in a co-worker but a very private woman.
  • Director Harry Beaumont directed a multitude of silent films, including the Joan Crawford break-out film, Our Dancing Daughters (1928).  His first sound film The Broadway Melody (1929) won the Best Picture Oscar in 1930. There were sixteen more films, four with Joan Crawford before this one, with eleven more movies to follow.  He helmed a whopping ninety-nine films during his lengthy directorial career.
  • Playwright Rachel Crothers was known as the leading female playwright of her time.  Additional work adapted for the screen included the Norma Shearer pre-Code, Let Us Be Gay (1930), another film about a husband’s infidelity and a wife’s response.  Interestingly enough, the film was first a play, later adapted by  Lucille Newmark and Francis Marion, both women, infusing this successful Shearer starring vehicle with a female-centric point of view.  Similarly to Crothers’ achievement in the theater, Marion would become known as the premier female screenwriter of the Golden Age of Hollywood, if not the 20th Century.
  • Loy and Montgomery maintained a casual life-long friendship only slightly inhibited by their later political differences.  While Myrna was a  politically-active liberal and friend to Eleanor Roosevelt,  Montgomery switched parties sometime after the war, later becoming a great support to Eisenhower, so much so that he had his own office in the White House.  He was in essence the first presidential media consultant in the new age of television, a revolutionary in his time.  In their patriotism and commitment to the United States, they had very much in common.  Loy described him as witty, silly and just as great fun offset as he was on screen. Loy later wrote how she wished she would’ve had more opportunities to work with him – “there were so many other things we could’ve done together”.  How wonderful that would’ve been for us!

Annex - Loy, Myrna (When Ladies Meet)_03

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