Pre-Code Crazy: When Ladies Meet (1933)
The pickings for pre-Code in the month of December are not exactly abundant, if you know what I mean.
Aside from films that I’ve previously recommended – like Three on a Match – nothing really jumped out at me while reviewing my monthly TCM guide until my eyes fell upon When Ladies Meet (1933). This film, which was remade in 1941 with Joan Crawford and Greer Garson, stars Ann Harding, a woefully underrated actress of whom I’ve been quite fond for some time. I can’t really pinpoint why, though. Of course, she can act, but that’s no rarity in Hollywood. And she’s attractive, but she’s no raving beauty. I haven’t even seen many of her movies – just five or six! – but that handful was enough to make me a fan. I think that it has something to do with the naturalness of her. And each one of her characters (at least, those I’ve seen) is so down-to-earth and cool – the kind of woman that you’d want to hang out with. The kind of woman you wish you were.
When Ladies Meet (1933), which also stars two more of my favorites, Robert Montgomery (hubba hubba) and the always-grand Myrna Loy, tells the story of a rather interesting quartet of personas. At the center of everything is Loy’s character, Mary Howard, a writer working on her third novel. Mary is sought after (and that’s putting it mildly) by the charming and handsome journalist Jimmie Lee (Montgomery). Mary, however, only has eyes for her older, distinguished book publisher, Rogers Woodruff (Frank Morgan), who is married to Clare (Harding). And to close the circle, Clare and Jimmie strike up a friendship after meeting at a swank dinner party. Fluttering along the fringes of this little troupe is Bridget Drake (Alice Brady, playing a character who is more than slightly reminiscent of the dotty mother she played in My Man Godfrey). Bridget is Mary’s good gal pal, who is also fond of Jimmie and acquainted with Rogers as well.
Although Mary tries mightily – even indignantly, on occasion – to maintain that her relationship with Rogers is strictly business, neither Jimmie nor Bridget are buying what she’s selling. (We aren’t, either.) Jimmie subtly points out the parallels between her real-life situation to the one she’s writing about in her novel, which concerns a love triangle between a woman, her lover, and the man’s oblivious wife. But Jimmie doesn’t stop at surly wisecracks and carefully crafted asides about Mary’s relationship with Rogers – he’s got something far more impactful in mind. When Bridget invites Mary and, at Mary’s request, Rogers to her country home for the weekend, Jimmie hatches a scheme to lure Rogers away from the house and then shows up at Bridget’s with none other than Clare, under the guise of taking a wrong turn on a short cut to New York. Not only that, but he keeps her identity under wraps, introducing her to the group as his distant cousin, “Mrs. Clara Clare.”
Clare and Mary become fast friends, developing a mutual admiration society, neither knowing who the other really is. Mary tells Clare that she’s “so interesting and so contradictory. You’re so full of everything worthwhile – you simply vibrate with it.” But I’ll stop here –I’ll let discover for yourself the joy of eavesdropping on the riveting 15-minute exchange between Clare and Mary as they sit together by the fire, just girls together, smoking cigarettes and sharing secrets. And, you know, of course, that you’ve got a treat in store when Rogers returns to Bridget’s home to find his wife and his lover together.
Re-watching When Ladies Meet for this post reminded me of just how much I enjoy Ann Harding’s performances. I’m betting you will, too. And, incidentally, next to Harding’s Clare Woodruff, my favorite character in the film is Bridget, who as Mary described her, is a real scream. Here’re just a few of the nuggets she drops during the film:
“After all, why control yourself? Nobody else does. I know I’m a fool being so decent about Walter. Everybody else does exactly as they please, so why shouldn’t I? But I don’t. And the funny thing is that I actually don’t know whether it’s because I’m too good, or I haven’t got the nerve.”
“I tell you, this is an awfully hard age for a good woman to live in. I mean a woman who wants to have any fun. The old instincts of right and wrong merely hold you back. You’re neither one thing nor the other. You’re neither happy and bad, nor good and contented. You’re just discontentedly decent.”
“You know, if people would stop to investigate, nobody would ever marry anybody. There’s always insanity, or tuberculosis, or something.”
“I like you. I like you because most women who know anything always treat me as though I didn’t. And you don’t.”
“There’s no use trying to fool yourself. The only real unhappiness in life is losing a man. Of course, if he dies – well, that’s a different matter. If you lose him that way, then you know it isn’t your fault.”
“Death isn’t nature’s greatest mistake. Falling in love is. Of course, if we didn’t do that, all the misery of life would be cut right out of it. But my goodness, there wouldn’t be any fun, either. So what are you going to do about it?”
When Ladies Meet is based on the hit play by Rachel Crothers, which ran 173 performances on Broadway, from October 1932 to March 1933. (The cast included Walter Abel as Jimmie Lee, Selena Royle as Clare, Frieda Inescort as Mary, and Spring Byington as Bridget – a role that she would reprise in the 1941 remake.) It’s pretty obvious that the film’s source material is a play – the entire production takes place in only three settings – but it’s not at all stagy or overly talky. Oh, don’t get me wrong – there’s a whole lot of talking, but not too much.
Like Baby Bear’s bed – it’s just right.
Don’t miss When Ladies Meet, airing on TCM on December 28th. While it’s not your typical pre-Code, it definitely contains some scandalous situations and naughty lines that’ll make you raise your brows and go ‘hmmm.’
And that’s always a good thing.
Be sure to pop over to Speakeasy and check out Kristina’s pick for the month!