Pre-Code Crazy at the TCM Film Fest: Double Harness (1933)
When I viewed this month’s TCM “Now Playing” Guide and saw that Double Harness was airing, I knew in a flash that it would be my Pre-Code Crazy pick for May. Not only is it a first-rate pre-Code that stars two of my favorite performers, but it was also screened at the 2016 Turner Classic Movies Film Festival! Win, win, win!
Double Harness stars Ann Harding (and if you’re not familiar with this talented actress, you simply must check her out!) as Joan Colby, who has very definite ideas on the subject of marriage. According to Joan, marriage is a woman’s business, and love has nothing to do with it – love is an emotion, she maintains.
“A man doesn’t let emotion interfere with his business,” Joan explains. “And if more women would learn not to let emotion interfere with theirs, fewer of them would end up in the divorce court.”
Joan sets her matrimonial sights on her lover John Fletcher (William Powell), a wealthy playboy who is allowing his family’s shipping business to slip down the tubes. Despite Joan’s firm convictions, she soon finds that she has fallen for John. Since John makes no secret of the fact that he’s not the marrying kind, Joan employs trickery to coerce him into a walk down the aisle, and enlists her sister, Valerie (Lucile Browne), to aid her in her scheme.
After Joan’s father “accidentally” finds her in a state of undress in John’s apartment, John takes the noble road and marries Joan, but in a strikingly civil exchange on their honeymoon, Joan learns that John expects her to divorce him. He only agreed to marry her because of the ease in securing a divorce, he tells her, adding that “I assumed that your sportsmanship would at least be equal to mine.” Although the two decide that Joan will wait six months before filing the papers, Joan doesn’t throw in the towel – instead, she works on being the ideal wife, from showing their cook how to prepare delicious dishes, to encouraging John to regain his interest in his family’s business. She even displays grace under pressure when she discovers John dining with his former girlfriend, Monica Page (Lilian Bond). Rather than cause a scene or undertake a furtive exit from the restaurant, Joan graciously greets the pair and actually invites Monica to their home for an upcoming dinner party. After Joan’s departure, even Monica has to grudgingly admit, “She’s a very clever woman.”
Just when John begins to realize that he returns the love Joan has for him, Joan’s sister, Valerie, pops up with the proverbial monkey wrench in hand. Valerie, incidentally, is Joan’s diametric opposite; flighty and an enthusiastic proponent of the cocktail hour (if you know what I mean), she’s also quite fond of the material things in life, even if she doesn’t have the means to pay for them. When her overspending habits cause a rift in her marriage, Valerie first turns to Joan for financial aid, and when her sister is all tapped out, Valerie puts the squeeze on John – and it’s this action that sets in motion a series of events that you’ll just have to see for yourself.
I’ve only seen Double Harness twice – the first time was a couple of years ago, and then at the recent TCM film fest – but it is fast moving up my list of favorite pre-Codes. Ann Harding is quietly luminous; her character is at once intelligent, vulnerable, thoughtful, and tenacious. And, then there’s William Powell, who adds panache to any film and, for me, is more attractive and appealing in this film than any other. These two are more than ably backed by the film’s supporting cast, especially Bond, who’s perfectly cast as Powell’s nice-nasty former flame, and Browne, who will make you want to give her Valerie a swift kick. Or a sharp slap. Either one.
Double Harness is airing on TCM on May 27th – do yourself a huge favor and check it out. You won’t be sorry.
Don’t forget to pop over to Speakeasy to find out what pre-Code gem Kristina is covering for this month!