Monday, January 26, 2015

Bette Davis Month Bonus: 'Ex-Lady' (1933)

For a film made in 1933, Ex-Lady features remarkably progressive values, but its open-mindedness (helped by being made before the implementation of the Production Code) only carries it so far. It's refreshing and even a little jarring at first to see single career woman Helen Bauer (Bette Davis) carrying on a sexual relationship with ad executive Don Peterson (Gene Raymond), and to stand up to her very old-fashioned parents when they try to pressure her into getting married. It's obvious these two are having plenty of premarital sex with no consequences, and that they are completely happy about it.

Unfortunately, the movie has them get married anyway, at Don's insistence, although at least becoming a wife doesn't mean that Helen has to stay home and cook all day. She joins Don's advertising firm as a junior partner, and it's clear throughout the movie that her skills as an illustrator and graphic designer are in much higher demand than Don's skills at whatever he does. But this isn't quite the proto-Mad Men it sounds like; the intrigue is mostly dull and plodding, and the characters lack the spark they seemed to have at the beginning of the movie. Once married, Helen and Don immediately get into a rut, made worse by financial troubles at the ad agency.

Despite their early hedonism, they both turn out to be rather dull, and even Helen's antipathy toward marriage is more about her being a stubborn stick in the mud than a free-spirited lover. She decides that getting married was the cause of their problems, just as she predicted, so they decide to separate and become lovers again, living apart and going on dates every so often, while half-heartedly pursuing (but never consummating) dalliances with other people. There's no sense of what drew Helen and Don together in the first place, nor any real sense of what then pushes them apart. The movie ends with the pair making a renewed commitment to married life, but again, it's hard to see what has changed that will make their second effort any more successful.

As usual, Davis is strongest when she's playing Helen as a feisty, independent woman, and she's less appealing once Helen gets needy and indecisive. Raymond is more of a blank slate, and he plays Don as a reluctant reactor, just as likely to go along with Helen's progressive marital ideas as he is to fall back on convention, depending on who's around. It makes for a mismatched relationship, with little audience investment in whether the pair will stay together or not. As carefree, rule-flouting lovers, they're refreshing, but as a couple, they're a total bore.

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