To Wed or Not To Wed: Illicit (1931) and Ex-Lady (1933)

Illicit00006gene_raymond-bette_davis-ex_lady1Today’s Hollywood has a reputation for unoriginality, but the classical era was also rife with recycling. Before Robert Riskin became Frank Capra’s favorite screenwriter, he was a struggling playwright with co-writer Edith Fitzgerald. When their 1930 sex comedy Many a Slip became a modest hit and was adapted at Universal, Warner Brothers optioned one of their un-produced plays and cranked out two movie versions in three years. Illicit (1931) and Ex-Lady (1933), both available on DVD from the Warner Archive, reveal a studio in flux, scrambling to grab the audience’s waning attention during the Great Depression. Both cast energetic young ingenues in the role of a liberated woman who thinks marriage is a prison, but gets hitched anyway for the sake of the man she loves.   Illicit stars Barbara Stanwyck and opts for escapism, taking place among the leisure class of NYC, from Manhattan townhouse hangars to Long Island mega mansions. The story gets downsized in Ex-Lady, with Bette Davis given a middle-class  job as an illustrator for an ad agency. The shift is an early and unsuccessful attempt (Ex-Lady was a flop) at Warners’ downmarket move to court blue-collar dollars, which would pay dividends soon after with saucy Busby Berkeley backstage musicals and gritty James Cagney gangster flicks.

Illicit00007Barbara Stanwyck had become a hot commodity following her breakthrough role in Frank Capra’s Ladies of Leisure (1930), and Warner Brothers ponied up $7,000 a week to Columbia Pictures to secure her services for Illicit and director Archie Mayo. Stanwyck was a self-described “party girl” in Ladies of Leisure, and in Illicit she has no life outside of night clubs and boudoirs – Annie (Stanwyck) opens the film in her lover’s airy loft and ends it begging to go back. Despite her quick wit and initial refusal to get married, any sense of freedom is illusory. What’s real are the monotonous interior two-shots that Mayo frames, in which Annie is either aside her lover Dick (James Rennie) or crying for his return. So regardless of the ebbs and flows of the plot, which presages the slapstick comedies of re-marriage in decades to come (epitomized by The Awful Truth), there is no doubt it will end in marriage.

Illicit00003

What pleasures there are derive from Stanwyck and her supporting cast, including Joan Blondell (as “Duckie) and Charles Butterworth as alcoholic comic relief. Stanwyck, still only 23 years old, is lends a mischievous unpredictability to her underwritten character. As she teasingly runs down a list of her ex-lovers to Dick, she lowers her voice into that of a sober news anchor and conducts her words with a jabbing index finger, hoping to bore jealousy straight into his heart. There is too little of Blondell, but she lends her usual wide-eyed effervescence, while Butterworth works in slow motion. His drunk looks as pallid as a corpse but with slightly faster reaction time, a character that would be dreadfully sad if he wasn’t so funny.

tumblr_lpcwk5V4o31qg8r34o1_1280

Louella Parsons called Illicit, ““as smart as next year’s frock, as modern as television, and as sophisticated as a Parisian hotel clerk”, so it did well enough for Warners to revive the material in 1933, re-titled Ex-Lady and directed by talented journeyman Robert Florey. Florey worked as an assistant director to Louis Feuillade, Chaplin and von Sternberg, and made a name for himself with the experimental short The Life and Death of 9413 – A Hollywood Extra (1928, watch here), made with Slavko Vorkapich and Gregg Toland. A mournful satire of an artist getting chewed up by the movie business, Florey would go on to have a long career in the Bs and then on television. Whether it was Florey’s influence or screenwriter David Boehm (Gold Diggers of 1933), Ex-Lady provides a far more nuanced portrait of a woman’s position in society. It was Bette Davis’ first starring role, after receiving raves in a supporting part in Michael Curtiz’s Cabin in the Cotton (1932). She plays Helen, a more aggressive version of Stanwyck in Illicit. She carries on an affair with Don (Gene Raymond), but is also a highly sought after advertisement illustrator. She has a life and career outside of romantic entanglements. So when Don proposes awkwardly, “Let’s get married so I’ll have the right to be with you”, Helen retorts, “What do you mean…right? I don’t like the word ‘right’. No one has any rights about me, except me.”

Annex - Davis, Bette (Ex-Lady)_02

Annie framed her objection to marriage as a way to keep a relationship fresh, whereas for Helen is expressly a matter of personal freedom, which is why Jeanine Basinger writes in A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930 – 1960 that Ex-Lady, “is a liberated statement to its audience.” This liberation also extends to her sexual desires. During a trip to Cuba, Helen is visibly aroused by a nightclub act and raises an eyebrow to Don – they slink out to a nearby bench while the camera tastefully descends behind it. Davis is clad in revealing deshabille throughout, but she gives the initiative in the most explicit scene in the film. Her desires and her abiding love for Don lead to a temporary union, built on ever-shifting compromise, overturning one of Helen’s earlier zingers that “compromise is defeat.”

There is no stability in Ex-Lady, even in its conclusion. Where in Illicit Annie says, “What have theories to do with love”, destroying her previously stated princples, the climax of Ex-Lady provides a more complicated, bittersweet view. After Helen and Don have both drifted towards other lovers, Helen opines that open relationships and marriage both hurt, but that she guesses marriage hurts less.

14 Responses To Wed or Not To Wed: Illicit (1931) and Ex-Lady (1933)
Posted By Doug : May 28, 2013 1:10 pm

Mr Sweeney, thank you for this great post. I stopped right at the paragraph and watched the Florey film. Amazing and inventive. It brought to mind “Mulholland Drive”. I wonder if Lynch saw this film as a young man?
Stanwyck and Davis-wow. Those pictures, especially the one of Davis holding the clapper show exactly why those two ladies became stars-our eyes are drawn to them.
“Girl meets boy” or rather, “Woman meets man on HER terms” could be the plot of those movies, which I would love to see-Warner Archive must get a lot of traffic thanks to Morlocks.

Posted By Doug : May 28, 2013 1:10 pm

Mr Sweeney, thank you for this great post. I stopped right at the paragraph and watched the Florey film. Amazing and inventive. It brought to mind “Mulholland Drive”. I wonder if Lynch saw this film as a young man?
Stanwyck and Davis-wow. Those pictures, especially the one of Davis holding the clapper show exactly why those two ladies became stars-our eyes are drawn to them.
“Girl meets boy” or rather, “Woman meets man on HER terms” could be the plot of those movies, which I would love to see-Warner Archive must get a lot of traffic thanks to Morlocks.

Posted By Emgee : May 28, 2013 3:53 pm

Stanwyck and Davis-wow, indeed. But Stanwyck and Blondell……..WOW!!

Definitely must-see movies; thanks for the great write-up.

Posted By Emgee : May 28, 2013 3:53 pm

Stanwyck and Davis-wow, indeed. But Stanwyck and Blondell……..WOW!!

Definitely must-see movies; thanks for the great write-up.

Posted By Qalice : May 28, 2013 6:44 pm

Yes, thanks for this write-up! I’ve seen and been disappointed by “Illicit,” which is particularly painful for a Stanwyck fan. Now I can’t wait to see “Ex-Lady”!

Posted By Qalice : May 28, 2013 6:44 pm

Yes, thanks for this write-up! I’ve seen and been disappointed by “Illicit,” which is particularly painful for a Stanwyck fan. Now I can’t wait to see “Ex-Lady”!

Posted By Christine in GA : May 28, 2013 6:51 pm

Thanks so much for the great article. Stanwyck and Davis are my favorite actresses of all time and your accompanying photos were terrific. Pre-code Hollywood was a special creative time, indeed, and I sure wish it could have gone on longer.

Posted By Christine in GA : May 28, 2013 6:51 pm

Thanks so much for the great article. Stanwyck and Davis are my favorite actresses of all time and your accompanying photos were terrific. Pre-code Hollywood was a special creative time, indeed, and I sure wish it could have gone on longer.

Posted By swac44 : May 30, 2013 11:02 am

Put me on the disappointed list for Illicit as well. We watched it recently in a group at the start of an evening of pre-codes, and we went into it with high hopes, considering the combo of Stanwyck, Blondell and Mayo behind the camera, but it seemed to suck all the air out of the room instead. James Rennie’s deadly dull romantic interest didn’t help matters much either. We were able to get things back on track with Safe in Hell afterward, but it was a close call.

Posted By swac44 : May 30, 2013 11:02 am

Put me on the disappointed list for Illicit as well. We watched it recently in a group at the start of an evening of pre-codes, and we went into it with high hopes, considering the combo of Stanwyck, Blondell and Mayo behind the camera, but it seemed to suck all the air out of the room instead. James Rennie’s deadly dull romantic interest didn’t help matters much either. We were able to get things back on track with Safe in Hell afterward, but it was a close call.

Posted By Doug : May 30, 2013 6:23 pm

swac44-off topic,but I just bought a TV show called “Made In Canada” which is supposed to be somewhat in the spirit of the Larry Sanders show-are you familiar?
I loved “Slings and Arrows”, all three seasons, and am hoping that this one is as good.

Posted By Doug : May 30, 2013 6:23 pm

swac44-off topic,but I just bought a TV show called “Made In Canada” which is supposed to be somewhat in the spirit of the Larry Sanders show-are you familiar?
I loved “Slings and Arrows”, all three seasons, and am hoping that this one is as good.

Posted By swac44 : May 31, 2013 12:13 pm

I enjoyed Made in Canada, it had some great digs at our film industry here in the Great White North (in fact, in other countries it was shown as “The Industry” rather than it’s original title), and I know a few of the folks involved in making it (Rick Mercer is a very witty dude, but virtually unknown outside of Canada). Hope you enjoy it!

Posted By swac44 : May 31, 2013 12:13 pm

I enjoyed Made in Canada, it had some great digs at our film industry here in the Great White North (in fact, in other countries it was shown as “The Industry” rather than it’s original title), and I know a few of the folks involved in making it (Rick Mercer is a very witty dude, but virtually unknown outside of Canada). Hope you enjoy it!

Leave a Reply

Current day month ye@r *

MovieMorlocks.com is the official blog for TCM. No topic is too obscure or niche to be excluded from our film discussions. And we welcome your comments on our blogs and bloggers.
See more: facebook.com/tcmtv
See more: twitter.com/tcm
3-D  Action Films  Actors  Actors' Endorsements  Actresses  animal stars  Animation  Anime  Anthology Films  Art in Movies  Australian CInema  Autobiography  Avant-Garde  Aviation  Awards  B-movies  Beer in Film  Behind the Scenes  Best of the Year lists  Biography  Biopics  Blu-Ray  Books on Film  Boxing films  British Cinema  Canadian Cinema  Character Actors  Chicago Film History  Cinematography  Classic Films  College Life on Film  Comedy  Comic Book Movies  Crime  Czech Film  Dance on Film  Digital Cinema  Directors  Disaster Films  Documentary  Drama  DVD  Early Talkies  Editing  Educational Films  European Influence on American Cinema  Experimental  Exploitation  Fairy Tales on Film  Faith or Christian-based Films  Family Films  Film Composers  Film Criticism  film festivals  Film History in Florida  Film Noir  Film Scholars  Film titles  Filmmaking Techniques  Films of the 1980s  Food in Film  Foreign Film  French Film  Gangster films  Genre  Genre spoofs  HD & Blu-Ray  Holiday Movies  Hollywood history  Hollywood lifestyles  Horror  Horror Movies  Icons  independent film  Italian Film  Japanese Film  Korean Film  Literary Adaptations  Martial Arts  Melodramas  Method Acting  Mexican Cinema  Moguls  Monster Movies  Movie Books  Movie Costumes  movie flops  Movie locations  Movie lovers  Movie Reviewers  Movie settings  Movie Stars  Movies about movies  Music in Film  Musicals  Outdoor Cinema  Paranoid Thrillers  Parenting on film  Pirate movies  Polish film industry  political thrillers  Politics in Film  Pornography  Pre-Code  Producers  Race in American Film  Remakes  Revenge  Road Movies  Romance  Romantic Comedies  Satire  Scandals  Science Fiction  Screenwriters  Semi-documentaries  Serials  Short Films  Silent Film  silent films  Social Problem Film  Sports  Sports on Film  Stereotypes  Straight-to-DVD  Studio Politics  Stunts and stuntmen  Suspense thriller  Swashbucklers  TCM Classic Film Festival  TCM Underground  Television  The British in Hollywood  The Germans in Hollywood  The Hungarians in Hollywood  The Irish in Hollywood  Theaters  Thriller  Trains in movies  Underground Cinema  VOD  War film  Westerns  Women in the Film Industry  Women's Weepies