Thursday, May 21, 2009

When Ladies Meet (MGM, 1933)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

When Charles finally returned home I ran him a movie, the 1933 version of When Ladies Meet, an MGM film based on a play by Rachel Crothers with a provocative premise: novelist Mary Howard (Myrna Loy) meets and befriends Clare Woodruf (Ann Harding, on loan from RKO and top-billed), not knowing that Clare is the wife of her publisher, Rogers Woodruf (Frank Morgan) — the woman Mary is trying to seduce Rogers away from, much to the disgust of her former boyfriend, Jimmie Lee (Robert Montgomery). It was a movie that more or less took advantage of the freedom of so-called “pre-Code” Hollywood (a misnomer because the Production Code was already in effect and it was being enforced, though far more loosely than it was after 1934) to deal with relationship and sexual issues in a way that at least approached reality; indeed, some of the better films of the era, like Erich von Stroheim’s Hello, Sister! and John Ford’s Pilgrimage, have a sexual frankness about them that seems startling today.

Unfortunately, When Ladies Meet isn’t anywhere near that league; hamstrung by what sounds like an unbearably preachy script (since I haven’t read or seen the play I can’t be sure whether to blame Crothers or the screenwriters who adapted her work, John Meehan and Leon Gordon, but my guess is the preachiness was inherent in Crothers’ play) that makes its love vs. marriage and freedom vs. commitment points in a depressingly obvious fashion, it emerges as one of those early 1930’s movies (like the better but still flawed 1932 RKO production Westward Passage, also an Ann Harding vehicle) uncertainly perched between screwball comedy and soap opera. It doesn’t help that, even though she’s top-billed, Ann Harding doesn’t appear in this movie until about a third of the way through its 85-minute running time — or that Myrna Loy is such a better actress than Harding that we spend the first third of the film getting to know and like her, thereby seeing her as a sympathetic character instead of the unscrupulous home-wrecker Crothers seems to have intended.

It also doesn’t help that the actor playing the man these two women are fighting over is best known today as the foofy Wizard of Oz — or that the same year Frank Morgan made a far better adultery drama at Universal, The Kiss Before the Mirror (though in that he’s the cuckoldee instead of the cuckolder), with a far more creative director, James Whale, than the one he got here, Harry Beaumont. I’ve actually liked most of the Beaumont films I’ve seen — including the 1935 version of Enchanted April, which re-teamed him with Ann Harding, this time at her home studio — but this time he seemed to be directing under water, taking the story all too seriously and moving it along at a leaden pace instead of the rapid-fire one that might have emphasized the comedy over the soap and made the film more entertaining.

Maybe that wouldn’t have helped much, though, because the “comedy” elements in the film we have aren’t all that funny. Robert Montgomery’s prank-loving character gets so exasperating that we wonder why we’re being told this is the man Myrna Loy is supposed to end up with; and Alice Brady as Bridget Drake, the comic-relief character whose home hosts the second act of the film, including the fateful meeting between Mary and Clare, is a bird-brained ditz whose comic musings and overall confused consciousness jar. It’s basically the same character Brady played delightfully in the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers film The Gay Divorcée a year later, but in the fluffier context of an Astaire-Rogers musical Brady’s characterization seems right at home, whereas here you just end up wanting to strangle her.

Ann Harding doesn’t help, either; for all the big movies she got to make in the early 1930’s she never seemed to be that good an actress — her emotions seem limited to soulful suffering and annoyance — and through much of When Ladies Meet I couldn’t help thinking MGM had borrowed the wrong RKO star and should have got Katharine Hepburn instead; though tenaciously fighting to hold on to a straying husband isn’t the sort of part we usually think of as a Hepburn role, her ferocity and indomitable drive would have played far better than Harding’s bovine inertness and made a better on-screen antagonist to Loy — who takes the acting honors more by default than anything else; playing a writer who (like Gary Cooper’s character in the Sam Goldwyn/Anna Sten vehicle The Wedding Night) has arranged her latest book to reflect her real-life situation and end the way she hopes the real events will turn out, too, she approaches the part with quiet grace and dignity, in the process (as I noted above) making us root for her and thereby throwing the intended moral balance of the story totally off-kilter.

It also doesn’t help that there’s virtually no chemistry between her and Montgomery (William Powell would have made a far better vis-à-vis for her, but he was still at Warners when this film was made), or that given the creepiness of Montgomery’s “joke” antics throughout the film, when the two of them finally get together at the end we’re more likely to groan than to accept this as a happy ending! When Ladies Meet was remade in 1941 with Joan Crawford (almost inevitably, after her role in The Women) in the Myrna Loy role and Greer Garson (almost inevitably, also, given the way MGM was pushing her towards wife-and-mother roles — the character has two children, though at least in the 1933 version we never actually see them) as the wife she’s trying to displace.