Thursday, October 18, 2012

Woman Against Woman (MGM, 1938)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Woman Against Woman is an O.K. soap opera with comic overtones, based on a story by Margaret Culkin Banning called “Enemy Territory.” It opens with attorney Stephen Holland (Herbert Marshall) feeling immensely put-upon by his wife Cynthia (Mary Astor). He wants them to find a smaller and cozier place to live; she insists on them remaining where they are. He wants to keep Dora (Sarah Padden), the nurse who raised him during his own childhood and is now looking after his daughter Ellen (Juanita Quigley, yet another of the Shirley Temple wanna-bes that clogged casting offices in the 1930’s), but she insists she won’t work another day under the same house as Cynthia. Eventually Stephen and Cynthia have an argument and, though they’re relatively genteel about it, he insists that he’s not going to stay another night under her roof, moves out and announces his intention to file for divorce. This is complicated by the fact that Stephen’s mother (Janet Beecher) is on Cynthia’s side. But after five years (that’s how long the script tells us they’ve been married, though Juanita Quigley looks more like about eight than five) Stephen is tired of being bitched at and ordered about by his wife. He gets an assignment to argue a patent infringement case before the appellate court in Washington (not the Supreme Court, despite a mistake to that effect on the page) and while he’s there he meets Maris Kent (Virginia Bruce) and the two fall in love after a weird drinking scene in a hotel room in which they’re having a good (though Production Code-safe) time and she warbles a bit of the Cole Porter classic “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” — which Virginia Bruce had introduced as the bitchy second lead in the Eleanor Powell-James Stewart musical Born to Dance two years earlier. They marry — by then he and Cynthia have got legally divorced — only they have a problem: Stephen’s practice is in the small town where he and Cynthia are living, and the town’s other married women join forces with Cynthia and snub Stephen’s new bride. Eventually the cold war between them gets to the point where Stephen finds himself torn between the two women — he no longer loves Cynthia but wants a modus vivendi with her, if only so he can keep seeing his daughter — and Cynthia finally tries what would now be called “the nuclear option”: she threatens to move across country so Stephen will never see Ellen again. The film has a daringly “open” ending for the time; Cynthia backs off her threat, but then says she’s going through with it after all, and Stephen has to choose between being a presence in his daughter’s life and staying with his new wife and making the remarriage work.

In some ways Woman Against Woman is a reworking of Dodsworth, the 1936 screen adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s novel, also about a married man torn between an increasingly bitchy wife and another woman who genuinely and selflessly loves him — though that film had cast Ruth Chatterton as the bitch and Mary Astor as the nice woman! Astor’s performance is considerably more vicious than the script necessitated — early on I joked that she was meaner than she’d been in The Maltese Falcon, in which she played a murderess — and what appeal this film has is mainly due to the fineness of the acting (and as a Virginia Bruce fan who thinks she was ill-used by the major studios — her best film by far is the 1934 Monogram version of Jane Eyre — it was nice to see her get to be the good girl for a change!) even though Herbert Marshall had played this sort of role many times before (i.e., The Painted Veil) and would play it many times afterwards (i.e., The Letter). An interesting comment on the film on pointed out the multiple marital histories of several of the personnel connected with it: original author Margaret Culkin Banning had two husbands, Herbert Marshall had five wives, Mary Astor three husbands and Virginia Bruce four. “Wow, they sure had the right cast making this one about divorce and marriage," the reviewer, "ksf-2," said.