Sunday, December 29, 2013

No Other Woman (RKO, prod. 1932, rel. 1933)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched a movie I’d recently recorded from TCM as part of a mini-tribute to Irene Dunne: No Other Woman, a 1932 production from RKO personally produced by David O. Selznick during his one-year tenure as production chief there, with Dunne billed over the title in the sort of movie you think you’ve seen before whether or not you have. It’s a Warners-esque proletarian drama in which the principals all live in Steel Town and work at, you guessed it, the local steel mill: Jim Stanley (Charles Bickford) is a mill worker who’s gradually working his way up to foreman, Anna (Irene Dunne) is the company bookkeeper and Joe Zarcovia (Eric Linden) runs the time clock. Jim is in love with Anna but she’s unwilling to marry him because she doesn’t want to be stuck in Steel Town all her life; eventually they tie the knot and have a son, Bobbie (Buster Miles), but Anna’s determination to make something of themselves and make a life outside Steel Town leads her carefully to husband her husband’s earnings, keep most of them in a savings account and get additional money by taking in boarders, including Joe. (For much of the film I thought Joe was Anna’s younger brother, but he wasn’t.) Joe is also an inventor who’s figured out a way to take the waste from steel production and turn it into a new dye that’s more permanent than any other on the market. Anna wants to invest the Stanleys’ savings into Joe’s invention, but Joe is tired of having to economize and announces that he’s going to take his latest paycheck and blow it all in one night on alcohol. As things turn out, he blows it on something more than alcohol: he comes home with another woman on his arm, and though he insists she’s just a drinking buddy and means nothing to him — at least nothing that would threaten his and Anna’s marriage — he feels guilty enough the next morning that in order to atone to his wife, he tells her to go ahead and invest their money in Joe’s dye. Jim and Joe form a company to exploit the invention, and within the space of a spectacular montage by Slavko Vorkapich (who’s credited with “transitional effects”) it’s a multi-million dollar concern with a factory complex of its own and both Joe and the Stanleys are millionaires.

Only — wouldn’t you know it? — Jim’s still got the proverbial roving eye; he ends up spending a lot of time in New York City in “conferences” with investors and bankers, and during one of these trips a gold-digger named Margot Van Dearing (Gwili André) gets her hooks into Jim and starts an affair with him. Margot is really being manipulated by her actual lover, attorney Bonelli (J. Carrol Naish), but — against Bonelli’s advice — she ultimately demands that Jim either divorce his wife and marry her, or say goodbye to her forever. Jim agrees but Anna doesn’t, and as a result Jim and Bonelli (who’s serving as Jim’s lawyer) hatch a plot to bribe the Stanleys’ servants to give false testimony at the divorce trial that Anna was the one having the affair — even though it gets pretty hard to believe when the man they produce as Anna’s alleged lover, Sutherland (Theodore Von Eltz), is the sort of nerdy milquetoast who generally inhabited stories like this as the querulous hotel clerk uncertain of the morality of his guests’ relationships, not a partaker in adultery (either as cuckolder or cuckoldee) himself. Jim not only wins his divorce case, he also wins custody of Bobbie — ya remember Bobbie? — only at the thought of losing her child, Anna freaks out in court and says she was having affairs, and the court can’t award custody of Bobbie to Jim because Jim isn’t his natural father. Then Jim has his own hissy-fit and confesses in court that he set up the whole thing; that his wife is blameless and he not only lied under oath but bribed his servants to lie as well. For this Jim is sentenced to five years for perjury and suborning perjury, and though he’s paroled after one year his company goes under when its stock price plummets due to the scandals, and ultimately he, Anna and Joe all return to Steel Town and the nothing proletarian jobs they were holding down at the start of the movie.

No Other Woman, directed by the quite interesting J. Walter Ruben with a major assist from Vorkapich and his “transitions,” is well directed and competently acted — especially by Bickford, who’s just right for his part as a hard-working proletarian in over his head among the rich — but the script by Wanda Tuchock and Bernard Schubert, from an “original” story by Owen Francis, is so predictable — and also so annoying in its classism: like a lot of other movies of the period (including many of Bickford’s other vehicles), it seems to take a perverse joy out of crushing the ambitions of our honest steelworker whose only failing is a fondness for booze and women. It’s one of those stories that basically outright says to the blue-collar audience, “Don’t even think of going into business for yourself and getting ahead. You’re precisely where nature meant you to be, and if you try to rise above your place you’ll just make yourself and everyone around you miserable and you’ll end up back where you belong, anyway.” The U.S. has always had a peculiar attitude towards inherited wealth; we were sufficiently appalled by the landed nobility of the United Kingdom that we inserted in our constitution a provision that no American government official could ever accept a title of nobility — yet over and over again we’ve gravitated to hierarchical arrangements in which wealth stayed in prominent families from generation to generation, from the slaveholders of the ante-bellum South and the “patroons” of early New York state to the Rockefellers, Morgans, Chases, Fords, and now the Waltons (as in Wal-Mart) and the Kochs. Indeed, if there’s been a change in the American ideology it’s that we’ve even intensified our worship of money from what it was throughout the nation’s history — and the notion of people being superior because they’ve had money in their family for several generations has become at least partially sidetracked by the idea that people are superior simply because they have money, here and now. A modern-day remix of No Other Woman would come down less hard on Jim Stanley than the 1932 version did — it would probably re-invent him as an Ayn Rand character who lost all his money and then, because of his innate superiority over the common run of mankind, made it all back again and more, and in the meantime laid down the law to his wife that he was going to fuck any woman he wanted any time he wanted and, precisely because he was a capitalist superman, she wasn’t going to be allowed to stand in his way.