O.K. So I have to admit it took me like 2 months to finally wrap my head around this film enough to write this post. While I’m always up for a challenge to defend the noble institution of marriage, this pre-code film just brought up lots and lots of questions.
Ex-Lady, featuring Bette Davis and Gene Raymond, is a roller coaster ride of emotions, social constraints, and many, many unclear messages. Yes, it’s during the pre-code phase of forbidden hollywood, but unlike so many others sharing goals of virtue or recklessness this one, dare I say, just ends up confusing and frustrating people.
Helen ( Davis) is an independent, successful illustrator opposite Don (Raymond), an equally successful advertising man. While Don is bent on just marrying Helen, she won’t stand for it, insistent that she doesn’t “need” to get married and has no plans of doing so. Even after a nasty scene where her parents barge in on Helen and Don the morning after demanding that Don be respectful and marry their daughter, Helen is still reluctant. In fact it isn’t until Helen experiences the foreign feeling of jealousy that she realizes she doesn’t want Don ending up with anyone else. So Helen gives in and marries, completely against her better judgement.
Upon officially becoming a wife, Helen decides she will take on extra work with a competing ad agency to help make ends meet. She gives up little things here and there, but refuses to give up their honeymoon away from work. Reluctant, Don concedes and they go away for a few days only to return to a mess and lost advertising accounts. Marriage requires more compromise than Helen is willing to live with.
Don can feel Helen pulling away and does just as she fears…begins fooling around. Or so she thinks. What’s worse is that he does it in front of her. His late nights at the office are instead late nights with a wealthy married woman and Helen tortures herself watching him come home late until she can’t do it anymore. She has given up everything for nothing. She suggests a separation where they can instead both date whomever they like and have a once-a-week date with each other.
Thus begins the cat and mouse game where both lovers parade about town with other people, secretly watching the other enjoy the life they could not give each other. One night, Helen, burning with jealousy decides to leave her date and barges in on Don and his wealthy lady friend. Helen doesn’t ask him to come back to her but leaves to go home, frustrated and lost. Later that evening Don comes home. He has loved her all along and she alone has been pushing him away.
This film presents an honest view of the relationship issues in the 30’s. Should you or shouldn’t you? Are you willing to give up what you could have for something you do have? As people both Don and Helen are the same in a way. They both want what they want, when they want it. They don’t want to compromise. And by the end of the movie you realize neither of them will win this fight against themselves. They will both have to be ok with not getting what they want. They will just stay together.
For me, I was hoping this film would have a clear path, a clear answer showing what was good and what was bad. Mainly because this is the same problem everyone is facing today. How much compromise is too much? Does it matter if your with the person you love? How much of yourself are you willing to give up for someone else? Unfortunately this film doesn’t answer this question. In truth it feels like a hopeless ending.
While I won’t be watching this film over and over again because the non-solution is somewhat depressing, I would recommend it to fans of Bette Davis. This is her first film with top billing and she does a magnificent job playing Helen. She’s enamored, indifferent, distraught, accepting and fiesty. Gene Raymond also does a great job as the somewhat upstanding, until his woman pushes him away, husband.
Whatever your beliefs about marriage, how it IS versus how it Should Be, this film may put things into perspective or pull it completely out of alignment. Leonard Maltin gave this one 2.5 stars on the grounds that it was a poor remake of Barbara Stanwyck’s Illicit. My rating would be the same on the grounds of a wishy washy story line. You decide for yourself and let us know!