Free-spirited artist Helen Bauer (Bette Davis) doesn’t believe in marriage. She doesn’t believe in having babies either. Helen is perfectly content with her open relationship with boyfriend Don Peterson (Gene Raymond, Red Dust). But Don is a conservative-minded person and urges Helen to reconsider her attitude. She agrees to tie the knot on a whim and that’s the beginning of their many problems.
Reaction & Thoughts:
“What do you mean you think I have a good figure?”
Like many Pre-Code Hollywood films, Ex-Lady is gutsy, naughty and tantalizing… for about 30 minutes. Sadly, it quickly metamorphoses into a conventional romantic melodrama. That’s really too bad because the film’s early scenes are fascinatingly proto-feminist, an attitude way ahead of its time.
Directed by Robert Florey (Murders in the Rue Morgue), a remake of Barbara Stanwyck’s 1931 Illicit, Ex-Lady has plenty of funny and risqué dialogue. But as I said before, Ex-Lady gets cold feet and suddenly begins to fall back on lame clichés. It’s like watching a spicy chocolate ice cream slowly melt right before your eyes.
Ex-Lady was meant to launch Bette Davis as a bona fide movie star. Producer Darryl F. Zanuck (this was a few years before Zanuck was hired to run 20th Century Fox) felt that it was time to give Davis the star treatment and personally chose this project for her. The experiment didn’t work and Davis’s career was seriously compromised.
The problem is that Davis was never the glamorous type. Orry-Kelly’s (Mr. Skeffington) gowns are great, but they are for the wrong actor. Davis understandably felt exploited in the worst possible way — she is paraded in skimpy négligées throughout the movie. It was a serious miscalculation from the usually smart Zanuck. The movie sent Davis back to B-movie purgatory until she hit the jackpot with Of Human Bondage (1934).
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
Although critics had a field day making fun of Davis, you can’t blame her for the failure of the film. You can’t blame director Robert Florey either; he does a good job. The truth is that it’s hard to overcome an uneven script. Trivia Alert: Director Robert Aldrich used scenes from the movie for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (Aldrich wanted to illustrate that Jane had failed as an actor). B&W, 67 minutes, Not Rated.