The Bette Davis Project: Ex-Lady (1933)

ExLady (1933)Synopsis:

Free spirited artist, Helen Bauer (Bette Davis), doesn’t believe in marriage. She doesn’t believe in having babies either (the horror!). 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, many problems.

Reaction & Thoughts:

Like lots of Pre-Code Hollywood films, Ex-Lady, directed by Robert Florey, a remake of Barbara Stanwyck’s 1931 Illicit, 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 was heading to be a fascinating proto-feminist social drama decades before the phrase was coined.

Some of the dialogue is quite funny and incisive. But as I said before, the film gets cold feet and it suddenly begins to fall back on lame cliches. It’s like watching a spicy chocolate ice cream slowly melt right before your eyes.

Ex-Lady was meant to launch Davis as a bona fide movie star. Producer Darryl F. Zanuck 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 gowns are great, but they are for the wrong actor. Davis understandably felt exploited in the worst possible way — she’s 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 Florey (Murders in the Rue Morgue) either; he does his very best. The truth is that it is hard to overcome bad casting and an indecisive script. With Monroe Owsley, Kay Strozzi, Claire Dodd, and Ferdinand Gottschalk. Trivia alert: Director Robert Aldrich used scenes from the movie for What ever happened to Baby Jane? (he wanted to illustrate that the title character had failed as an actor). B&W, 67 minutes, Not Rated.

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