Party Husband (1931) Review, with Dorothy Mackaill

Laura
Dorothy Mackaill
Jay
James Rennie
Kate
Dorothy Petersen
Released by Warner Bros./First National
Directed by Clarence G. Badger
Run time: 73 minutes

Proof That It’s a Pre-Code Film

  • “Aw, go to–” “Naughty naughty!”
  • There’s a marriage where both agree to a certain level of freedom with the opposite sex, resulting in a game of chicken to see who goes first. There are complications.

Party Husband: Binge Drank

“We intend to take marriage apart and see what makes it tick.”

There’s one sublime moment in Party Husband, and, alas, it’s not an intentional one. Realizing that she may have brought about the extinction of her marriage by staying with another man, Laura (Mackaill) runs out onto the ship’s deck in the windswept rain as it pulls away from shore. And there, standing on the dock, is Sir Topham Hatt.

Well, it looks that way for a brief second. Warners had decided to use a small figure made from what appears to be a clothespin to achieve the long shot of the rainy pier, and it looks like something a few grade school children animate on a dull afternoon.

That this wooden figure is the liveliest bit of Party Husband isn’t the best sign, as the film itself feels like The Divorcee with all the air let out. Laura and Jay (Rennie, most memorably from Illicit) are a newly-wed couple that is going to go the hip, modern route of fooling around with other people in front of each other’s backs.

Their friend Kate (Petersen) implores them to rethink this, as does Laura’s arch-conservative mother (Helen Ware). Mother thinks Laura working is bad news (“You need a job just as much as I need roller skates!”), while Kate is heartbroken to see the couple risk juggling their love so casually.

It is to the movie’s only genuine strength that Kate is the person who actually ends up seducing Jay, partly out of affection, partly because there just isn’t much else do back in the day. Jay is kind of a mess anyway; he’s supposed to be a teetering alcoholic, but Rennie plays him like he has a persistent head cold. He almost falls in with Mary Doran, who not-coincidentally played the seducer in The Divorcee just to make sure the audience didn’t have to connect any dots on their own.

Mackaill is beautiful as always, adorned in some truly sumptuous frocks, but the script here is so leaden that there’s not much anyone could have done to save it. Her Laura spends most of the film entangled with Donald Cook– who, unlike Rennie, seems to be awake most of the time– but, alas, Cook’s character falls for Laura, but Laura doesn’t love him, and also Cook was in love with Doran and there’s a whole plot about these former lovers trying to rip apart the newlyweds that just goes nowhere, and– oh god, I just hit my third em-dash in one sentence.

Party Husband is stilted; there is no emotional reason to connect to the main characters, and the plot wonders aimlessly. The film’s last ten minutes, involving Ware ordering the Laura and Jay to make up, both comes out of nowhere and is completely rote. Well, maybe except the part where she peeks into the bedroom to make sure they’ve gone to bed together. Thanks, mom!

But there’s nothing to recommend here. Put those 73 minutes to better use, is my suggestion. Sleep, perhaps. Doodling. Maybe some light yoga? I don’t know.

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Other Reviews, Trivia, and Links

Diffuse and occasionally dull, weakened by talk that is not always of the right sort, it nevertheless makes its point and illumines its situations with the stuff of real life. In the rôles of the couple who crucify their happiness on a cross of glib, modern sophisms and meretricious ideals, Dorothy Mackaill and James Rennie add greatly to the illusion of reality. And that, in these dog days of the talking cinema, is no slight illusion and no mean virtue.

This show is a reel longer than [The Office Wife] and seems much longer, despite having interesting characters like Paul Porcasi’s amorous artist. The ‘free marriage’ idea soon turns out to be hooey, as the real problem with the arrangement is, again, communication. The newlyweds hide things from each other ‘for their own good’. When Laura catches Jay with a big blot of ‘indelible’ (?) lipstick on his face, she not only gives him the benefit of the doubt, she doesn’t even discuss the fact that smooching with fast fillies wasn’t part of their domestic bargain. But Laura is also putting herself into compromised situations, if not actually doing the deed. We watch Party Husband waiting for somebody to realize that adjustments need to be made, or for someone to get caught in the act, so the situation will have to be discussed.

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