Double Harness (1933)

Proof That It’s Pre-Code

  • Why should a bride pick a specific wedding dress? “He knows you’ll have sex appeal.”
  • It’s a time that was, once again, greatly depressing: “Everyone’s broke these days, and if they’re not, they pretend to be.”
  • A conversation between William Powell and Ann Harding up in his luxurious apartment:
    “Don’t let me fall asleep here.”
    “Hasn’t happened yet.”
  • A woman clearly details for her friend how she’s going to go up to a man’s apartment and seduce him, allowing him to bed her in exchange for tricking him into marrige down the line. And then… that happens.
  • There’s also an extramarital affair later in the picture to spice things up which everyone forgives and forgets.
  • Harding’s sister, Lucile Browne, listens to her sister’s plotting, and marvels, “Love without marriage would be awful! I mean, how can you possibly….” And she trails off.

The Woman Makes the Man

“Love? Marriage has nothing to do with love. Marriage is a business– at least, it’s a woman’s business. And love is an emotion. A man doesn’t let emotion interfere with his business, and if more women would learn not to let emotion interfere with theirs, fewer of them would end up in the divorce court.”

There’s a feeling of real affection radiating from the screen here.

Joan Colby (Harding) is a former socialite bordering on spinster. Loyal to her father (Henry Stephenson) and his sudden poor social standing, she spends her time dreaming of once again reaching a more financial future. Her sister Julie (Browne) is astounded by this as she, herself, is still spending the family fortune like it’s 1929. Julie’s getting married; that poor guy has no idea about her expensive tastes.

Joan’s sizing up a man of her own, John Fletcher (Powell). He’s the heir to the flagging Fletcher shipping lines, but he’d rather spend his days playing polo, womanizing and goofing around than take his responsibilities seriously. Joan sees this and knows he’s the perfect man to mold.

The lovely Monica Page.

The courtship is intense, so much so that Joan almost immediately loses herself in it. Joan and John debate the finer points of love, lust and marriage as Joan seeks confirmation of her feelings and John addresses that nagging sense that maybe something like what they have can last. He even goes so far as to put off his regular Saturday night thing, Monica Page (Lilian Bond), much to her chagrin.

That’s when Joan finds it to be the best time to strike: she puts through a call to Julie, who sends their father over. Since this was made in a time in when things were expected of people in a higher class, the father, upon finding Joan there in a negligee demands their immediate marriage. John coyly accepts, much to Joan’s surprise.

The subsequent honeymoon is a disaster, though. They share separate bunks on their cruise, and eat apart once they reach Paris. Joan is still wheeling and dealing, getting John to at least participate in his company, but he’s still incredibly bitter to suddenly find himself tied down. After they return, he begins to consort with Monica again.

Believe it or not, this is 1930’s lingerie. I didn’t realize it until a character pointed it out, I just thought it was proof of a frill that had been left attended for too long.

Does he get past his philandering ways? Does Joan get past her belief in the manner of marriage and actually fall in love? Will John ever again buy here a bouquet of gardenias and smoothly intone, “They remind me of you; I thought they were coolly virginal, but quietly inviting.”?

Well, it’s not exactly a stunner when things turn out okay, but the interplay between the two as Joan has to come to terms with her deception and John realizes his idea of passionate conquests is merely an illusion.

The movie itself is a charming, intelligent drama, the likes of with can’t be made these days without a heaping of overblown theatrics thrown in. Ann Harding is excellent in her role– sensitive, yearning, and always collected– and reminds me of a Meryl Streep of yesteryear. William Powell is, as always, William Powell: charming and astute.

Their dialogue vibrates with passion and intrigue, but its always adult, peppered with genuine emotional debate. The thin line between passion and love is a topic that romances have touched on time and time again, but Double Harness treats this with mature consideration. It may not be a lot of fun, but it’s fascinating, especially when you watch the particularly vagaries of 1930’s morality.

Powell gets in some funny double takes through the film, as his character is just disaffected enough to find most of the marriage situation preposterous.

And Then The Man Makes the Woman

“You haven’t drugged the champagne, have you, darling?”
“No, I’m not that modest.”

I was reading a blog post– as one is often wont to do when they have a blog themselves– about Breakfast at Tiffany’s yesterday. You know, sometimes bloggers talk about classic movies from a place of authority, others just give honest, raw observations that can sometimes be enlightening. Other times… well, the opinion I read was more musing on the moral leanings of Holly Golightly. To the point, the writer said that he was fine with her being a prostitute, but found it off-putting that she would marry for money.

Little sister gets in trouble. I’m out of pictures. Sorry.

I won’t lie, this stunned me. Anyone who’s been following this series of reviews for a fair bit knows that, Pre-Code, women marry for money all of the time: Havana Widows, Born to Be Bad, Girls About Town, Gold Dust Gertie, etc. Gold digging is such a common strain in the films of the 1930’s that I’ve stopped blinking at it: why doesn’t it make sense for a woman to want to marry above her means?

Marriage, like education, is a cultural leveling ground. You can be poor as dirt but have a great body, and suddenly you’re at the top. Joan in Double Harness has got more than that even, in this case a set of ambitions that she can’t make use of because of her gender. The only time we’ve seen a real business woman in a film was Female, which revolved around a woman car magnate who used the men below her until one finally stood up and took her as a possession.

The ending of Female was a letdown, but Double Harness succeeds where Female boldly backed away from its feminist message. Harness’s director John Cromwell sets the film’s climax at a dinner party, where Joan has plied the United States Postal Service into giving their mail contract to John’s shipping lines. John’s already learned about Joan’s deception, and, the last she’d seen of him, he’d promised to run off to Europe with Monica.

He shows up and completes the contract and apologizes to Joan for being distant– yeah, it’s not much of a surprise in the movie, either– but the interesting thing about it is that it implies that Joan’s initial assessment was right. While she let John use her body, she was sufficiently able to reform him into a better man with her own love and ambition, enough so that he comes back and apologizes to her after he realizes she’d tricked him into marrying her.

Double Harness defies traditional marriage portrayals, and functions as a rather deft summation of womanhood in the 30’s where they yearned for an honest chunk of power but still constrained by their reach without a man to express the desire through. It’s not as blatant as Female, but it takes more risks and feel more honest. Toss in a great cast on top, and you have a hell of a hidden gem.

Links and Trivia

  • This film is among the rarities that are (were?) in the Lost & Found RKO Collection, which comprised a half dozen films from the early 1930’s. There’s a good article about the set on DVD Talk. Here’s an excerpt on why these films are hard to find:

What do the six films have in common? Producer Merian C. Cooper (King Kong, The Searchers). It seems that in 1946 Cooper was embroiled in a dispute with RKO over his contracted profit-participation during his tenure there. As part of the settlement, RKO signed over all rights and the original negatives to the six pictures included in this set. Some of these films were eventually, albeit very briefly, shown on television in the New York market in the late-1950s – but otherwise have not been seen at all since their initial release more than 70 years ago.

  • The movie is supposedly set in San Francisco, which I kept forgetting since the movie isn’t big on establishing it. At one point they suggest that John missed the plane from Sacramento and wouldn’t make it back that night. It’s seriously a two hour drive. What the hell.
  • This is seriously the most boring poster I’ve seen in ages. Yes, it kind of gets across that Harding is anxious and curious about her future with the blithe Powell. But it also looks like she may have tripped, or that she’s scared of something off screen, or that she’s about to go full Willie from Temple of Doom and just start screaming like mad. Ugh.


Danny lives outside Tokyo, Japan, with his lovely wife, adorable daughter, and two yappy dogs. He blogs bi-weekly at, a website dedicated to Hollywood films from 1930 to 1934, and can be found on Twitter @PreCodeDotCom.

3 thoughts on “Double Harness (1933)

  1. I’m so happy you wrote about this movie. I realize this is an older post but I watched this movie again recently and there’s a scene that for the life of me I have never been able to understand and wonder if others do. Hopefully someone out there will see this and chime in. When Joan sees Monica and her husband at the restaurant and she decides to approach them, they act all chill and she invites Monica to their ranch, etc. Then after Joan leaves, Monica basically says, oh your wife is clever. It seems that she’s implying that somehow Joan had bested her in the conversation. And then somehow John miraculously decides he loves his wife. I cannot figure out what exactly is the reason that this was a strategic ploy on Joan’s part. How and what was she proving by approaching them? Why would Monica say she was clever? And why John would somehow be swayed to want to stay with his wife by the exchange? I’m so confused!

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