|Released by Fox Films | Directed by William K. Howard
Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- “I’m going to be married.” “… again?!”
- Our protagonist has already had one marriage, while his ex-wife is working on her second. Well, her second since leaving him.
- The entire plot hinges on whether a contentedly married woman can be tempted by a man of charm and wit, while her husband frets that she just might be.
Don’t Bet on Women: Aces High
“Here’s to women! They’re all bad! They’re deceitful! Hard! Calculating! But, oh, how fascinating!”
Don’t Bet on Women is a gem. Like The Thin Man, it’s a sparkling comedy, where often the lines that get big laughs are followed quickly by smaller, quieter gags, hoping to catch anyone making it through a second sitting unguarded.
It’s a debate on men’s views on women, told with a saucy center and a knowing wink. Our protagonist, Roger Fallon (Lowe), sees all women as bad. They’re wicked creatures, obsessed with pleasure, and there’s nothing a man can do but try not to get on the roller coaster.
When writing out an endowment for his ex-wife– a minx who is eager to marry again, but who needs the extra wealth to make sure she doesn’t have to rely on the new husband– Fallon encounters Herbert Drake (Young), a bank president with his own view on the gender. Drake helpfully outlines his philosophy: “Woman is a child. Sometimes a sweet child. Sometimes a naughty child. But always a child.” He adds, “Women are just as bad as we men allow them to be.”
This doesn’t sit well with Fallon or his best friend Chipley (Kerrigan), but the two have a plan to sail south to the Caribbean to get away from women for a while. They’re waylaid when they rescue Tallulah (Merkel, at perhaps her most delightfully ditsy) and Fallon consequently meets Jeanne (MacDonald), her dopey friend’s caretaker and all-around-charmer.
What Fallon doesn’t know is that Jeanne is Herbert’s wife. The two meet and argue again about their philosophies, with this time a bet being made– Fallon must prove that ‘women are bad’ and will fall for his charms or forfeit $10,000. The object of his seduction? By accident, and, of course, it’s Jeanne. Fallon takes the chance to needle Herbert:
“Do you know the lady?”
“The lady is my wife.”
“That’s not answering my question.”
Jeanne quickly discovers the bet, and all-too-eagerly decides to find out the answer for herself. She declares to her husband, “There’s no virtue in a woman being good if she’s never had a chance to be bad!”
So begins the seduction. Don’t Bet on Women (originally titled All Women Are Bad) is very much a 1931 film, let’s make that much clear– the speech can be spotty, and the camera seems to be reclining back with the audience, enjoying the view with us. However, the film’s script, with its moral imperatives and gentle– but scintillating– take on a woman completely undermining the two most provincial male views of womanhood with disgust and frustration, still feels startlingly fresh.
The acting is superb, too. Jeanette MacDonald, still in pre-Code coquette mode, gets to be sensual and witty outside of a Lubitsch production– and she doesn’t even belt a number. Edmund Lowe, who had a brief period of fame during the early talkies when he didn’t spew weird garbage out of his mouth like so many silent superstars, is perfect here, both urbane and hurt, playful but careful. Una Merkel and Roland Young are wonderful in their parts, perhaps reaching a zenith in being exactly as zany/pompous (respectively) as they must be.
The ending of the film, which perfectly treads that line between marriage and the better things, gives everyone time for one perfect punchline to the whole thing. Don’t Bet On Women is about the fact that classifying a whole sex on your own desires is impossible, and that women are more complex than men dare imagine. It’s bracing, funny, sexy, and a whole lot of fun. While not the epitome of film making craft, in terms of acting and script, it’s sublime.
Hover over for controls.
Trivia & Links
- I saw this for the first time at the 2015 TCM Film Festival. You can read my reaction to it at the time here— though I did like the ending more the second time through.
- Being the kind of person I am, I added a bunch of quotes for this film onto IMDB’s Quotes page for the film. I left out many of Merkel’s dizzy monologues, though– got to save something for the experience.
- As related in the recent TCM intro, Fox donated the nitrate materials to MOMA in the 70s. Thanks to donations, they were able to restore the film.
- Mordaunt Hall notes in his contemporaneous review in the Times:
It is a jolly piece of film work and it is a pity that more productions like it are not made.
Awards, Accolades & Availability
- This film is an obscure one– you can probably catch it at the New York Museum of Modern Art (I assume you just go in and ask them to borrow it), or, if you’re really lucky, on either TCM or at a local classic film festival.
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