|Released by MGM | Directed By Harry Beaumont
Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- It’s very much about dealing with adultery, which is explored and discussed at some length. This also includes talk about ‘good’ girls and not so good ones.
When Ladies Meet: And Sparks Fly
“I tell you, this is an awfully hard age for a good woman to live in. I mean, a woman who wants to have any fun. The old instincts of right and wrong merely hold you back. You’re neither one thing or the other. You’re neither happy and bad nor good and contented. You’re just discontentedly decent.”
I’m a sucker for a good, smart drama (with plenty of humorous, verbal loop de loops), and When Ladies Meet is that in spades.
Mary (Myrna Loy) is a novelist working on a book about a bright young woman who’s been living as a kept woman to a married man for a year. The climax of the book shows the kept woman confronting the man’s wife, and the wife graciously stepping aside. Art imitates reality, of course, as Mary has been seeing her publisher, Rogers (Frank Morgan in an uncharacteristically mature (and sexy) role), for about as long and expects to do the same with his wife (and get the same result). The only ‘x’ factor is Jimmie (Robert Montgomery), who is in love with Mary, and decides to teach her what she’s actually doing to Rogers’ wife. He does this by smuggling Rogers’ wife, Claire (Ann Harding, as great as ever), to an overnight party hosted by their ditsy friend Bridget (Alice Brady) and Walt (Martin Burton), the pianist Bridget sponsors/sleeps with.
Jimmie decides not to tell Mary who Claire is and vice versa. Mary and Claire hit it off extraordinarily well (and are both terrible at singing, which helps), and the two end up talking a great deal about Mary’s book, contrasting their perspectives in a novel written about them while neither realize that they’re talking to the other person about their real situation the entire time. It’s very talky, but fascinating as the two probe their relationships with Rogers and their ideas on fidelity and love, only to finally uncover the ugly, stinking truth in the final act.
When Ladies Meet is a movie that we would describe nowadays as very ‘meta’. Because Mary is writing a book describing the events that are reflecting her reality, it gives the characters ample opportunity to comment and dissect upon exactly what’s happening to them and their own feelings. Mary tries to craft her book to reflect her ideals. Jimmie handily dissects her problem for her in one brief passage:
“I’m telling you the truth because I love you. You used to be able to write about men and women. Your last book has neither. You take a decent girl and a perfectly grand guy who’s a married man, and before you get through with them they’re neither fish, flesh, but slightly fowl. They haven’t got a leg left to stand on.”
Jimmie, who’s supposed to be a newspaperman (with apparently the best work hours ever since he only heads to the office once in the entire picture) is coloring this passage in his own way, frustrated by Mary’s infatuation with Rogers. But that sample dialogue gives you a good feel for what When Ladies Meet is like: fast, urbane, punchy and droll. It’s art directed beautifully, from Mary’s apartment to Bridget’s chic country home. Every frame has all of the care and detail that MGM could squeeze in put on screen, well suited to the sophisticated pokes at marriage and infidelity.
The acting is marvelous in it. Loy, just (finally) coming off her ‘exotic’ phase that saw her play Javanese serial killers and Chinese bondage fetishists, elevates Mary’s role remarkably, giving her enough wit and sense to make her believable as an acclaimed novelist, but enough airy romantic ideals to allow the audience to understand how her affair with Rogers has disconnected her from reality via pretty words and promises. She’s lost her mooring. Here’s a fluttering thought that she tells Rogers late one night in her apartment while his wife is partying elsewhere.
“I want to write about exceptional women. Who do fine things. I’d like to live like one. If I could find a way. I mean, without getting swamped or being nasty. Well, what’s wrong with that?”
Basically, Mary wants to be noble and brave without having to make any sacrifice. Which, I suppose, we all do, though not all of us are sanctimonious as to put our presumed amazingness into self-authored books.
Mary’s in for a long fall as she learns that ‘modern’ women still have love and desire for a man even after he’s wronged her and that family can be a hell of a glue. It’s not one-sided, though, as Claire uses the experience to learn finally what lies she’d clung to for years about her relationship in order to make things last. Both women are smart and complicated, but both have hung to facades of a man to maintain an illusion of their own invincibility.
Harding is great in this, too, I should add. She has this baroque voice matched by the slyest damn smile. She has a great sense of mischief about her, as well as a deep sense of sadness that follows her around like a raincloud, with both being able to be flipped masterfully. Others reviewers have complained about the star wattage of this version versus its remake (more on that below), but I think if you’ve never heard or seen an Ann Harding film, that’s your own damn fault and not the film’s.
All of the other actors are fun. Robert Montgomery spent a lot of the pre-Code era as the guy women either did or didn’t want to be with but almost never ended up with. (I secretly fear that’s because writers didn’t want to set women’s expectations too high by assuring them that they could get someone as suave, funny and witty as Montgomery, but I digress.) Some viewers may be put off by his character’s callousness, others may admire it. I fall into the latter, but people who don’t see infidelity as such a big deal– which is probably more common nowadays– may be put off by the way he’s vindicated at the end. Take, for example, this argument from early in the film between Jimmie and Mary, who can’t quite deal with each other’s views on cheating despite both being in favor of what was then termed ‘free love’:
Jimmie: “When she’s good she’s good, she’s bad she’s bad, and that’s all there is to it.”
Mary: “Oh, that’s Victorian bunk. You’re even out of touch with your own sex, Jimmie.”
Jimmie: “Would you do what that girl in the book does?”
Mary: “A book’s a book.”
Jimmie: “A man wants a decent woman to stay decent. If she doesn’t, why he bawls her out for doing the one thing in the world that he always told her was the greatest thing a woman can do. Giving him all… for love. If your girl ever did what she wanted her to, the guy’d get so sick of her in about a year that he’d poke her in the nose. Gosh, I’ve persuaded so many women and hated ’em afterwards.”
Frank Morgan plays a sexy older man, which is not something I thought I’d ever write, let alone praise. Morgan has a fascinating ability to build a fakeness into Rogers, making all of his relationships seem a little off than all of the other characters, save Jimmie, which the women attribute to his kindness or charm. Jimmie knows what it really is, and, in the scene where the two are alone and finally have a showdown, we finally get to see the real Rogers and not the self-perpetuated literary ideal of the man.
Alice Brady is very, very funny as Bridget, a woman obsessed with image and sex, and frustrated by having to pretend not to care about the friction between the two in 1930s society. She’s the Samantha of the group, I suppose. And now I’m dating myself.
Based on a play by famous Broadway dramatist Rachel Crothers (with whom I apparently share a hometown), When Ladies Meet often feels like a play– attempts to open it up are mixed, since it still stays confined to single locations, even if they’re more expansive than what you’d get in a theater. With that in mind, it’s still a very lavish production, and much of the film’s dialogue feels very strong and snappy. It’s like The Thin Man by way of The Purple Rose of Cairo or some such metaphor that makes more sense.
It’s also about what cheating can do to a person whether they know it or not, and the compromises people make to find and stay happy. It’s very funny, very talky, and very smart.
The ‘Cast’ and .gif at the bottom of the article are all from the original TCM rip I based this review off of. Here are some images from the WAC Forbidden Hollywood Volume 9 release that demonstrate just how nice of a restoration it is:
Trivia & Links
- The movie was remade in 1941 with Joan Crawford as Mary, Greer Garson as Claire, Robert Taylor as Jimmie and Herbert Marshall as Rogers. I haven’t seen it, but what I’ve read suggests that Mary is dumbed down significantly and hasn’t started the affair yet while one IMDB reviewer praised Greer Garson’s “ethical acting”, so I think I’ll just not bother. Here’s the trailer for the morbidly curious:
- Mordaunt Hall in the Times says that it’s ‘long on words and short on action’, but still praises it profusely.
- Good ol’ Doctor Macro has some excellent pics for this one.
- The Motion Pictures finds the plotting cliched, but still give it high marks and says it shouldn’t be missed by fans of pre-Code cinema. And I agree!
Awards, Accolades & Availability
- This film is now available in Warner Archive’s Forbidden Hollywood, Volume 9 which you can pick up at Amazon. Other titles in the set include Big City Blues, Hell’s Highway, I Sell Anything, and Cabin in the Cotton.
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