Pre-Code Irene Dunne? Yes, Please! New Warner Archive DVD Debut: Consolation Marriage
November 6, 2015
Let's get this straight. In my book, Irene Dunne is untouchable. She could do no wrong. Drama, comedy, romance, musical, western, circus suspense (kidding on that last one, but she would have irrefutably nailed it): Dunne easily held her own with the best of them or steered a whole picture on her own two shoulders, whatever the script called for. She could fully immerse herself in a character yet retain many of the qualities so distinct to Irene Dunne, the woman: charm, strength, refinement, and a bit goofy at times, too.
I first stumbled upon two of Dunne's earlier pictures, Consolation Marriage (1931) and Ann Vickers (1933), years ago on TCM. As a big fan of hers, I noticed that both films remained near the top of my imaginary list of Dunne favorites over the years (and they definitely are my top two adored pre-Codes of hers). However, I also made note that both movies remained somewhat elusive, available for several years only on VHS.
Thankfully, Warner Archive Collection righted that wrong, debuting both films on DVD alongside two other lesser-known Dunne pictures, Sweet Adeline (1934) and Never a Dull Moment (1950). Below is my review of Consolation Marriage. You can peruse my thoughts on Ann Vickers, which I posted yesterday, here.
Tonally, I'd say this image is a bit off. It's a tad darker than the reality.
Consolation Marriage (1931)
On his way back to meet his lover Elaine (Myrna Loy), Steve (Pat O'Brien) brags about how wonderful she is... only to find out she's married someone else in his absence. He heads to a bar with some pals, including Jeff (John Halliday), to drown his sorrows. Steps away, Mary (Irene Dunne) practically pushes her longtime pal/soul mate Aubrey (Lester Vail) out the door so he can marry a rich woman with the ability to help him become a famous musician. All for his own good, she promises him.
Dejected Mary and Steve meet by chance in a restaurant. Bonding over their mutual heartaches, they become fast friends and attempt to prop each other up as they wallow in their exes' new 'happiness.' Since they have both convinced themselves they will never love again, and seeing how much they enjoy each other's company, Steve suggests they tie the knot.
Steve and Mary's complacent matrimonial life resides in their own private dream world. On the surface, they fool around and occupy their time with the normal trappings of marriage, but their bond proves far from normal, accompanied by a very specific 'no questions asked' policy regarding any outside relationships. Occasionally, the duo are jolted back to reality whenever a note or gift from either Aubrey or Elaine shows up, but for the most part, Steve and Mary seem happy enough, and their marriage of convenience even results in a baby girl.
However, the strength of their platonic union is soon seriously tested when both ex-lovers end their own respective marriages and come knocking at Steve and Mary's door. Individually, Steve and Mary seriously flirt with the idea of leaving for good, and one party even does, but their child and - lightbulb! - the fact that they've always been perfect for each other beckons one of them back. The big question becomes: will the other realize their destiny before it's too late?
Irene Dunne and Pat O'Brien.
My Two Cents
To be honest, on the outside the pairing of Pat O'Brien and Irene Dunne simply appeared, well, odd to me. However, it turned out that they shared a wonderful chemistry, helped along in part by both actor's superb comedic compatibility. Seriously, when they interact in their cutesy/insanely flirty world, it looks like they were genuinely having a ball. But don't let the above few sentences mix you up: Consolation Marriage, though interspersed with humorous and witty moments, falls more squarely into the drama genre. Dunne, still light-years away (well, five) from a newfound image of comedienne extraordinaire, holds the bulk of the melodramatic moments near the end; she again resorts to that disenchanted expression I described yesterday in my Ann Vickers review, but always cracks a smile, forced as it may be, when Steve leaves her to pay Elaine a visit.
In a refreshing way, for the most part the adults in the picture act…well, like adults, at least when it comes to Steve and Mary's outside relationships and how they are handled by all parties. However, there's a very clear and ironic exception to this: the true heart of the picture, the lead's own connection, is masked from them by their own childish actions, as pining over others shields them from the truth right in front of them.
Please stop being so adorable.
I've personally always appreciated Consolation Marriage's bold and open portrayal of relationships and have consistently found the film supremely fun and entertaining. I think Paul Sloane's direction earns high praise in this regard; he kept the couplings and all the action light considering the content could have easily dragged the energy into thorny, heavy territory. However, while the plot certainly wouldn't fly under the Production Code post-1934, the backbone of the picture is rather lackluster and predictable. That being said, the script benefits greatly from the characterizations and ensuing performances, both of which fill the story out.
As I mentioned above, O'Brien + Dunne = delightfully surprising, but they weren't the only ones. The supporting cast, including John Halliday in a role that 99% of the time would have been handed to Roland Young (though Halliday excelled with gentler and more restrained parts), delivered solid, good-natured performances all around. This includes another favorite of mine, Myrna Loy, appearing here in her bad girl/exotic/what-do-we-do-with-her period, which lasted until 1934 when The Thin Man put an end to that. Though she delivers her dialogue in a rather stagey manner at times, Loy flexed her character's muscles well, actually imbuing Elaine with some redeeming qualities instead of playing her as a stereotypical one-dimensional wicked other woman.
Myrna Loy: Not quite Nora Charles but getting there...
So, if you're looking for some lighter fare and you'd like to see two future acclaimed comediennes pine over Pat O'Brien (who doesn't want to watch that?), I'd give Consolation Marriage a whirl!
Thank you to Warner Archive for providing me with a review copy of this title. Please note Warner Archive releases are manufactured on demand (MOD). To order, visit the Warner Archive Collection at the WBShop.com.