TCMFF Delightful Discovery: Pre-Code Don't Bet on Women
May 11, 2015
...Well, they did bet on women. Or more accurately, woman. Just one.
As I've mentioned several times, pre-codes always register on my must-see TCMFF list, year after year, because 1. the genre is one of my favorites and 2. the festival usually programs one or two extremely rare pre-codes that aren't on DVD and hard to find elsewhere.
This year, I happily had the chance to watch three pre-codes on the big screen: 1933's Queen Christina, 1929's Why Be Good? and 1931's Don't Bet on Women. The first two are available on DVD; Don't Bet on Women is not. That last title saw enough of a crowd for its first screening that the film was given a second one, which was also quite popular. As regular TCMFF attendees know, this is the norm for rarely screened pre-codes.
I gave a short rundown of the Queen Christina screening in my first TCMFF recap post, and I just ordered Why Be Good? from Warner Archive, so stay tuned for a piece on that in the near future. For now, I'll focus my attention on the scathingly titled Don't Bet on Women, aka All Women Are Bad. (Sidenote: Aren't those both perfect pre-code titles?)
Interesting poster for the film that emphasizes Jeanette MacDonald and Edmund Lowe (NOT her husband in the movie).
Playboy divorcee Roger Fallon (Edmund Lowe) declares that all women are bad, even though his butler runs down a list of amorous females he had to fend off in Roger's absence. Roger's apparent hatred of women boils down to one fantastic example in the form of his ex-wife, Doris (Helene Millard), who comes crying to him for a pay-out…even though she’s going on her third (broke) husband now. After all, her new mate can’t be expected to support them both, now can he? Course not.
While on a luxurious boat with friends, Roger rescues Tallulah Hope (Una Merkel), one of the ditziest Southern belles ever portrayed on screen, from the water. Following behind her in another boat is young Jeanne Drake (Jeannette MacDonald), to whom Roger takes an instant liking. Meanwhile, Tallulah attaches herself to Roger's friend, Chipley Duff (J. M. Kerrigan).
Later, Roger meets Herbert Drake (Roland Young), a content married man who holds a completely different view on women: mainly, a demeaning one that preaches the idea that women need men to preside over them. Obviously, Roger and Herbert's beliefs on the subject are at odds with each other, so Herbert proposes a bet: if Roger can seduce the next woman who walks through the door within 48 hours, then he'll win; if not, Herbert will be the victor.
After two close calls - one, a black housekeeper (in 1930s racist fashion) and the other, Tallulah, who luckily didn't quite make it over the threshold - the men switch locations. Well, guess who's first to walk in - Jeanne! Also turns out she's Herbert's wife. Sorry Roger. Though Herbert just bet a stranger to seduce his wife, he shakily vows to go through with it, but I'm guessing it's one gamble he'd be fine with losing.
That's right, Herbert (Roland Young, in the middle). Keep that suspicious look on...but you may want to turn it from Roger (Edmund Lowe) to your wife Jeanne (Jeanette MacDonald).
Roger stays with Herbert and Jeanne, because how else would he really have a fair shot at this? At home that evening, Herbert all but spills the beans to Jeanne, who clearly isn't 100% satisfied with her husband. The next morning, Jeanne admits that she knows what's going on, and the men are relieved. BUT, since the opportunity was brought up, Jeanne wants to keep the wager on, because, you know, she wants to figure out if she's a good wife or if she has a secret bad girl streak.
Over the next two days, Jeanne does her best to throw on a flirty attitude and steal some alone time with Roger, much to the chagrin of Herbert. Meanwhile, Herbert tries hard to win his wife back, but will it be enough? Which man will come out on top?
Don't Bet on Women features many of the usual pre-code suspects: double entendres, suggestive dialogue, a story that does its best to promote adultery, and characters who have no problem undermining the sanctity of marriage. Though the men's opinions on women are quite sexist, I must admit that the level of confidence portrayed in the female roles, particularly Jeanne, is quite refreshing and helps balance the other side out.
I also found it hilarious that while Herbert so confidently upholds his "women can be tamed" philosophy, Tallulah runs amuck with Chipley on a leash, exhibiting the exact opposite behavior. She can easily get him to do just about anything, even when it isn't exactly clear what she's saying or what she wants, which makes up about 90% of her dialogue and actions. Seriously. (For example: at one point, she tries to recite a limerick...but obviously has no clue what a limerick is). Hats off to the wonderful Una Merkel for providing a good chunk of the comic relief in this picture.
Can we take a moment to appreciate the fabulous sleeping gear Jeanne is sporting? Even Tallulah (Una Merkel) praises it. That's totally what that gesture means in this photo.
The Twists (Spoilers Abound)
Many pre-codes still carry a certain shock value even to modern audiences, which is why they are so fun to watch, especially in a theater. However, in most the pre-code films I've viewed, that surprise usually doesn't emanate from unique twists in the story itself. This is where Don't Bet on Women differs, as the film took some turns that (delightfully) threw me for a loop.
First of all, I was expecting Jeanne, who uncovered the men's plan rather quickly, to simply play along without their knowing. That seems to be standard operating procedure for many films and for good reason: it adds a great deal of suspense for the audience to know something the other characters don't. On the other hand, with all parties in the know in Don't Bet on Women, the stakes were definitely higher - and more dangerous - for all involved. In particular, Jeanne's personal insistence that the bet remain in place actually made the entire situation much more risqué (and that much more pre-code worthy).
This is probably too close for Jeanne's husband's comfort.
Another surprise involved Roger's character development. Men in pre-codes can be a nasty bunch - they'll use and abuse women for their own pleasure; lie, cheat, and steal; and they won't think twice about using violence to get what they want (though, let's be serious, many pre-code ladies engage in the same behavior). Now, Roger doesn't fit all those categories, but the film does introduce him as a playboy who takes his lovers rather lightly. Even though he lets himself be far too affected by some of them, I figured his commitment level (to perhaps score some extra dough for his ex-wife) would be on par with Jeanne's sexually aggressive behavior after she reveals that she wants to continue with the bet. However, to my astonishment, it was the opposite: Roger tries hard to push her away. Yes, even after she gets him alone and literally holds her lips millimeters from his for what feels like A MILLION YEARS, he doesn't give in! WHAT?! What kind of pre-code is this?!
Well, it's one that delightfully turned some unexpected corners, for me at least, and it kept doing that all the way up to the last few frames. After Roger denied Jeanne that kiss, I naturally assumed she would go back to her husband and all would be well with the world - boring, but well.
But wait! There's another curveball, and one that screams 'pre-code,' at that. Early in the film, super smart Tallulah advises Jeanne to play both sides of the bet to her favor; that is, let her husband win and afterwards steal some sugar from Roger too. "That way I’d help my husband and then I’d help myself,” Tallulah proclaims as her philosophy. So fitting for a pre-code, right? Well, it seems that Jeanne took that advice: at the very last moment, sandwiched in between Roger and Herbert, Jeanne bestows a kiss on Roger - the one who's not her husband - to make sure she's not missing out on anything with him. Seriously, how much more pre-code can you get, especially with her husband standing on the other side of her? It truly was an unexpected finale that fit in perfectly with the bawdiness of the period.
So will she choose her husband...
...or be a bad wife? (Also, which one does she look more excited about?)
Who's to Blame for This Film Not Being on DVD
As Danny from Pre-Code.com clued me in, this is a Fox film, and for some unfortunate reason, Fox has not been releasing many of their pre-code pictures on DVD. In the film's New York Times review back in 1931, Mordaunt Hall remarked: "It is a jolly piece of film work and it is a pity that more productions like it are not made."
Well, it's also a pity that Don't Bet on Women is not available to watch today outside a rare screening such as this. Hopefully, Fox will change their tune sometime soon. (Side note: does anyone reading this know someone at Fox?! Let's get this taken care of!)
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