Another Language and What Every Woman Knows: Two New Warner Archive Releases Starring the "First Lady of the American Theater"
October 22, 2015
Another Language (1933) and What Every Woman Knows (1934) are two of Warner Archive Collection (WAC)'s latest DVD debuts starring Helen Hayes, nicknamed the "First Lady of the American Theater." WAC recently released three of Hayes' nine features she filmed during her brief period in Hollywood, lasting from 1931 to 1935, before she returned to the stage. (The other title was her last picture for almost a decade, 1935's Vanessa: Her Love Story).
I chose these two Hayes movies to review because of their release dates: July 1933 and October 1934, pre- and post-Code, respectively. I hadn't seen, or even heard of, either of these films before, and besides providing a quick review of each, I really wanted to compare and contrast both in terms of the Production Code. However, I quickly realized that due to its story, family drama Another Language doesn't really contain a whole lot of amoral ideas or indecent scenes that could have been exploited during pre-Code Hollywood, save for one or two moments and a few lines. That being said, please enjoy my general brief commentary on both.
Another Language (1933)
Newlyweds Stella (Helen Hayes) and Victor (Robert Montgomery) savor the last of their wedded bliss on the boat home from their elopement. Upon their return, Victor wants them to stay with his mother (Louise Closser Hale), an idea that doesn't exactly sit well with Stella. In fact, right off the bat it's clear that Stella doesn't fit in with Victor's boisterous siblings, and her introduction to his mother doesn't fare much better.
Stella feels the family is too critical of her and expresses a desire for the couple to get away, to no avail. Eventually, she places her energy in art school, which naturally inspires whispers from Victor's family, especially when she and Victor turn up hours late for family dinner one evening. Walking in after them that same night is Victor's nephew Jerry (John Beal), the gentle black sheep of the family who takes an instant - and intense - liking to Stella.
Stella and Victor host family dinner the following week. That evening, Stella guarantees Jerry that nothing could happen between them (also, he's her nephew!), but trouble isn't far behind when the rest of the family arrives; from mother feigning sickness to an awkward attempt at family dancing, the evening proves a disaster. Embarrassed by the way his family teases him, Jerry storms out. Stella defends Jerry, but she finds herself alone in her convictions. Afterwards, Victor and Stella get into an argument that results in Victor walking out. Conveniently, Jerry returns and finds Stella alone, grabbing onto his chance and kissing her.
Stella meets Victor at his mother's house and confesses that she doesn't care what his family thinks anymore, telling him that there's so much he doesn't see. Meanwhile, Jerry comes home and is greeted by a barrage of questions from his family. Victor starts to realize Jerry's in love with Stella moments before Jerry confesses his love for her. Considering the way Victor's been acting, who will Stella end up with in the end?
Victor (Robert Montgomery) and Stella (Helen Hayes) getting along.
My Two Cents
As I mentioned previously, my intended research angle focusing on Helen Hayes' performances in a pre- and post-Code film fizzled once I realized the story wasn't as sizzling or risqué as I had hoped (another Hayes pre-Code previously released by WAC, 1931's The Sin of Madelon Claudet, would have worked much better). Though certain ideas, scenes and lines, including that kiss between aunt and nephew (and that whole situation in general), shots of an almost nude art model, and Stella purring the line: "You know what I mean" to Victor after she tells him she doesn't want to stay with his mother, would probably have been altered post-Code, I doubt the film would look much different if it had been produced a year later.
While I watched the movie, two thoughts ran through my head: 1. the film unfolded very much like a play in several ways - the action, the dialogue, the set pieces - and 2. John Beal's performance as Jerry was very tough for me to swallow.
A quick internet search for the film afterwards helped inform both of these opinions. Yes, the picture was based on the stage play of the same name. Yes, this was Beal's first film. Whew, that explains the very wooden acting. BUT, then I read that Beal starred in the Broadway version, which dropped me back into a confused state. Though this was the actor's first appearance on screen, his stage experience should have at least assisted a little; after all, American Theater Goddess Helen Hayes only had a few films under her belt as well but she still knocked it out of the park, as per usual throughout her very limited screen career.
As you can see, that's not Victor's real head.
Besides Beal, everyone turns in a pretty solid performance, and though they only really get along for the first three-four minutes, Montgomery and Hayes play rather well off each other. For its 77 minute runtime, the film moves quite leisurely through the storyline, but at the same time, certain matters and scenes, such as Jerry's love for Stella and one of the final moments involving Victor, emerge and/or take place very quickly; in the case of the latter, the turning point occurs very abruptly, seemingly to hasten the ending.
Aside from the aforementioned slight bumps, Another Language is as likeable as can be, especially when you take into account the fact that most of the characters are bickering the entire time!
Quick aside: I couldn't help but identify strokes of Tea and Sympathy, which was written 20 years later in 1953, in this film; perhaps author Robert Anderson watched Another Language as a teenager? Who knows, but the similarities between the older sympathetic females and younger misunderstood males who both confuse nurture with attraction are striking (minus, of course, Tea and Sympathy's homosexuality element that is severely downplayed in the 1956 film version).
What Every Woman Knows (1934)
In their native Scotland, Maggie (Helen Hayes)'s father Alick (David Torrence) and her brothers fear she will soon become a spinster. After discovering John Shand (Brian Aherne) studying in their library, the men approach him with a proposition: they will give him money for schooling if he agrees to marry Maggie in five years if she's still single. Though both sides push back at first, they all eventually agree upon the deal.
Fast forward five years. A shot at a seat in Parliament for John delays his plans with Maggie. Maggie works tirelessly on his campaign; clearly, she's stood as one of the driving factors behind his success during these past few years while waiting patiently to get hitched. Besides her fiancée's busy schedule, Maggie's only rival is beautiful, sophisticated Lady Sybil (Madge Evans), who flirts shamelessly with John when she visits his campaign office one day.
John wins the election, and after the victory he and Maggie discuss their situation. John tells her that she deserves to get married, but it doesn't seem like he's too enthusiastic about the idea; however, "a bargain's a bargain," he says.
Though Maggie and John are now married, Sybil isn't out of the picture, nor does it seem like she ever really was. During one of her visits to John's office, John tells Sybil that he wants them to publicly declare their love for each other. Unbeknownst to them, Maggie overhears their conversation. When Maggie's brothers and father enter moments later, Maggie plays the whole thing off, but John spills the beans and soon leaves Maggie for Sybil. In her own smart and sly way, Maggie concocts several schemes to get John back, but none of them seem to work. Will she eventually win her husband's heart? Guess what the answer is...
Maggie (Helen Hayes) tries to calm John (Brian Aherne) down as her brother (Donald Crisp) and father (David Torrence) look on.
My Two Cents
As previously mentioned, What Every Woman Knows, based on J.M. Barrie's play, is the post-Code of the two films reviewed here. Like Another Language, the story doesn't really lend itself to any pre-Code shenanigans anyway, even had it been produced at least a year and a half earlier.
Although the entire supporting cast, from Donald Crip as one of Maggie’s brothers to Lucile Watson as Sybil’s aunt, contribute solid and generally amusing performances, it's the leads who really stand out. To be honest, I’m not normally a fan of Aherne’s acting. However, he pleasantly surprised me in this picture by exhibiting a strong sense of energy and passion that allowed me to forgive his character's complete lack of awareness when it comes to Maggie and all that she's done out of love for him.
Speaking of Maggie, though, Hayes easily steals the show. She turns in a stellar performance, balancing Maggie’s mixture of admiration, love, dedication and exasperation for her husband and her situation beautifully. Less than a decade before, Hayes played the role on Broadway, so one could guess that she could slip back into the character easily, Scottish accent and all; at least, that's how it comes across onscreen. In a telling sequence in which Countess la Brierre (Lucile Watson) scolds Maggie for letting Sybil romance John in front of her, Maggie replies by devaluing herself: she lacks charm, she's plain, and she's - GASP - 6 years older than John. But while she may outwardly project those qualities (or is told she does), her actions speak louder; she's delightfully enthusiastic (especially when John 'unleashes' her for a quick moment when he announces their engagement at a train station), she's strong and smart (in dealing with John and Sybil's romance), and she's downright adorable (she finally gets John to laugh at one point). As usual, Hayes pulls off all the character's nuances skillfully.
What a beautiful glamour shot of Helen Hayes.
My only real problem with the film is that, like Another Language, the climax is delivered rather suddenly. Yes, the audience can guess what the outcome will be, but two characters do complete 180s at the end that feel rushed and forced for the sake of time.
Quick aside: I was pleasantly surprised at how strong Maggie comes across in this picture even though she’s routinely repressed by the men in her life. One scene, occurring right after John declares his love for Sybil, highlights both Maggie’s strong character and the story's rampant female oppression. John, Maggie’s father, and her brothers ask Maggie and Sybil to leave the room while the men discuss the situation. "You and I are supposed to retire, Lady Sybil, while the men decide our fate," Maggie drolly remarks, infusing her comment with wry mockery, restrained wit and a hint of frustration. Yes, as a woman during this time (the early 1900s) and in the field of politics she's automatically relegated to the background, but behind the scenes, Maggie’s a firecracker, determined to make her mark, uphold her worth and prove her love. That ardor alone provides enough reason to pick up What Every Woman Knows.
Thank you to Warner Archive for providing me with review copies of these two titles. Please note Warner Archive releases are manufactured on demand (MOD). To order, visit the Warner Archive Collection at the WBShop.com.