Thursday, June 29, 2017

Don't Bet on Women (2015 restoration MoMA)

Don't Bet on Women. Edmund Lowe (Roger Fallon), Jeanette MacDonald (Jeanne Drake).

Director: William K. Howard. Year: 1931. Country: USA
Section: William K. Howard: Rediscovering a Master Stylist
    T. alt.: More Than a Kiss. Sog.: William Anthony McGuire. Scen.: Leon Gordon, Lynn Starling. F.: Lucien N. Andriot. M.: Harold D. Schuster. Scgf.: Sophie Wachner.
    Int.: Edmund Lowe (Roger Fallon), Jeanette MacDonald (Jeanne Drake), Roland Young (Herbert Drake), J. M. Kerrigan (Chipley Duff), Una Merkel (Tallulah Hope), Helene Millard (Doris Brent), Henry Kolker (Butterfield).
    Prod.: William Fox per Fox Film Corp.  35mm. D.: 71’. Bn.
    [Not released in Finland].
    From: MoMA The Museum of Modern Art.
    Per concessione di 20th Century Fox e Park Circus. Restored in 2015 by MoMA. Restoration with funding partially provided by Turner Classic Movies

Dave Kehr (Il Cinema Ritrovato): "Apparently eager to get into production on Transatlantic, Howard shot this enjoyable but unambitious romantic comedy in seventeen days, bringing it in four days ahead of schedule. Working from a forgotten Broadway play from 1919, Howard and his writers, Leon Gordon and Lynn Starling, craft a breezy sex farce from a slender premise – a playboy (Lowe) bets his lawyer (Roland Young) $10,000 that he can seduce the next woman who walks in the room, who of course turns out to be the lawyer’s wife (Jeanette MacDonald)."

"MacDonald, just off her famous series of Ernst Lubitsch musicals at Paramount, surprisingly does not sing a note in this film, though she later enlisted Howard to direct the first of her many musicals at MGM, The Cat and the Fiddle (1934).

Mordaunt Hall quoted by Dave Kehr: "An intelligent bundle of fun with a capital cast, was the feature last week at the Roxy. It is to be hoped that this breezy sketch, an adaptation of a story by William Anthony McGuire, will pave the way for similar productions, for its lines are peculiarly well written and there is not the slightest suggestion of catering to the box office by stereotyped ideas.
 Don’t Bet on Women virtually means that mere males cannot ever be certain what the fair sex is going to do."

"This comedy has quite a French flair in some of its incidents, but it chances that the young performer who affords the greatest amount of amusement is Una Merkel, who plays Tallulah Hope of Covington, Kentucky. Miss Merkel, who hails from the other side of the Mason and Dixon line, furnishes one of those rather rare occurrences of a player suiting the role to a T. If one were to take the actual lines that Tallulah speaks they might not sound especially humorous, but they, like Tallulah, are part of a story and there is a load of laughter every time this naïve girl opens her mouth."
Mordaunt Hall, “The New York Times”, March 15, 1931 (quoted by Dave Kehr, Il Cinema Ritrovato)

AA: Don't Bet on Women is a light frothy comedy in the tradition of the bedroom farce and what Frenchmen call vaudeville comedy in the Georges Feydeau sense.

As the female leading role is played by Jeanette MacDonald, associations inevitably stray to Ernst Lubitsch (who was in the middle of a beautiful collaboration with MacDonald) and Rouben Mamoulian who was almost to outdo Lubitsch in Love Me Tonight.

Such films are the most difficult to pull off perfectly, and William K. Howard has talent even in this genre.

The story starts in an openly cynical register. The divorced Roger Fallon (Edmund Lowe) is deeply disappointed with women, his verdict being "all women are bad". His divorce lawyer Herbert Drake (Roland Young) is smugly confident that his control on his wife is absolute and that at least his wife is good.

There is a $10,000 bet that if Roger kisses the first woman who enters the veranda he will be able to seduce her within 48 hours. But when the woman who enters is the lawyer's wife Jeanne (Jeannette MacDonald) Roger calls the whole thing off.

There is a complex comical interchange whether the bet is on or off, with a range of interpretations. I offer some of mine. For Roger the bet is off because he loves Jeanne and refuses to approach her in this way. For Herbert the bet is on because he is blind. For Jeanne "the bet is very much on" because "I'm going to learn something about myself". Besides, she says to the men, "I wouldn't do so much betting".

From a cynical beginning the film grows, together with Roger, towards a romantic and unresolved finale. Jeanne kisses Roger goodbye. "Only curious if I missed anything". The mystery remains.

There are witty dialogues, but in the beginning the film is straining to be funny.

The visual quality of the print is generally brilliant, with some soft passages.


Roger Fallon, a confirmed bachelor who believes that all women are bad but fascinating, fends off women five years after his divorce. When his former wife Doris asks him to draw up a trust fund because she plans to marry a man who cannot support her, Roger consents and consults smug, self-satisfied attorney Herbert Drake. According to Drake, women are bad because men allow them to be bad, and he argues that it is an art to control women without letting them know that they are being controlled. Drake further states that he has absolute trust in his wife Jeanne.

To get away from women, Roger and his friend Chipley Duff plan a yachting trip, but before they leave, Roger rescues a girl, Tallulah Hope, who calls for help in the water. Tallulah, it turns out, is a guest of the Drakes. Jeanne arrives on the boat and invites Roger and Chip to a party, where Drake, further perturbed by Roger's views, wagers $10,000 that Roger cannot kiss the first woman who enters the veranda within forty-eight hours.

When Jeanne enters, Roger offers to call the bet off to avoid embarrassing Drake, but Drake, insulted, insists the bet is on. Jeanne, learning of the bet from Tallulah, coyly tells her anxious husband that it will allow her to learn whether she is a good woman or not. After Jeanne goes horseback riding with Roger, allows him to kiss her hand and encourages his flirtations, Drake refuses to go with her to Roger's apartment for dinner.

Roger, who is falling in love, worries that if he kisses Jeanne, he will be left with a broken heart. That night, Jeanne, drunk with champagne and falling for Roger, entices him, but Roger, sincerely in love, refuses to love her under the existing taudry situation. Upset, Jeanne responds by saying that he couldn't be true to any woman because he is not even true to himself. Drake, who followed and overheard the conversation, happily tears up Roger's check to pay the wager. Before she leaves, Jeanne, curious to see if she missed anything, kisses Roger goodbye, to her husband's distress.

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