Friday 16 July 2010

Housewife (1934)

Director: Alfred E Green
Stars: George Brent, Bette Davis, Ann Dvorak and John Halliday

Bette Davis tended to look back on her Warner Brothers years with both a despair at the films she'd been given to star in and a relief that she didn't have to make such tosh any more. This is a perfect example of what she was talking about, the worst of her films I've seen thus far, even after I've worked through 47 of them. With typical candour, she disregarded it utterly, allotting it only five words in her memoir, Mother Goddam. 'Dear God!' she said. 'What a horror!' She's right too, not only because it's a horrible film but because her part is even worse. She was second billed after George Brent, an eleven time co-star, but by the halfway point she only managed to appear in three scenes and one of those was as mere background. Unfortunately it continues downhill from there because the second half is even more unbelievable than the first and the first was unbelievable enough to begin with. There are no saving graces, not even Bette.

The title refers to Nan Reynolds, who is 'just a housewife', the sort who hires a maid and does all the work herself, partly because the maid is useless and partly because her husband doesn't want to be bothered by all the little details. He just earns the money and expects her to run the place, including the broken faucets, the refrigerator payments and the door to door salesmen. He earns $175 a month and it doesn't go very far, especially when you have the troubles Nan has. The maid may be Mexican, retarded or both, but she certainly has butterfingers. There's also Buddy, an annoyingly cute and almost intelligible son with a strangely different accent to his parents. We suffer these scenes in silence because we hope things will improve but sadly they turn out to be the best of the film. Ann Dvorak is nice and politely imposed upon as Nan. George Brent is nice and politely sexist as her husband Bill, but the light in his eyes is missing.

He works at a Chicago advertising firm called Samuel Blake & Company, but while he's risen as high as office manager, he hasn't had a raise in five years and you can tell that's a subtle hint from the management that he should be looking for somewhere else to be. The hints get less subtle as time goes by, one idea Bill pitches to the boss being rudely dismissed with indignation that he even tried. 'Just another clerk who thinks that he's an executive,' Blake mutters under his breath as Bill leaves the room. Bill has got himself stuck in a rut though, unable to even think about a change, even when his brother-in-law, who works for the same firm, manages to one up him by doing precisely that. George Wilson has been turning up late every morning in what appears to be a half drunken stupor but he's really been looking for something better and he's found it too, earning more than Bill even though he apparently only has a tenth of his brains.

Also earning more than Bill is Patricia Berkeley, a new copywriter Blake hires from New York at a crazy salary: $25,000 a year. The moment she arrives, in the ambitious form of a young Bette Davis, we realise just how convenient the story is going to become. It only takes two hammering the point home scenes to tell us everything. She was brought up in Chicago, where she was two years behind Bill at the Hyde Park High School. She had such a serious crush on him that she moved to New York when he got married, just to get away from her lost dreams. She initially dismisses the thought that Blake's office manager could be the same Bill Reynolds, because the one she knew was 'born to live a glamorous life', 'running guns in South America or hunting emeralds in Siam.' Of course it's the same Bill Reynolds, because otherwise we wouldn't have a plot, and Pat Berkeley promptly forgets copywriting and starts seducing her old crush in earnest.

There is a vague pretence at something else here but it's notably weak. Nan, who is, as has been emphasised, 'just a housewife' is the only character who really seems to do anything. She makes an offhand comment that a jar of cream Pat bought for her must be good stuff because Duprey charge five bucks for it. This triggers the concept that you can cheat the public out of their hard earned money by selling the same thing for double the price and slapping 'double strength' on it. So Nan surprises her husband with $1,700 she's saved by serving nothing but roast lamb every Sunday night and she finances him into business for himself. After he gets nowhere after six months, she sparks his first client by ringing him from outside the office pretending to be the competitor of the man he's wooing. Somehow he manages to make this unexpected gimmick work even by telling his imaginary potential investor of $50,000 that he's too busy to talk to him.

That was bad but it gets worse because Nan comes up with the worst idea in the world. The best way to make the business a success is to get her husband drunk and send him over to the Savoy to talk to Paul Duprey, the man behind a million dollars of advertising for Blake's company every year, but whose contract is conveniently up this month. So Bill stalks him all night, everywhere he goes, even bribing a chambermaid to get him into Duprey's suite. The most amazing thing is that it works and he gets a two year contract out of it. He has to sign Pat too because Duprey wants her, but even though the salary he steals her away from Blake with counts for over half the agency's cut from Duprey and even though Buddy doesn't seem to age a day, suddenly the Reynolds agency is running from two continents, he has cigars made specially for him in Cuba and he takes lunch all afternoon. All because he learns the lesson that he doesn't drink enough!

At this point we have very little sympathy for anyone. As you can imagine from the title, this is supposed to be all about Nan, and Ann Dvorak is by far the best thing about the film, excepting a couple of brief scenes stolen by a suitably arrogant Ruth Donnelly. She's only in the movie to give George Wilson a wife but Donnelly was an incorrigible actress who could make us enjoy her work even in the most steaming piles of horse manure. She raises her eyebrows a few times and sweeps her ever bigger fake furs over her shoulders and we remember other films, better films. Dvorak was a capable actress but she can't do much with Nan Reynolds, even though she's the only character in the film who has even the slightest depth. At least she gets emotional at some points and level headed at others. Everyone else is just who they are, as transparent at the end as they were to begin with, and without even a hint of a potential for development.

What this descends to is a love quadrangle that beggars belief. The tired old cliché about Nan believing that Bill works late because the company needs him rather than because he's out on the town with Pat is almost acceptable, but that's the most cohesive part. Soon Bill is snuggling up with Pat on one side of his large front room, apparently oblivious to the fact that his wife and the rich man who has come to love her are the only other two people there. They wouldn't think anything was up, no siree, Bob. Good grief! Bette Davis does get some catty scenes towards the end, and there aren't too many actresses who could be better at catty than Miss Bette, but she's utterly wasted as a bit on the side. She isn't even a good bit on the side, because we don't see a hint at why she's worth $25,000. She could be a girl Bill picked up on the street. Doing films like this to get films like Of Human Bondage is why Bette's epitaph is 'She did it the hard way'.

George Brent is wasted too because he doesn't get anything to do, except try not to laugh when the material gets even more outrageously awful. There's one moment when his eyes flare at his wife but that's it, and he was an actor worth a lot more than that. John Halliday is reliable as Paul Duprey, the man Bill successfully stalks into becoming his best friend, his biggest client and his wife's confidant, but he has to let the story kick him in the teeth too. Not a single actor comes out of this picture unscathed and I'm amazed that they all stayed as professional as they did throughout. The biggest problem is the script, which is beyond awful, but it didn't benefit from a particularly unfortunate timing. All films released after 1st July, 1934, were required to obtain approval from the Production Code Administration. Housewife was released on 11th August and would certainly have benefited from being a precode, at least to the point of being watchable.


the sayer of the truth said...

Bette Davis was a gorgeous bird when she was 20 but 60 years later when she was 80 she looked more like 120, those 60 years were certainly not kind to Miss Davis.

Hal C. F. Astell said...

As her epitaph reads, 'She did it the hard way.' If you smoke that many packs a day, you're not going to end up in soap commercials.

She wasn't bad looking as a young actress but even she saw herself as far from beautiful. 'I had the good fortune not to be a beautiful, beautiful raving beauty,' she said in an interview with Jim Emerson, 'like Miss Hayworth, like Miss Everybody, Miss Harlow and all that.'

Later on, it really depends on the film. She may have been arrogant about her talents but never about her looks, so she played a lot of twisted, tormented, ugly hags and really looked the part. If you compare films made around the same time though, just how old she looks changes massively between them. She was 70 when she made Burnt Offerings but she looked 60 at the beginning and 80 at the end.

the sayer of the truth said...

I hate and despise British films but i dont mind sitting through "The Anniversary" simply because shes in it.

Jay Raskin said...

I thought the film was fine. It is very adult and treats the problems of marriage in a fair way. The ending seems trite and contrived, but that doesn't negate that the rest of the film is intense and reasonably believable. Bette is a good fun vamp, but Ann Dvorak is the surprise. She really fights for her man and family. Nice.