Ex-Lady (1933): Pre-Code Romantic Drama, Starring Bette Davis

Robert Florey directed Ex-Lady, a bold Pre-Code film, penned by David Boehm based on unproduced play by Edith Fitzgerald and Robert Riskin.

After this film, producer Darryl F. Zanuck resigned from Warner to form his own production company, Twentieth Century Pictures, which later merged with Fox to become 20th Century Fox.

Ex-Lady was a remake of the Barbara Stanwyck vehicle Illicit, released two years earlier. A star vehicle for the young and then blond Bette Davis (who gets top billing), this melodrama was made one year before the Motion Picture Production Code was enforced, in 1934.

As a result, it is risqué in subject matter, dialogue, sets (double bed) and  deep-cleavage negligees that Davis is wearing (sans bras).

Davis plays Helen Bauer, a glamorous, successful, headstrong, liberated New York graphic artist with modern ideas about romance.  “No one stands or is above me,” she claims proudly at the beginning of the film.  At 20, she believes that she has another two decades before settling down into domesticity and having children.

Helen is romantically and sexually involved with Don Peterson (Gene Raymond) but she has no intention of sacrificing her independence by entering into matrimony.

The two agree to wed only to pacify Helen’s conventional immigrant father Adolphe (Alphonse Ethier), whose Old World views spur condemn their “immoral” affair.

The couple form a business partnership, but financial problems at their advertising agency put a strain on their marriage, and Don begins seeing Peggy Smith (Kay Strozzi), one of his married clients.

Convinced that it was the institution (and restrictions) of marriage that disrupted their relationship, Helen suggests they live in separate quarters but remain lovers.

When Don discovers that Helen is dating his business rival, playboy Nick Malvyn (Monroe Owsley), he returns to Peggy.

Surprisingly, Helen is not denigrated for her beliefs about marriage, and Don is not depicted as being a cad for carrying on with several women at the same time.  Though they are sleeping together and unmarried, neither is concerned about having children; they may be using birth control.

The plot is laced with comedic touches, such as a long monologue by Peggy’s old husband about “boilers,” which is later imitated and spoofed by Davis herself.

Slender and sporting a great figure, Davis is at her most seductive wearing revealing dresses, robes and lingerie.  The couple sleep in a double bed, and the lights go on and off as they exchange witty dialogue and double-entendres.

The turning point in Davis’ acting career would occur a year later with her bold performance in Of Human Bondage (1934).  She would win her first Best Actress Oscar in 1935 for Dangerous.

Made on a small budget (less than $100,000), the movie recouped its expense but was not very commercial.

Intertextuality:
The prologue to Aldrich’s 1962 horror film, “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” includes a scene from “Ex-Lady{ to show former child star Jane Hudson’s failure to achieve success as adult due to lack of talent.

Cast
Bette Davis as Helen Bauer
Gene Raymond as Don Peterson
Kay Strozzi as Peggy Smith
Monroe Owsley as Nick Malvyn
Ferdinand Gottschalk as Herbert Smith
Alphonse Ethier as Adolphe Bauer
Frank McHugh as Hugo Van Hugh
Claire Dodd as Iris Van Hugh
Bodil Rosing as Mrs. Bauer

Credits:

Directed by Robert Florey
Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck
Written by David Boehm
Music by Leo F. Forbstein
Cinematography: Tony Gaudio
Edited by Harold McLernon
Production: Vitaphone
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release date: May 15, 1933
Running time: 67 minutes
Budget: $93,000
Box office: $283,000

Note:

I am grateful to TCM for showing this rarely-seen film on July 10, 2019.