Don’t Bet on Women (1931)


CREDITS
BACKGROUND
PLOT
REVIEWS


Fox.
Released: February 15, 1931.
Produced by Fox Films.
Associate Producer: John W. Considine, Jr.
Directed by William K. Howard.
70 minutes.

British release title: More Than a Kiss.

Based on the original story, “All Women Are Bad,” by William Anthony McGuire. Screenplay and dialogue: Lynn Starling and Leon Gordon. Staged by: Henry Kolker. Photography: Lucien Andriot. Editor: Harold Schuster. Costumes: Sophie Wachner. Sets: Duncan Cramer. Sound: Albert Protzman. Movie­tone Recording.

The only known surviving print of this film is at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

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 Fallon)
James T. Mack (Sommers, Fallon’s valet)
Henry Kolker (Butterfield)
Louise Beavers (Maid)
Cyril Ring (Jeanne’s dancing partner)


Background

Don’t Bet on Women is the second of Jeanette’s three “lost” films for the Fox studios, believed to have been destroyed in a vault fire. Fortunately, a print has been found, adding to our understanding of this critical period in the history of Hollywood and the career of Miss MacDonald.

The film turns out to be a typical “program­mer” of the early 1930’s. Director William K. Howard (The Cat and the Fiddle) had not yet mastered the talkie form, and the film is pictori­ally sluggish. Edmund Lowe (who had played “Quirt” to Victor McLaglen’s “Flagg” in What Price Glory?, the sizzling 1926 war story) was more at home in rugged he-man rôles. Here, he is stuck in a drawing room comedy. Roland Young (One Hour with You) plays his usual dry, acerbic character. (It takes a great suspension of disbelief to imagine any romantic feelings between his character and his on-screen wife, Jeanette.) Una Merkel (The Merry Widow), one of the unsung treasures of Hollywood, glitters as Jeanette’s comedic best friend.

It was Jeanette’s first nonsinging rôle, although at one point she actually sits down at the piano and strums the keys. Possibly a song was cut so the studio could advertise, as so many did, “This is not a musical!”

Contemporary viewers labeled it a stylish drawing room sex comedy of the type done so well by Lubitsch at Paramount.


Plot

The film opens late at night in a swank Manhattan bachelor’s apartment. Sommers, the valet (James T. Mack), is fielding phone calls from ardent females and making excuses for his absent master, ladies’ man Roger Fallon (Edmund Lowe). Roger re­turns home from a night on the town with his rotund friend, Chipley “Chip” Duff (J. M. Kerrigan). He congratulates Summers on pro­tecting him from his over-eager girl­friends.ust then, his greedy exwife bursts through the door.

Doris (Helene Millard) wants more money so she can afford to marry her new beau, only her second marriage since she and Roger parted five years before. Roger readily agrees. He owes it to her. Once he loved and worshipped her, but she has educated him, teaching him that “all women are bad—for me.”

Because his own lawyer might think he’d turned sentimental, Roger goes to Chip’s lawyer, Herbert Drake, to have the agreement drawn up The pompous Herbert (Roland Young) doesn’t approve of divorce. It is invariably the man’s fault. Women, he says, are like children—sometimes sweet, sometimes naughty. They require a man to guide them. Herbert primly describes his unvarying and utterly boring daily routine. “Must be very exciting for your wife,” jokes Roger. “I try never to excite my wife,” says Herbert smugly. “It’s not good for her.”

They debate the nature of women. “All women are bad,” declares Roger amiably. Herbert disagrees: “My wife and I have absolute trust.” Roger grins. “There’s nothing a woman resents so much,” he tells Herbert. “It’s a dreadful comment on her charm.”

That evening, Roger and Chip are on board Roger’s yacht in Long Island Sound, preparing to head for the high seas and anywhere they won’t run into women. Just then, they hear cries for help. A swimmer in distress. And female! “Women are always in trouble,” says Chip. He’s for letting her drown, but Roger gallantly hauls her on board. Their sputtering mermaid is the beautiful if daffy southern belle, Tallulah (Una Merkel). Chip is examining her for injuries in a strictly pre-Code and enjoyable fashion when a motor launch pulls along side, piloted by Tallulah’s anxious friend, Jeanne Drake (Jeanette).

Jeanne is invited on board and Roger soon forgets his eagerness to get away from women. Jeanne, however, is cool to his advances. She’s married, she says, and suggests he is the kind who only pursues unavailable women. “Are you insinuating I enjoy forbidden fruit?” asks Roger. “I should say an apple a day was your diet for years,” she replies.

Chip is making much better progress with Tallulah who invites both men to Jeanne’s big party that evening. Jeanne seconds the invita­tion. “You tempt me frightfully!” smiles Roger. “Aren’t I lucky?” teases Jeanne. “I haven’t had a good temptation in years.” When Roger learns that Jeanne is Herbert Drake’s “perfect” wife, he promises to attend.

At the party, Tallulah discovers that Chip was born in Limerick, Ireland and dazzles him with a limerick of her own:

There was a young lady from Athens
Who hand-painted china just lovely.
When people said, “Oh,”
She said, “I don’t care.
You don’t get paid much for it anyway.”

Roger and Herbert again trade quips and barbs about women’s virtue while an orchestra plays in the adjoining ballroom. “Kisses,” opines Roger, “are the food of love….If women don’t have a good cook at home, you can’t blame them for going out for their meals.”

“You mean no woman can resist you,” sneers Herbert. He so detests Roger’s cynical attitude that he proposes a wager. He will pay Roger $10,000 if Roger can get the next woman to walk in the room to kiss him within forty-eight hours. “Agreed!” cries Roger. They look toward the door. The black maid (Louise Beavers) enters.

With a shrug, the two men move to the veranda and start over. Tallulah approaches. Roger turns her away. Then suddenly Jeanne steps away from her dancing partner and crosses the threshold with a smile.

Roger chivalrously suggests that Herbert won’t want to go through with the bet, but Herbert insists. Roger will be their house guest for the next two days.

As Herbert and Jeanne prepare for bed that night, he tells her about a hypothetical bet a friend has made about his wife’s virtue. Jeanne thinks it is revolting. “But the husband has nothing to worry about,” she says. Herbert beams. “Unless the man is attractive,” she adds. Herbert groans softly.

The next morning, Tallulah, tipped off by Chip, tells Jeanne about the bet. Jeanne vows to have her revenge on both men for this insult. Besides, she’s curious what her own reactions will be: “There’s no virtue in a woman being good if she’s never had a chance to be bad.” To Herbert’s horror, Jeanne insists on going through with the bet. “Oh, what an opportunity for a good woman!” she exults.

Far from avoiding Roger during the next two days, she tells the sheepish men, she intends to spend every moment with him. She and Roger prepare to go horseback riding. Herbert nervously insists on joining them, but is prevented by the arrival of Butterfield (Henry Kolker), an important client seeking a patent on an umbrella.

On a remote, romantic hillside, Jeanne ridicules Roger’s skillful lovemaking. She will enjoy observing his methods, she says tartly. He squirms with embarrassment, but continues, growing more and more eloquent. Eventually she is moved. The lady is starting to weaken.

Romance is in the air. Chip and Tallulah announce their engagement. The two couples will dine with Roger at his apartment that night to celebrate. Later, Herbert quizzes Jeanne about her day as they dress for this party. She playfully tells Herbert how much she admires Roger’s prowess—with horses. Herbert replies defen­sively that he was in the cavalry. Jeanne taunts Herbert by quoting his infantalizing comments about women. The quarrel escalates, until Herbert says he won’t go. Jeanne says she will go alone. Herbert, sulking, refuses to kiss her goodbye. “Too bad,” says Jeanne. “This is one night I feel like being kissed!”

After the celebratory dinner at Roger’s apartment, Chip and Tallulah depart to see Outrages of 1931. Jeanne has seen the show, so she and Roger stay behind alone. She sits at the piano and begins playing. A song seems imminent. Then, heartbreakingly, she turns away. (“This is not a musical.”)

The couple flirt and spar. “Woo me, try me, test me,” she challenges. He does, and she cannot help herself. She confesses she loves him. He starts to kiss her, then pushes her away. He genuinely loves her. Jeanne is hurt and dumbfounded. In a fury, she denounces him and slaps his face, just as Herbert walks through the door. “A triumph for right thinking!” Herbert cries.

Roger gives Herbert his check for $10,000, but Herbert tears it up. He is content, he says, to have shown Roger how wrong he has been about women. As Herbert and Jeanne exit, she impetuously kisses Roger. Alone, Roger laughs sardonically. “Don’t bet on women!” he says.


Reviews

The New York papers were divided. The New York Post said, “Save your money.” Mordaunt Hall in the New York Times called the film “an excellent comedy sketch, bubbling with bright lines and originality. It is worked with real skill and directed imaginatively by William K. Howard. The two players who furnish most of the amusement are Miss Merkel and Mr. Young. Miss MacDonald is quite effective in her part.”

Variety noted that drawing room comedies rarely did good business. “All it has besides the players’ names is a magnificent technical pro­duction and a good deal of smart literary quality which are poor substitutes for entertainment punch….an inept story superlatively acted. Jeanette MacDonald plays the heroine charm­ingly.” They also picked out Una Merkel and Roland Young as the outstanding performances.