Sunday, March 9, 2014

Other Men's Women (1931)

Director: William A. Wellman                           Writers: Maude Fulton & William K. Wells
Music: Erno Rapee                                         Cinematography: Barney McGill
Starring: Mary Astor, Grant Withers, Regis Toomey and James Cagney

Another pre-code film, Other Men’s Women deals with the idea of falling in love with your best friend’s wife, even though nothing really happened. At the helm is the great William Wellman who would go right from this film into production on The Public Enemy. One of the interesting things about this film is that it was made at a time when the public had become burned out on musicals. Films like Broadway Melody were so packed with singing and dancing that this film sticks almost exclusively with diegetic music, records and dance bands. In fact, neither the opening or closing titles have music at all. Though not an important film, it does provide something of a blueprint for similar ideas to come, namely Kings Row, also made by Warner Brothers.

Railroad man Grant Withers is a ladies man, practically engaged to waitress Joan Bondell, but he stands her up one Saturday night to go over and stay the weekend with his best friend, engineer Regis Toomey, and his wife Mary Astor. But the kidding around and the intimate living arrangement makes for an awkward moment when Toomey is gone and Astor and Withers kiss each other in the kitchen making dinner. Withers is all for telling his friend right away, but Astor begs him not to. The only thing left to do for Withers then, is leave the house. On their next trip out on the train Toomey guesses what’s up and the two fight in the engine of the train and Withers knocks Toomey out cold, causing them to hit another train going in the opposite direction. Feeling guilty, Withers takes the blame for the accident. When Toomey gets out of the hospital, however, Withers discovers that things have taken an unexpected turn for the worse.

This is an interesting look at railroad men, and the conflict between the two friends. Grant Withers seems an unlikely protagonist with his goofy manner and childish personality, but he worked in over two hundred films including a bunch of westerns later in his career. Though Mary Astor is the female lead, the part of the conflicted housewife doesn’t really allow her to do much. The difference between this role and her appearance ten years later in The Maltese Falcon is huge and one wishes she could have made a few more noir films as her deceptive abilities were tremendous. Regis Toomey does a nice job as the best friend and is very effective in the climax. Also onboard is the great James Cagney in a supporting role as a fellow railroad man and does some nifty dance moves midway through the film at the ballroom, while Joan Blondell makes the most of a tiny role and is very memorable.

Wellman does a tremendous job on what amounts to little more than a programmer. His camera movement is wonderful to watch as he follows actors and seemingly becomes the audiences’ eyes as he moves around the sets. And the sets are very good as well, even the miniatures that are used in the flood scene at the end of the film. And while the absence of music is strange at times, there actually are some tiny bits of film score that can be heard. The story was written by Broadway actress turned screenwriter Maude Fulton who worked in films throughout the thirties. The film was originally titled The Steel Highway, but this was changed to emphasize the more melodramatic aspect of the screenplay. Other Men’s Women is nevertheless a fascinating, though hardly essential, pre-code Hollywood gem.

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