The thrill of Ex-Lady (1933) is watching twenty-five year old platinum blonde Bette Davis in her first starring role honing what would become her trademarks—smoking her way through every scene, an insolent hip first walk, and a stare as fatal as any death ray.
Ex-Lady would’ve been impossible to make just two years later, when Hollywood began censoring the subject matter of its films. There’s no on-screen sex or violence in Ex-Lady, of course, but it’s a subversive film nonetheless in its wry take on marriage.
Davis plays Helen Bauer, a commercial artist who has no problem letting her boyfriend Don (Gene Raymond) stay the night without putting a ring on it.
In fact, she insists that he doesn’t.
It’s not because she doesn’t love him.
It’s because she doesn’t want to be a wife.
In the beginning, Helen’s independence was a turn-on for Don. If she’d hinted at marriage when they first got together, he’d have gone screaming in the other direction.
But hard to get has always been a winning strategy, and he’s ready to settle down.
Too bad it was never a strategy for Helen—and she’s not ready.
When he insists, Helen explains, “I don’t want babies. When I’m forty, I’ll think of babies. In the meantime there are twenty years in which I want to be the baby and play with my toys and have a good time playing with them.”
By toys, she means her career, and parties, and picking out her own furniture without having to please anyone else.
Marriage, to Helen, means compromise. And she’s not ready to do that.
She sees marriage as dull, and believes that once she becomes a wife, the romance will die.
But Don wears her down.
She marries him—and that’s when the trouble starts.
When she has a career triumph while his is floundering, he resents her. And it turns out marriage is rather dull for Helen—she still wants to go out, and Don wants to stay home and read the paper.
Then Don gets a wandering eye, and Helen stays up all night waiting for him to come home. When he does, she demands to know where he’s been.
Then the horror hits her—she’s become a nagging, jealous, scolding wife. The one thing she never wanted to be.
To Helen’s mind, the only solution is for them to live separately. Continue dating, but see other people as they wish. Don agrees, but both are miserable with the situation—but too stubborn to admit it. Through it all, their love for one another shines through—Davis and Raymond have a nice chemistry that never fades throughout their arguing and teasing.
Marriage—can’t live with it, can’t live without it.
The film showcases all the delights of the pre-code era—boundary-pushing, a sexy undertone, and a brisk pace.
As 67 minutes, Ex-Lady takes half the time of a bloated episode of The Bachelorette.
And it’s a hell of a lot more modern.
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Timeless? Watch it tonight? That’s high praise, you’re usually quite stingy with your rating system. But there are other films from this era that have strong, independent female characters and we’d be foolish to think that they don’t exist. I know plenty of Davis fans of all sexes, and they love how she comes over on screen. Unfortunately make critics tend to mythologise male film-makers and ignore the many female stars who took control of the projects that they were involved in. Good on you for resetting the balance!
I am tough on the rating….this is one of the few I’ve given top marks to that isn’t really part of the accepted canon of great films. But it’s so breezy, Bette is so Bette, and you could remake it today almost shot for shot and it would still land. Without a doubt, it’s an example of what makes the pre-code films great.
Well said. I’m a fan of pre-code just because it’s a period where the various suppressive influences on film didn’t yet have purchase. So the films made in the early 30’s have a far more progressive attitude than what followed. I’ll check this out on your recommend…thanks!