“The law makes us a bunch of puppets on strings, like Punch and Judy,” says Ruth (Mae Clarke again) in James Whale’s 1932 “The Impatient Maiden.” Ruth is an assistant to a divorce attorney who regularly witnesses marriages full of abuse, abandonment and betrayal. (This is due in no small part to the country’s economic insecurity, a reality that features in a number of films in this series.)
Ruth is a practical girl who nevertheless harbors a silent desire. She proposes a reasonable course of action if she falls in love with Dr. Brown from Lew Ayres: Wait to get married until his medical practice takes off. Scandal and hardship follow when Dr. Brown rejects Ruth’s proposal, but we feel that the root of the lovers’ problems lies not in a woman’s fear of marriage, but in the inert ideals that cloud men’s minds.
Other films in the series take marriage lightly, to self-affirming and playfully joyful effect.
In “One Hour With You” (1932), a musical comedy Directed by Ernst Lubitsch with the help of George Cukor, stars Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald play a married couple, Andre and Colette, who are first spotted in a park – a place regularly reserved for illegal lovers. Colette’s bestie, a bonafide housebreaker named Mitzi (a wonderfully lusty Genevieve Tobin), takes a liking to Andre, leading to a night of infidelity on both sides that is swept under the rug for good when the couple decide they love each other too much. to let such trivial pursuits ruin them. Mitzi answers her own husband’s divorce petition with gentle nonchalance and drives off with a daring self-portrait in tow.
Particularly moving are the moments in these films where women stand up for each other in the face of gender-based moralization.
Five movies to watch this winter
In “Bad Girl,” when Dorothy meets her future husband and stays at his house until 4 AM, she is evicted from the apartment she shares with her brother, Floyd. But she never has actually Suffers for her indiscretions: Floyd’s quirky girlfriend, Edna (Minna Gombell), a single mother who struggles to balance work and childcare, promptly dumps Floyd for his grossly patriarchal ideas and takes Dorothy under her wing.
Before the Code decried the image of interracial couples and the kinds of roles available to the (very few) colored actors used by Hollywood, films like “The Bitter Tea of General Yen” (1933) ) to be made. For audiences at the time, the interracial romance between Barbara Stanwyck’s missionary character and a Chinese warlord contained shocking levels of intimacy — regardless of Nils Asther, a Swedish actor, playing General Yen. That said, the most remarkable aspect of this undeniably biased film is the casting of Japanese actress Toshia Mori in her biggest and most dynamic role during her brief sojourn in the United States.