… and no, this isn’t quite a TCM Classic Film Festival post. These movies were playing at this year’s TCMFF but I skipped Pleasure Cruise to catch Private Property, and Double Harness I’d seen a few years back, so I didn’t even try to get into that very popular screening or its “rerun”. But to extend the fest feeling, I watched these Pre-Codes as soon as I got home.
In Pleasure Cruise (1933), Genevieve Tobin and Roland Young play Shirley and Andrew Poole, newlyweds struggling with his insecurity, his extreme and unfounded jealousy, and her position as capable breadwinner while he’s a housebound writer in the homemaker role. During a spat, Andrew plants the idea of separate vacations to reinvigorate the marriage, and ends up practically daring Shirley to go enjoy a pleasure cruise by herself. Immediately horrified by the thought of all the men she’ll attract while travelling solo, Andrew secretly gets himself a job on the ship to spy on his wife.
There’s a lot of implausibility, silliness and close calls as Andrew hovers near to eavesdrop and catch every detail, and then inevitably gets drawn into jams where he needs to disguise himself, put on an accent and speak while hiding in a closet, and dodge his wife every other conceivable way. He tries to scare away her potential suitors with horror stories of her past “victims,” but has no luck dissuading Richard (Ralph Forbes), with whom Shirley arranges a nighttime encounter. She leaves her door unlocked but Andrew sneaks in instead of Richard, so Shirley has no clue who she spent the night with (?!). That sets up a misunderstanding the next morning, has Shirley wondering which of the many men with the tell-tale cigarette case was the one that visited her, and somehow this all results in a “safe” resolution that both preserves the Pooles’ marriage and gives it some added excitement. You can read more about how problematic this really is over at Danny’s Pre-Code.com review.
Up to that point, Tobin does a nice job playing an independent woman, and putting across how she thrills at all the male attention after a year of increasingly stale married life. She shows both how tempted she is to have a fling that her husband need never know about, and how troubled she knows she’d feel, keeping such a secret. She gets advice from the flirtatious Mrs. Signus (a glammed-up and hilarious Una O’Connor), who chases Andrew and other men on the cruise.
Double Harness (1933) is way more delightful, a smart and sophisticated romance wherein practical Joan (Ann Harding) tricks avid bachelor John (William Powell) into marriage so she can show him how much better his life and career could be with the perfect wife. It works, and he begins to realize that very thing. He falls in love with her, comes to value her contributions to his success running the family company, and even rethinks their divorce plans, but then he learns the truth of how she trapped him, and goes cold once again.
Powell and Harding are both cool, restrained actors with fantastic, passionate chemistry, and have fascinating adult conversations about how hard it is to maintain the spark of love once “tied down.” Harding is as usual, so natural and convincing and it’s a joy to watch the way she controls and conveys her rollercoaster of emotions, and enacts her growing frustration during the more screwball situations. She starts out as a realist who sees herself as plain and unexciting, and decides that the “career” of being a powerful, advantageous marriage partner is where she’d excel. So it’s captivating to watch her work toward that even as she falls for John, fights for and faces losing him. She’s relieved when the truth comes out and is still dedicated to building his success. Joan’s freeloading sister Valerie (Lucile Browne) is the one who spills the beans during a fight over who will pay her debts so her husband won’t find out, and Lilian Bond as John’s former flame is a smarmy and confident vixen who in the end overestimates her hold on him.
Their marriage falls apart at the worst time, on the day of a crucial dinner party where the guest of honour is a USPS VIP Joan has strategically invited to smooth-talk into a super-lucrative deal with John’s company. The party’s derailed by Valerie’s drunken attempts at seducing another man into paying her debt, some other guests getting called away by an emergency, and a brawl between the overworked cook watching all his food go to waste, and the blase butler who can’t remember his cue in Joan’s elaborate lie about John’s absence.
Karen was lucky to see this at TCMFF and also made it her TCM pick for this month.