Oct 20, 2015

On DVD: Helen Hayes in a Pair of Pre-Codes

In her short Hollywood career, Helen Hayes was an unusual screen presence. Though the tiny actress was understated, placid and almost entirely lacking in glamour, she was also quietly powerful, and always exuded unassuming confidence. Though she would ultimately win two Academy Awards, Haye's screen career was brief, due partly to her frustrations about not being able to control the way her performances were presented on the screen. 

I recently had the chance to check out a pair of the actress's pre-code performances, before she left Tinsel Town for decades of glory on the stage. In Another Language (1933) and What Every Woman Knows (1934) are now available on DVD from Warner Archive.

In these films Hayes demonstrates her developing skill as a screen actress. Though I prefer a little more glamour and fire in my leading ladies, it is clear that the woman famously known as First Lady of the Stage was as capable of playing to the camera with as much skill as she was the back of the theater. Here the actress is given good material, both from stage plays, the latter of which she played in a successful run on Broadway.

Another Language is an unsettling, low key, and addictively tension-filled drama about a newlywed woman (Hayes) who struggles to fit in with her husband Victor's (Robert Montgomery) family. His mother (the absolutely irritating Louise Closser Hale) is a bundle of sighs and reproaches. She disapproves of any woman taking her son from her, but particularly one who seems to have interests beyond the weekly family dinner. Her other two sons are rather indifferent to her, while their wives alternate between sympathy and taking catty swipes and the younger, more sophisticated woman. Even Victor begins to feel frustration at his inability to keep his wife in line. Only father-in-law Pop Hallam (Henry Travers) and nephew Jerry (John Beal) seem to understand her, though the latter falls quickly into uneasy puppy love for his uncle's bride.

Hayes is meant to be a free-spirited artist in Another Language, but she seems almost too practical to fit that description. The role of Stella Hallam was originally offered to Norma Shearer, but she bowed out of the film to take care of husband Irving Thalberg, who had suffered a heart attack. Though I didn't know that before I saw the movie, I did envision Shearer in the role. Whenever I see Robert Montgomery in a pre-code, I always start to look for Ms. Norma, but here he is without her, her presence only a ghostly possibility. It would have been fun to see her flighty, shimmering persona in this story.

That said, Hayes does bring an interesting, less conventional spin to the so-called screen free-spirit. Perhaps her feet seem a little too solidly on the ground for a woman who is flouting society's expectations of her, but in a way that's just the point. There's no reason why she shouldn't have other interests and it takes a sort of clear-eyed practicality to see through what is expected of her to find what she really wants.

Several of the parts are filled by actors who performed in the original Broadway production, and you can feel their cozy familiarity with the dialogue. In her film debut, Margaret Hamilton is especially pleasing. As the wife of one of the brothers, she is believably domestic, sharp-witted and complex. Instead of falling into a shrewish stereotype, her demeanor changes with the scenario, sometimes cruel, though basically kind and always observant.

It's an intriguing film, which manages to keep you off balance even though it marches towards a fairly predictable conclusion. Montgomery and Hayes can be surprisingly erotic together and there's an overall tone of honesty that is novel even for the pre-code era.

What Every Woman Knows has a lighter feel, though it also has an uneasy marriage at its center. Hayes is Maggie Wylie, a women well into marrying age who has been once again jilted on the way to the altar. Her father Alick (David Torrence) and brothers James and David (Dudley Digges and Donald Crisp) worry that she will never find a husband. She is more accepting of the situation, and well aware that she doesn't have the charm or beauty necessary to have her pick of suitors.

When politically fiery John Shand (Brian Aherne) is discovered breaking into the Wylie home in the middle of the night so he may use the family library to further his education, the men of the family make an offer: they will pay for his schooling, and when he has graduated, Maggie will have the option of marrying him. 

The pair does marry, and Shand wins a seat in the Parliament. That he manages to keep that seat and launch a brilliant political career is almost entirely due to Maggie's machinations behind the scenes. Completely ignorant of her work on his behalf, John falls in love the with the more glamorous Lady Sybil (Madge Evans), a woman whose interest in politics increased when she laid eyes on the tall, handsome MP.

Maggie observes all that happens around her with a pleasantly cool exterior, only occasionally revealing flickers of the hurt she feels. Rather than begging Shand to stay with her, she lets him find out for himself how wrong Lady Sybil is for him. She also takes several strong political stances on his behalf, which angers him until he realizes how brilliantly she has ensured his success. Maybe he doesn't deserve her, but she's going to make it look like he does.

As in Another Language, Hayes manages to dominate the action in her quiet way, no matter how much bluster or beauty swirls around her. I thought it was an admirable performance, though as in the other film, I didn't feel particularly drawn to her when she spoke. It's really her expressions that make her magnetic. While I think the actress is a solid talkie presence, I believe she would have been exceptional as a silent film star.

It would have been interesting to see how Hayes would have progressed in Hollywood had she been more enthusiastic about the way What Every Woman Knows was produced. As it was, she was unhappy and after grudgingly completing the final film of her contract, she returned to the stage for nearly twenty years. When she returned to films, she was ready for character parts. While she was clearly a star on the stage, I think she comes off better in those supporting roles, where strength, rather than glamour, is most needed. That said, the pre-code Hayes is always a pleasure to see and these films are important because they capture a great actress entering her prime.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copies of the films for review. These are Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVDs. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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