That Certain Woman (1937)

  • Written & directed by Edmund Goulding.
  • Grandiose music written by our omnipresent friend Max Steiner.
  • Bette Davis is Mary, whose gangster husband Al Haines died in “The Valentine Massacre” four years earlier.
  • Now Mary is the secretary for a “swank downtown lawyer” – Lloyd Rogers, played by Ian Hunter.
  • Hugh O’Connell plays a reporter wanting to write a “Where Are They Now?” piece on Mary & Haines’s remaining gangster associates – but Swank Lawyer Rogers puts a stop to it by befriending the reporter & calling him “Virgil” a lot (not a literary reference – that’s the reporter’s first name, & I think it makes him feel extra chummy & extra important…and so he agrees to cut his (probably very interesting, when it comes down to it) newspaper story).
  • During their opening scene, Davis & Hunter really seemed like they had something romantic in the works…but then Henry Fonda (Jack Merrick, Jr.) returns home from Europe, & it seems that he & Mary are a (relatively) happy item, and that he & Swank Lawyer Rogers are buds.
  • This is gonna sound weird – but when MJ (Merrick, Jr.) first returns home & drunkenly & joyously phones Mary…he reminds me a lot of Rob Lowe’s character in ST. ELMO’S FIRE (1985). (How’s that for a comparison? Ha!)
  • But – so far I’m really impressed by this loose-and-goofy-with-an-undercurrent-of-inadequacy Fonda. It’s very different from most of the roles I’ve seen him play.
  • Oh! Before MJ went to Europe, he asked Mary to marry him (marrying Mary always seems to be a plot point in these ’30s classics) – but she told him “We’re just good friends, my boy,” and she just said it again now.

Swank Lawyer romance = still alive!

  • Although…MJ & Mary’s cuddling on the front steps while discussing their future is a pretty cute scene. Fonda & Davis have perfect chemistry – just like they do in JEZEBEL (1938).
  • Swank Lawyer Rogers essentially talks MJ & Mary into going for it, & getting married immediately. You can tell SLR is pretty heartbroken, though – he definitely gives a rat’s ass about Mary. Thing is, he’s also a swell, upstanding guy who 1) is already married, and 2) thinks his buddies deserve the ultimate happiness (and in this current moment – the three of them think that with the issues of MJ’s family name/wealth & Mary’s gangster history removed – marrying each other is the best way to achieve that). Can’t say I blame any of them…but I do feel sad for SLR.
  • Aw, dang! The kids got married, but then Merrick, Sr. (the trustily stern & fatherly Donald Crisp) interrupts their wedding night to lecture MJ about his bride’s past, & how she isn’t a high-quality choice for a wife.
  • Merrick, Sr. brings along a cop named Neely (Sidney Toler) who actually ends up vouching for Mary’s good character…and Davis & Toler’s interaction is a pretty sweet one.
  • Nevertheless, Mary sees that ultimately, Merrick, Sr. still holds power over MJ, and decides to head home & wait for the forced annulment papers.

(This got real glum, real quick, you guys.)

  • Fast forward a year & 9 months…and there’s a Merrick, Jr., Jr.
  • Virgil delivers the news that MJ has just gotten himself married to an heiress, while vacationing in France. What a dipshit! (MJ, not Virgil.)
  • Mary never told him about MJ, Jr., because if she alone wasn’t enough for him – she didn’t need him around…and I 1000% agree with her on that stance. She says she’s “not the type” to lure a man back into her arms, using a baby as a bargaining chip – and I think that’s outstanding.
  • Wait, what the hell? 3 years later (suddenly), SLR is deathly ill, & he decides to tell his wife that he loves Mary, & has for a long time. (I don’t think the sentiment is weird – I just think we’ve fast-forwarded past several important chapters to get to it.)
  • “I begged you not to turn me into the other woman – you promised you’d protect me from hurting her,” Mary says to SLR.

What a thoroughly decent woman she is.

  • Men are scoundrels, aren’t they? I thought SLR was a good one – but I’m not sure how good you can be, if you scamper away to your pseudo-mistress’s house on your deathbed – forcing your secretary, who’s declined your advances for years, out of principle – to stand shoulder to shoulder with your wife, as you dyingly reject her. I mean…come on, SLR! I expected more from you than that!
  • When MJ comes back to town, following the death of SLR – the reactionary shot of Davis seeing him for the first time is exquisite. We’re not shown that it’s MJ standing there – but based solely on Davis’s expression(s), we know it’s him. Marvelous.
  • MJ2 (Dwayne Day, in what was his first & only movie role) makes a noise in the next room. “Your son?” asks MJ.

His name is “Jackie,” you fucking moron! Do the math!

  • Jack, meet Jack, Jr.

MJ: How old is he?

Mary: How old would he be?

MJ: …What?

  • Nowww he gets it.
  • Of course, this ruins everything. Merrick, Sr. sues for custody of the kid, because he’s a rotten piece of shit.
  • “Any sane person would agree with me that you’ve done that child almost irreparable harm. I shall ask the courts to remove him from the possibility of further contamination.” — Merrick, Sr.

Jesus Christ, he’s awful! Where are Mary’s old gangster buddies? Can we get them to come “take care of” Devil Grandpa?

  • Meanwhile, MJ is completely clueless about the whole thing. “Dad, you didn’t say anything about a court order when I talked to you this afternoon!” Stellar.
  • Davis & Fonda’s chemistry continues to be outstanding.
  • Well – women are exquisite creatures, aren’t they? Flip (MJ’s wife, played by Anita Louise) pays a visit to Mary…and they both offer to give MJ up, to preserve the happiness of MJ & the other person.

“I feel that while he and his father were deciding so much – we women should get together and decide for ourselves.”

Bravo, writers! Bravo!

  • Ultimately, Mary wins with her self-sacrifice, & MJ stays married to the wonderfully warm & generous Flip.
  • (I feel like the movie could have just ended here – with all of them living in the same town, & with MJ sharing custody of MJ2…and they all live contentedly ever after.)
  • Instead, they not only have Mary give up MJ to Flip…but also have her give MJ2 to them to raise, as well! Why?! That’s just dumb!
  • Then they fast-forward a few years, & good ole Virgil tracks Mary down in Monte Carlo (of all places) to tell her that Flip died last year, & that MJ’s been searching for her. So the MJ-Mary-MJ2 thing ends up happening anyway.
  • I feel like the ending got a little too convoluted – though I’m sure Edmund Goulding was, in some unfortunate way, trying to please movie audiences with the tying off of all loose ends. (What should we do with this respectable, sympathetic character named SLR (aka Lloyd) who is getting in the way of the MJ/Mary romance? Let’s kill him! What should we do with this respectable, sympathetic character named Flip who is getting in the way of the MJ/Mary romance? Let’s kill her!)

(The stupid part is that Goulding wrote those characters in that particular way – only to have to write them out again, later. The whole story dynamic seems a little flawed, in that sense.)

  • Anyhow – this was thoroughly decent & fabulously acted movie, and I enjoyed it, despite its questionably written, perhaps overly maneuvered ending. Recommended, if only for the acting performances!
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