Friday, June 7, 2019

DVR Diary: A WICKED WOMAN (1934)

Mady Christians was an Austrian star of German stage and screen who quit that country for Broadway in the year Hitler took over. She had enough of a rep that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer took a chance on making a star of her. Since Christians was already 42 in 1934, Metro promoted her as a master thespian. What better way to demonstrate this than by casting the German emigre as a southern woman. Interestingly, in adapting a supposedly sensational novel by Anne Austin, writers Florence Ryerson and Zelda Sears transformed the protagonist from a Texan to a Louisianan from the bayou country. Whether this was done to accommodate the limits of Christians' mimicry is unclear. In any event, you can recognize that Christians is imitating some sort of southerner, but you can also at times recognize something irrepressibly Teutonic in her voice.

The story, as directed by Charles Brabin, is a cut-and-paste assembly of melodrama tropes. A long-suffering mother, our heroine Naomi, has to kill her violent, criminal husband while her children sleep. Although the old man is a fugitive, she's afraid that she can't prove that she acted in self-defense, so she sinks the body and tells the sheriff that she hasn't seen him. Turns out that the bum had been holding the family back. By taking in sewing, and later by attending night school, Naomi slowly elevates her family's station while exercising iron discipline over her kids. This is most resented by Rosanne, the younger daughter, who pays a heavy price for stealing a bit of fabric and lying about it. The scene in which Naomi burns Rosanne's rag doll in an oven while the little girl (Marilyn "Little Maria" Harris) howls in despair is nearly as traumatic, at least to sensitive viewers, as the same young actress's encounter with Frankenstein's monster.

After a name change to throw the old sheriff off their trail, through pluck and grit Naomi rises to run her own big-city fashion shop, while her oldest boy, Curtis (William Henry), becomes a reporter on a local newspaper. Meanwhile, Naomi has grown into a resentful Jean Parker, who defies her mom by carrying on a relationship with handsome but trashy Bill Renton (Robert Taylor in an early, heelish role). Rosanne tries to keep her trysts a secret but a blowup is inevitable. It comes after she and Renton have spent a night sleeping in a car. Rosanne chooses Renton over her family, but Curtis won't accept that decision without a fight. In that fight Renton knocks him down a flight of stairs, inflicting the sort of vague injury that requires suspenseful surgery. That's enough to turn Rosanne off Renton, but in an interesting coda to her subplot she tells her mom that she wishes she could be ashamed of herself, but she can't. Naomi accepts this, realizing that Rosanne genuinely loved the jerk.

The operating-room vigil is an opportunity for Naomi to bond more closely with Curtis's boss, the superficially crusty but kind editor Naylor (crusty-for-life Charles Bickford). Once Curtis recovers, the family urges Naomi to claim happiness, but she, seeing herself in the title's terms and remembering a recently reiterated vow to pay for her old offense, sneaks off to turn herself in for killing her husband. She hopes to account for that crime in secret, using her married name, but it apparently didn't occur to her that her son and gentleman friend are reporters. Nor did it occur to her that Curtis, way back when, had been awake for the killing, enabling him to give the crucial exculpatory testimony and ensure a happy ending. Well, we can assume it's a happy ending, even if the film ends oddly with some business from Sterling Holloway's comedy-relief character, a boyfriend of Rosanne's older sister whose primary attribute is his appetite. In sum, it makes an odd showcase for Metro's latest import at a time when foreign stars embodied cosmopolitan sophistication. For all that it supposedly showcases Christians' versatility, the part probably could have been played by any actress her age, foreign or domestic. It's no surprise that this was her only top-billed Hollywood film, though she'd have continued success on Broadway and steady work in films until the Red-hunters got to her.

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