Adulterous Hearts

By Patrick Preziosi

In Other Men’s Women, one of William A. Wellman’s five films made and released in 1931, the director achieves a moment of startling actorly naturalism amidst a film that otherwise floods itself with biblical weather and inflicts blindness upon characters—bombastic gestures that give the central love triangle an inescapable drama.

In keeping with this strongly symbolic streak, capricious and womanizing Bill (Grant Withers) is a railroad fireman, and partner to his friend and engineer, Jack (Regis Toomey), who leads a reliably domesticated life with his wife, Lily (Mary Astor). Bill crashes with the two for a spell, and becomes a pal to Lily when Jack’s away on errands or sleeping before the night shift, as he keeps a small garden with his friend’s wife, whose growth signals just how much time the house has been home to a trio, rather than a couple. The shared jokes and intimacies—at one point, Lily gives Bill a haircut—snowball into a kiss that, although enacted in good fun, is charged with more erotic and romantic potential than either party expected, much less intended. 

Bargaining can be transcendent, and what are desires if not dreams to be fulfilled, no matter the method?

Pre-code Hollywood is more often than not categorized within extremes, which explains that the prevailing examples of Wellman’s 1931 are The Public Enemy and Night Nurse, unprecedented in their violence and innuendo, respectively. Other Men’s Women, however, belongs to a more subtle and quotidian (so to speak: the film does climax with a collapsing train trestle) set of films.

Such pre Hays Code liberties are rationally attuned to matters of the—adulterous—heart. Lily and Bill aren’t punished for their dalliance, with Wellman and screenwriter Maude Fulton applying a lens of maturity to the relationship and acknowledging the kinds of feelings that can smolder when in close proximity with another individual, regardless of marital or social status. A command of the spontaneity of human connection is in resounding effect in Other Men’s Women

After falling into what was something of a pre-code habit a few months ago (a more polite means of describing my obsession), I began to trace backwards from the aforementioned kiss in Wellman’s film to other romantic melodramas I’d watched prior, chief among them Frank Borzage’s Man’s Castle (1933), Raoul Walsh’s Me and My Gal (1932), and King Vidor’s The Stranger’s Return (1933).

Not all these films grapple with infidelity, but their sense of romance is still one that is victim to intervals of doubt, and prone to fits of restlessness, as hitherto confidences are poked at and prodded. However, such confidence is already a fragile and tenuous thing, as economic anxiety has foreshortened the attendant stability of coupling and of course, marriage.

Man’s Castle, which situates itself within a riverside Hooverville, fulfills this economic precarity angle the most, as young, destitute lovers Bill (Spencer Tracy) and Trina (Loretta Young) do their best to make ends meet. He, with his roguish confidence and unquellable wanderlust may seem a poor fit for her genteel softness and constant acquiescence to some of her boyfriend’s off-putting habits.

Given the general atmosphere of the Depression, both characters’ mismatched attitudes aren’t exactly thrown into question as much as they are simultaneously validated and compromised.

Trina pines for domestic stability, no matter how hardscrabble (Borzage gives the camp an expressionistic ugliness), and Bill can’t help but envy the free-flying, overhead birds. The conclusion of the film, too touching and Borzagian to spoil here, still manages to satisfy the duelling desires of the couple. Bargaining can be transcendent, and what are desires if not dreams to be fulfilled, no matter the method?

In Me and My Gal and The Stranger’s Return, romantic courtship and coupling are delivered in variegated forms, giving a shot of vertiginous smittenness to bad-idea relationships, and defusing potential tumultuousness. Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett are the quick-talking Bowery couple of Me and My Gal, but they’re also accompanied by Bennett’s sister (Marion Burns), who has an on and off relationship with a gangster (George Walsh), even though she’s recently married.

Preceding a verbosely ecstatic marriage proposal over the lunch counter where Bennett works is a moment of silent reunification between Burns and Walsh, a sequence that works with the gestural purity of silent cinema (they mustn’t speak, lest they be found out), establishing an entire universe of romantic possibilities which all characters—regardless of what side of the law they may be on—are invited within. 

The Stranger’s Return then allows a unique authority on the part of recently divorced Miriam Hopkins, who comes out to the family farm and accurately picks up on the spark between her and a married Franchot Tone. When he steals a kiss, she replies with an almost disorienting pragmatism and foresight: “Should I be the woman amazed, or the woman afraid, or insulted, impassioned, or just unknowingly wronged?” It’s an astonishing moment, subverting the conventions of romantic melodrama and screwball merely by listing their attendant outcomes, all without losing grasp of the affront that’s technically been committed.

By actively validating these feelings, these films aren’t just romantic, but cosmic.

As with Borzage, Walsh, and Wellman, permissible reactions to infidelity are catalogued, giving a strong foundation for the singular, non-judgemental combination each director accomplishes. What’s most important to note is that this is not just a matter of desire—thwarted or consummated—but foundational connection; all the aforementioned unfaithfulness and unsuredness originates from the thrill of personable attachment. Perhaps it’s a shared interest in literature, or a repressed playfulness that arises to the surface in the company of both parties. By actively validating these feelings, these films aren’t just romantic, but cosmic.

Patrick Preziosi is a Brooklyn, NY born and based writer, whose work has previously appeared in Screen Slate, The Quietus, and Mubi Notebook.