There are few eras of film I’m more ebullient about than Pre-Code. It was a time where women got to be sexually explorative, express progressive opinions, let out their inner sleaze with zero apologies and often times get away with all of it. Ann Harding, largely unknown today, was one of the actresses that flourished during this period, perfecting the role of the self-sacrificing wife. Her characters express honest opinions and observations about marriage; opinions that come from having lived through it. When Ladies Meet is the first film with Ann Harding that I’ve had the pleasure of seeing. If Laura Linney acted during the Pre-Code era, she would have been that of the dignified Mrs. Harding, head always held high. Films like The Women, and apparently the 1941 remake of When Ladies Meet starring Joan Crawford and Greer Garson, are compromised by the conservative restrictions of Code enforcement. In Pre-Code, a wife’s forgiveness isn’t a virtue to work up to; it’s a habit to break.
When Ladies Meet is based on 1932 play written by Rachel Crothers. Mary’s (Myrna Loy) latest novel mirrors her real-life problems and the idyllic solution she hopes for. She’s involved with Mr. Woodruff (Frank Morgan), a married man who also happens to be her publisher. Long-time friend Jimmy (Robert Montgomery) consistently pines after her with acquired bluntness and no success. The idyllic solution in her novel that she hopes to repeat hinges on the idea that two women involved with the same man (the wife and the lover) can sit down like adults and intelligently discuss the future with perspective, understanding and grace. Jimmy doesn’t trust Woodruff and decides to mingle by introducing his wife Clare (Ann Harding) to Mary without either knowing who the other is. Then things get introspective and interesting.
This has got to be one of my favorite Pre-Codes, a sophisticated MGM comedy that sympathizes with both women involved, recognizing that domestic situations are not just black-and-white. Having Mary, a self-described ‘good girl’, involved in an extra-marital affair muddies up the virgin/whore dichotomy in an exciting way. Yes there is some sense of a status-quo maintained, but several conversations and ideas are legitimately thought-provoking for the era, and all in the guise of a comedy at that. There is a captivating, relaxed centerpiece scene where Mary and Clare have a late-night philosophical talk and differing perspectives are hashed out. Other Pre-Code idiosyncrasies include many amusing double entendre jokes that walk just up to the edge of frankness.
If I have one complaint about Myrna Loy, an actress I always enjoy a lot, it’s that she doesn’t really make the role her own. But Alice Brady, in an eccentric supporting role is simultaneously exhausting, obnoxious and hilarious; a first-class ditz for the ages. Robert Montgomery has first billing and the catalyst for the plot. He tinkers with lives and then stands back to watch the sparks fly. His love for Mary is long-standing and serious, but he presents himself as a dapper joker who knows what’s best. And there’s a certain pleasure in seeing Frank Morgan in the part of a playboy who attracts lots of women to his extra-marital affairs. There were times I didn’t know quite which direction the story would go in and it’s always a delight when I sense that uncertainty.
On the tawdry/classy Pre-Code scale, When Ladies Meet falls resolutely on the classy side. It’s all well and good early in the running, but when Ann Harding enters everything gets knocked up that extra especial notch. Tawdry may often be what satisfies most in Pre-Code but this gem proves that classy can play ball too.