March 5, 2015  |  Film
William K. Howard’s Don’t Bet on Women

I’ve recently discovered a sassy feature that has been in the MoMA collection for more than 40 years. Don’t Bet on Women, a drawing-room comedy produced by the Fox Film Corp. in 1931, encompasses all of the risqué behaviors, modes of dress, suggestive situations, and freewheeling alcohol consumption that the Motion Picture Production Code hoped to curtail. Readers may be familiar with the term “pre-Code,” often referring to a simplification of the Motion Picture Production Code enacted by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) to address scandals, both legal and personal, that were flourishing in Hollywood at the time. From the late 1920s through roughly 1934, off-color, potentially lewd, criminal, and decidedly improper social comportment flourished in many Hollywood films. Slinky lingerie was usually worn by seductive-looking actresses while suave actors lounged in tuxedos and popped champagne. If that’s what you’re looking for, William K. Howard’s Don’t Bet on Women, based on the story “All Women Are Bad” by William Anthony McGuire, will not disappoint.

Roger Fallon (Edmund Lowe) is divorced from his ex-wife Doris (Helen Millard) but they still feel a spark when they meet. Doris, who is set to marry again, asks Roger if he could arrange for a small sum of money to hold her over until the wedding. Roger agrees and the amused Doris ironically says “all women are bad!” The next day Roger goes to see Herbert Drake (Roland Young) a severe lawyer who is appalled by Roger’s estimation of women, which concurs with that of his ex-wife. Herbert believes in marital fidelity, dinner at 6:00 p.m., and eight hours of sleep per night. Herbert’s wife Jeanne (Jeanette MacDonald), meanwhile, is happy in her marriage but bored by her husband’s inflexibility. In order to forget his lonely bachelor status, Roger goes for a sail on his yacht, taking along his sidekick Chipley Duff (J.M. Kerrigan). The men are happy and carefree until they hear calls for help coming from overboard; Chipley suggests they ignore the woman in distress, as she will upset their stag voyage, but Roger tosses her a life preserver. Turns out the young lady is Tallulah Hope (Una Merkel), a houseguest of Jeanne and Herbert Drake’s. Tallulah is an outspoken and flirtatious woman whose Kentucky accent drips molasses, and Chipley, who wanted to sail away from her cries five minutes prior, is now enthralled by her boldness and impudence. Jeanne soon comes along in a motorboat to retrieve Tallulah and invites the two men to a party at her house that evening. Sullen Roger doesn’t want to go, but a kittenish Tallulah convinces Chipley.

At the Drake party, Roger and Herbert wager $10,000 that Roger won’t have the inclination to kiss the next lady who crosses the threshold onto the veranda—remember, Roger agrees that “all women are bad”—and after a few comic missteps it turns out that Jeanne is the object of the bet. Does he have the nerve to kiss another man’s wife? Will he win or lose $10,000?

Promotional photograph of Una Merkel. c. 1930s. Public domain image

Promotional photograph of Una Merkel. c. 1930s. Public domain image

The unquestionable highlight of Don’t Bet on Women is the performance by Una Merkel. Merkel was a native of Covington, Kentucky, so her syrupy southern drawl was the real thing. As Tallulah Hope, she is kooky, outspoken, and naïve yet strangely worldly. When Chipley tells her he’s from Limerick, Ireland, she says, “I know a limerick,” and proceeds to recite one that makes absolutely no sense. Chipley comments, “That is positively indecent.” Merkel reportedly looked so much like the diminutive Lillian Gish that she stood in for the actress during the production of Victor Seastrom’s The Wind (1928). Her career lasted through the late 1960s, after she expanded into television in the 1950s. Best known for her roles in 42nd Street (1933) and Destry Rides Again (1939)—in which she tangles with Marlene Dietrich—Merkel won a Tony Award in 1956 for The Ponder Heart (based on the novella by Eudora Welty) and was nominated for a Best Actress in a Supporting Role Oscar in 1961 for her performance in Summer and Smoke. Fittingly for this saucy woman, her last film performance was in the 1966 Elvis Presley feature Spin Out.

Don’t Bet on Women is not an easy film to find, let alone see, but if you are in Hollywood on March 27 you can catch a new 35mm print at the TCM Classic Film Festival, where I will be introducing a screening. And thanks to the support and generosity of our friends at Turner Classic Movies, MoMA will soon have a new 35mm print to show New York audiences in the (hopefully near) future.