Jeanette MacDonald is mostly remembered for her series of light operettas with Nelson Eddy, and for slightly more adventurous classic film fans, for her series of Pre-Code musical comedies with Maurice Chevalier and Ernst Lubitsch. That doesn’t always stand her in good stead, since her particular brand of coloratura soprano singing phased out of mainstream popularity by the 1960s. I’m still a fan of her musicals, but I’m the first to admit they aren’t for everyone. It was a particular joy, then, to hear of Don’t Bet on Women, which is one of MacDonald’s very few non-musical roles, and quite a rousing Pre-Code as well.
Pre-Codes fascinate me not only because they tend to be more risque and innuendo-filled than films either earlier or later, but because the combination of nearly unrestrained sexuality and a society still bound to a great degree by traditional mores often yields films with a very conflicted view of masculinity, femininity, and gender roles. Don’t Bet on Women, aka All Women Are Bad (you can see where we’re headed here), starts off with Roger Fallon (Edmund Lowe) swearing off women following a tender scene where his ex-wife convinces him to pay her a generous allowance since she doesn’t want to make her new husband go to the trouble of, like, working. He and his buddy Chip decide to take a boys-only cruise.
First, Roger sets up the allowance for his ex-wife (apparently his problem isn’t women, it’s that he’s a pushover), and the lawyer that writes it up (Roland Young) thinks he’s all wrong about women – in fact, his own wife is perfect and does everything he wants, no questions asked. I’m gonna say that this whole conversation is one of the most incredibly misogynistic things I’ve ever heard. But it’s early in the movie.
Before Roger and Chip get far on their bachelor cruise, though, they’re interrupted by a woman (a hilariously motor-mouthed Una Merkel as the wonderful Tallulah) floundering about in the ocean. Of course, they save her – they’re women-haters, not women-murderers – and soon her friend Jeanne Drake (MacDonald) arrives by boat to pick her up. She invites the boys to a party at her home, and of course they can’t pass that up, though Roger is still pretty dead-set against getting involved. Once they arrive, who should turn out to be lovely Mrs. Drake’s husband, but our misogynist lawyer. He and Roger continue to antagonize each other until Roger reluctantly takes a bet that he can’t seduce the next woman that walks into the room. GUESS WHO? You’re right! But Jeanne quickly finds out about the bet and decides to teach her husband a thing or two about how compliant she is.
One way this tension between sexual freedom and sexist gender roles plays out in Pre-Codes is women who go after what they want and take it (and often don’t get punished for it as they would once the Code was enforced), and yet do still somehow end up subordinate to men in subtle ways. Here it’s that Jeanne has to somehow square wanting to find out what it would be like to be with (the film is chaste enough to leave the bet at a kiss) a man other than her husband while also actually being a good girl at heart, which ends up leaving Roger in the awkward position of having to save her from her own illicit desires – which is problematic.
Here’s the comment a friend made immediately after seeing the film at the Fest, and he’s totally right.
DON'T BET ON WOMEN (1931) is a delightfully, unapologetically sexist Pre-Code that wraps up w/ a nice female empowerment moment #tcmff
— Will McKinley (@willmckinley) March 28, 2015
I’m not totally sure whether the film itself is “unapologetically sexist”, or if just half the characters are – the film certainly doesn’t think Mr. Drake is right in the way he treats Jeanne, but he also ends up being a delightfully befuddled character (a type no one did better than Roland Young) and not judged too harshly. As Will says, the whole thing is delightful to a fault, regardless of its potential sexism. The women clearly come out on top, whatever bumps there are along the road. Una Merkel is at her dizzy best (she steals every scene she’s in), and if nothing else, it’s proof positive that Jeanette MacDonald should’ve done more straight comedies.