Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Wesley Ruggles | No Man of Her Own

no man of his own
by Douglas Messerli

Milton Herbert Gropper and Maurine Dallas Watkins (screenly, based on a story by Benjamin Glazer and Edmund Goulding, based, in turn, on a novel by Val Lewton), Wesley Ruggles (director) No Man of Her Own / 1932

The highly underrated film No Man of Her Own is based on a very simple principle that has been used time and again in theater art and movie making: a cad courts a beautiful girl, who not only gets him to marry her but reforms him through love. Two of Broadway’s favorite musicals (later to very popular movies) Guys and Dolls and The Music Man share almost the very same story. The same tale, from the woman’s point of view, is retold in Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve.

       The reason why it’s so interesting in this earlier film derives from its major actors: Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. As a sophisticated gambler Clark as Babe Stewart is literarily swept off his feet by the smart-cracking beautiful small-town librarian Connie Randall (Lombard). And even though they marry on a toss of a coin, it is clear that such a con-man like him will not survive long without her.
       Even though Babe bluffs that he’ll quickly ditch her, after their first long night together (where he and his cronies quickly fleece a wealthy fellow gambler), she sends him truly spinning by demanding that he get up early and go to work. Without day-time experience and, more importantly, without a job, he is forced to pay a friend for an office in Wall Street to hide out during the days. Strangely, without anything much to do he dabbles in investments and, as we later perceive, achieves other financial success. 
      When Randall finally begins to guess his true avocation, she switches his marked deck of cards, forcing him to lose. She is also visited by Babe’s former lover, Kay Everly (Dorothy Mackaill) who helps wise-up Randall on her husband’s doings and his scuffles with the law. Yet love holds sway, even while Babe ponders a voyage to Rio de Janeiro with his fellow card-sharks. Instead of leaving, the gambler unexpectedly turns himself into the police who have been trying to get something on him. He’ll serve several months in jail if after that they clear him and stop tailing his actions.
       Months later, he returns to his now pregnant wife, pretending to have returned from his transatlantic voyage, without realizing that she knows of his deception and he lives, presumably, happily-ever-after as a loving husband as a Wall Street exec.

       In short, the story is a standard fairy tale about the powerful effects of good and loving women, like Randall, who are perfectly willing to be seduced if they can change their man’s ways—as the famous Frank Loesser ditty, “Marry the Man Today” promises. Even though, reportedly, Gable and Lombard sparked no romantic moments during the shooting of this film  (Gable purportedly found Lombard far too bawdy and outspoken and she saw him as conceited) it is clear from this, their only film together, that they represent a kind “pepper-and-salt” match. 
       Yet, there’s something wrong with this picture that begins with its title. Who “has no man of her own” we must ask, when it is clear at the first moment that Randall and Babe meet, he will be her “man?” Does the title refer to his ex, Kay? If so, nothing is made of it, and she quickly backs off in any challenges against Randall for Babe—although the film ads (not from the completed film) tends to suggest this.
     Nor was the original working title (named after the story on which it was based), No Bed of Her Own any more illuminating.  Once she marries Babe, his wife certainly does have “a bed of her own,” primarily since he spends most of the (real movie time) in jail, doing a kind of symbolic penance for his previously bad deeds.
      And there are so many other questions. Why is such a dapper, wealthy man spending time with such thugs as Charlie Vane (Grant Mitchell) and other such crooks? True, the money is easy takings given the braggart moneybags with whom he plays. But this high-time spender seems to have everything, including a beautifully furnished penthouse, while his partners live in fleabag hotel rooms.
      How could such an obviously sentimental figure as Babe, who so quickly falls in love, be a cutthroat gambler? Even if we accept him as a kind of polished Nicky Arnstein (of Funny Girl) figure, things still don’t quite add up—particularly since he is so equally adept at Wall Street gambles.
      The director Ruggles makes absolutely no attempt to “explain” Babe’s bad-boy behavior and his truly quite speedy transformation into a loving husband. Maybe it’s better that such fairy tales are not analyzed too much. Besides, as we’ve discovered in so many movies, Lombard, as daffy as she is, always gets her man. Perhaps it might be more appropriately titled, No Man of His Own, without suggesting any secret “gay” coding, but simply pointing to the fact that Babe is just what his name suggests, a kind of child, who has utterly no control over his own adult male identity.

Los Angeles, February 21, 2106

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