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Helen Bauer (Bette Davis) is a successful, popular New York City illustrator with a glamorous life and glamorous friends. The last thing she needs is a husband to cramp her style.
"No one has any rights about me, but me," she tells her devoted boyfriend Don Peterson (Gene Raymond) who owns an advertising agency and sometimes spends the night, but cannot convince Helen to give up her independence and marry him. Even the immigrant father who furiously confronts his daughter the morning after Don has slept over and denounces his daughter as "cheap!" can't persuade her to change her mind.
"I went away from home to be on my own," trills Helen. "I don't want to be like my mother, a 'yes' woman for some man. I want to be a person of my own."
Setting the sex comedy plot of Ex-Lady (1933) in motion, Helen finally gives in to pressure to marry and finds, instead of contentment and wedded bliss, friction and grief. In addition to marrying, Helen and Don go into business together. But their business collaboration proves disastrous and Don begins to dabble in infidelity with a married friend. In perfect tit for tat, Helen embarks on an affair with Don's advertising business rival Nick Malvyn (Monroe Owsley).
The New York Times found the film hard to take and a misuse of Davis's obvious talent, remarking that "Miss Davis had to spend an uncomfortable amount of her time en deshabille in boudoir scenes engaged in repartee and in behavior which were sometimes timidly suggestive, then depressingly naive and mostly downright foolish."
Despite the New York Times' criticisms, Ex-Lady is a remarkably progressive, contemporary story considering its 1933 release date, with some similarities to the chick flicks of contemporary times centered on the romantic travails of single city girls.
"So frank...so outspoken...so true," Warner Brothers promised in advertising for the film, and the film for once lived up to the hype.
A quintessential pre-Production Code film, made in the period between 1930 and 1934 when the Code was not strictly enforced and films were released with a remarkable degree of salaciousness and eyebrow-raising content, Ex-Lady features the icon of a liberated, empowered woman who considers herself the equal of any man. But, as is often the case with such films which defied the censors only to revert to the path of conventionality in the end, Ex-Lady's conclusion has Helen come around to the pleasures of domesticity, wifedom and a husband who is devoted to her.
The first film in which Bette Davis headlined, Ex-Lady's depiction of a determined, forceful lady with an independent spirit suited Davis's own off screen personality well. Davis was known for being just as forceful in her non-film life, with a reputation for being difficult on and off the set. The first female president of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, Davis was also a cofounder, with actor John Garfield, of the Hollywood Canteen, which supported armed servicemen during World War II. In 1977 Davis was the first woman to receive the American Film Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award.
The film that really announced Davis as an actual force to be reckoned came a year after Ex-Lady, the 1934 adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage which transformed Davis into a star. It was not, however, until 1935's Dangerous that Davis received her first of 10 Oscar® nominations (placing her second only to Katharine Hepburn for total number of Best Actress Oscar® nominations). She won an Oscar for Dangerous though she thought Of Human Bondage, in which she played a cold-hearted waitress opposite Leslie Howard, was the superior performance.
Ex-Lady was a virtual remake of the 1931 Warner Brothers Barbara Stanwyck film Illicit whose tagline was the short and sweet "She dared!"
Director: Robert Florey
Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck
Screenplay: David Boehm from a story by Edith Fitzgerald and Robert Riskin
Cinematography: Tony Gaudio
Production Design: Jack Okey
Music: Ernesto Lecuona
Cast: Bette Davis (Helen Bauer), Gene Raymond (Don Peterson), Monroe Owsley (Nick Malvyn), Frank McHugh (Hugo Van Hugh).
by Felicia Feaster