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Even though Robert Taylor had signed with MGM in 1933, it took a year before he made his feature debut at the studio in the 1934 romantic melodrama A Wicked Woman. His small role as the callow suitor of a girl whose mother turns out to be a murderess didn't do much to promote his career, but at least he finally got to make a film on his home lot.
Of course, the film was hardly designed as a showcase for Taylor. That would have to wait. In the meantime, he was providing background for a story devoted to a timeless Hollywood staple -- mother love. Anne Austin's 1933 novel had captured readers with its story of a woman who kills her brutish husband in self-defense then moves to another city to raise her children under a new name. Only after they have grown does she return home to face punishment for her crime. Filled with the maternal sacrifice that had made hits of Stella Dallas (1925), The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931) and the often-filmed Madame X (1916, 1920 and 1929), A Wicked Woman was a natural for the screen. MGM bought the property and announced it as a vehicle for Helen Hayes (who won the Best Actress Oscar® for Madelon Claudet) with first William K. Howard and then Clarence Brown assigned to direct. Instead, it marked the U.S. talking film debut of Mady Christians, one of the great stars of the European stage and screen.
Christians was born in Austria but emigrated to the U.S. with her actor parents at an early age. She made her stage debut with her father's theatre company and even made a silent film under the name Margarete Christians. But with World War I heating up in Europe there wasn't much of a market for German-accented performers here, so she returned to Europe, where she studied with Max Reinhardt and gradually built a starring career on stage and screen, primarily in Germany. In the early '30s, she fled Hitler's persecution of artists and wound up back in the U.S., where she did some stage work before moving to MGM, debuting there with her starring role in A Wicked Woman.
MGM eventually assigned Englishman Charles Brabin to direct. One of the great directors of the silent era, he had married one of his most popular leading ladies, Theda Bara. His prestige as a director of quality films had won him the assignment to direct Ben-Hur (1925), but when the production bogged down during location shooting in Italy, the studio replaced him. He then sued for breach of contract, but despite that, MGM ended up signing him to a long-term contract in 1930. Then the studio removed him from another high-profile film, Rasputin and the Empress (1932), the only film starring all three Barrymore siblings. He would retire from the screen after directing A Wicked Woman.
Taylor wasn't the only actor with a future cast in A Wicked Woman. His fiance was played by MGM starlet Jean Parker, who enjoyed a few years of popularity at MGM before become the queen of the Bs in the '40s. Christians' romantic interest was Charles Bickford, a rugged leading man at the time who would become one of the screen's most popular character actors in films such as The Song of Bernadette (1943) and Johnny Belinda (1948). As one of Christians' children, you may notice the young Betty Furness, years before she became one of television's first celebrity pitchwomen.
A Wicked Woman won solid reviews, particularly for Christians. Although Andre Sennwald in The New York Times dismissed the plot as "a burlesque of all the maternal dramas ever visited upon an unhappy public," he hailed Christians for "[wading] into this ponderous drama with such genuine sincerity and skill that it becomes not only credible, which is a feat in itself, but impressive and considerably touching as well." That wasn't enough to convince MGM that she should be their next big star. For her second film at the studio, Escapade (1935), she moved into a supporting role while another European actress, Luise Rainer, rose to stardom. Christians would eventually return to the stage, where she scored successes as Gertrude to Maurice Evans' Hamlet and the star of Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine. Then she recognized the stage potential of Kathryn Forbes' stories of an immigrant family in San Francisco and convinced Richard Rogers to star her in the stage version, I Remember Mama, written by her friend John Van Druten. She continued to play supporting roles in films, but after appearances in All My Sons and Letter from an Unknown Woman (both 1948), she was blacklisted because of her early involvement in anti-Fascist organizations and her continued union activities. She died in 1952 at the still young age of 57.
Despite his relatively small role and 11th billing, Taylor was just a few films away from stardom. He would follow A Wicked Woman with his role in the MGM short Buried Loot (1935), which launched the studio's award-winning Crime Does Not Pay series of shorts and piqued interest in his star potential in the front office. Ironically, the year before Christians made her last film appearance, Taylor named names at the first House UnAmerican Activities Committee hearings. A staunch conservative, he would be one of Hollywood's most fervent supporters of the blacklist.
Producer: Harry Rapf
Director: Charles Brabin
Screenplay: Florence Ryerson, Zelda Sears
Based on the novel by Anne Austin
Cinematography: Lester White
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: William Axt
Cast: Mady Christians (Naomi Trice), Jean Parker (Rosanne Trice), Charles Bickford (Pat Naylor), Betty Furness (Yancey Trice), Jackie Searl (Curtis as a Boy), Paul Harvey (Ed Trice), Zelda Sears (Gram Teague), Robert Taylor (Bill Renton), Sterling Holloway (Peter Wells), Charles Lane (Defense Attorney Beardsley).
by Frank Miller