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Two Against the World starts with an accidental death and climaxes with a murder. Since the picture is light entertainment at heart, however, each demise happens off screen, and the first one serves mostly to get the main characters together. The man is a lawyer named David Norton, played by Neil Hamilton with a nice mix of the earnest, the breezy, and the romantic. The woman is a society type named Adell Hamilton, played by Constance Bennett with the confidence, charisma, and first-class comic timing that made her a major Hollywood talent. Her stardom flourished mainly in the 1930s, and this snappy number from 1932 is a fine showcase for her gifts.
We first meet Dell on her way to a meeting in her father's executive suite. A man has died while working on the family's property, and his widow - a poor immigrant with many mouths to feed - has gone to court seeking compensation for her loss. But no number of hungry children can soften the Hamilton clan's collective heart, and Mrs. Polansky's plea seems doomed despite the efforts of her lawyer, the aforementioned David Norton, who has already clashed with Dell in the elevator before the meeting. They clash again after the conference - literally this time, when Dell's bad driving puts a dent in David's fender - and next thing you know they're bantering over baked beans in a local eatery. The cute meet has transpired. But will it take?
Of course it will. Dell invites David to a party at her family's mansion, and imagine her surprise when the humble attorney turns out to have a pedigree as blue-blooded as her own! Nor is he the only one who cares about ordinary people. Ignoring her family's opposition to Mrs. Polansky's plea, Dell gives the widow a banknote and promises more of the same every month. Those children will be well fed after all.
Dell and David are obviously meant for each other, but it's way too soon for a happy ending, so complications quickly ensue. Dell's brother Bob, a compulsive gambler, has racked up a huge debt to Victor Linley, a self-satisfied womanizer. And complicating this complication, Dell's sister Corinne is cheating on her husband with the very same scoundrel. Bob gets drunk, Victor gets killed, Dell gets charged with murder, David gets assigned to prosecute her, and the film's moral issues get surprisingly complex.
Two Against the World is best in its first half, when it rolls along the trusty paths of screwball comedy and high-society romance, showing "the privileged class enjoying its privileges," as The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor, 1940) puts it. The movie's turn toward the dark side provides an interesting change of atmosphere, but it takes place too abruptly and introduces more ingredients than the 70-minute screenplay can comfortably process. The amiable romantic comedy is washed away by a torrential storm on a gloomy night, sweeping us without warning to the territory we now call film noir. This might be highly effective if the previous scenes hadn't worked so marvelously well, but the melodrama that takes over is so thorny and unhappy that you can't help getting nostalgic for the bright-eyed Dell and easy-going David you knew a few plot twists ago.
Archie Mayo directed Two Against the World, and while he is nobody's idea of an artistic Hollywood auteur, he directed a few significant Warner Bros. productions during the 1930s - the best known today are probably Svengali (1931) and The Petrified Forest (1936) - plus a few later on (e.g., the famous farce Charley's Aunt in 1941) at other studios. He entered moviemaking in the silent era as a comedy specialist, and the first half of Two Against the World shows his flair for humor still going strong, with rat-a-tat-tat dialogue complementing crisp performances and efficient, no-nonsense camerawork. Bennett is by far the standout of the show, perhaps drawing on her own experiences as the (former) spouse of a globetrotting playboy who was also Gloria Swanson's ex. Although she did plenty of straight dramatic work as well, Bennett was at a comic peak in this phase of her career, which she capped by starring in Topper with Cary Grant in 1937.
Neil Hamilton is no Cary Grant, but the former model and D.W. Griffith alumnus has the elegant looks and laid-back charm needed to make David likable, if not exactly magnetic. Allen Vincent and Helen Vinson turn in solid portrayals of Bob and Corinne, and Gavin Gordon is just slithery enough as Linley, the womanizing cad. Roscoe Karns also shines as a smart-alecky reporter. Sheridan Gibney's slightly schizophrenic script is based on a play by Marion Dix and Jerry Horwin called either "A Dangerous Set" or "The Higher-Ups," depending on which source you check. Charles Rosher photographed the picture, ably capturing its different moods but showing little of the poetry that distinguishes his work in F.W. Murnau's superb Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), which earned him and Karl Struss an Academy Award for best cinematography, or a later project like George Sidney's colorful Kiss Me Kate (1953).
Especially in its romantic-comedy scenes, Two Against the World seems sweetly old-fashioned today. But it seemed sourly out of date to the New York Times critic who reviewed it in 1932, calling it a "dramatic curio" stuffed with "most of the violently outdated clichs of society melodrama" along with "juvenile dialogue" and "a fair amount of depressing histrionics." These words are far too harsh for a picture that means well even when it undertakes more than it's capable of achieving. Bennett's beauty and vivacity alone make it more than worth a visit.
Director: Archie Mayo
Screenplay: Sheridan Gibney; based on a play by Marion Dix and Jerry Norwin
Cinematographer: Charles Rosher
Film Editing: Bert Levy
Art Direction: Anton Grot
With: Constance Bennett (Adell Hamilton), Neil Hamilton (David Norton), Helen Vinson (Corinne Walton), Allen Vincent (Bob Hamilton), Gavin Gordon (Victor Linley), Walter Walker (Courtney Hamilton), Roscoe Karns (Segall), Alan Mowbray (George Walton), Hale Hamilton (Gordon Mitchell), Oscar Apfel (Howard Mills)
by David Sterritt