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Released in 1932, The Common Law stars Joel McCrea as John Neville, a supposedly impoverished American in Paris trying to etch out a living as an artist. He meets up with a striking beauty named Valerie, played by Constance Bennett, and hires her as his model. The pair then moves from just dabbling with watercolors and into falling in love. But soon a series of misunderstandings about Valerie's recent past, the return of her former sugar daddy boyfriend (Lew Cody)--not to mention John's true blue-blood roots--threaten to undermine their future together.
Based on a novel by Robert W. Chambers, The Common Law had already been adapted twice for the screen. In 1916, Lewis J. Selznick (David O.s dad) produced a version starring Clara Kimball Young and Conway Tearle. Then in 1923, Myron Selznick (David O.'s brother) produced a version with Tearle reprising his leading man role. This third version was considered a choice role for lead actress Constance Bennett. The Common Law was the second of four pictures that Bennett and McCrea made together. Their first one, Born to Love (1931), came about after Connie overheard actress Marion Davies express interest in the young McCrea to her own sugar daddy, William Randolph Hearst. Bennett figured that if Marion Davies saw something in him, then maybe she should too.
Given this was a pre-Code production, a few eyebrows were raised about the scene where Bennett peels off her clothes to model nude for McCrea's blank canvas. While it is relatively tame, RKO saw a hook with this scene. They promoted it as one reason why audiences should see the movie. RKO ran magazine advertisements for the film on two-sided pages that allowed an optical illusion of a scantily clad Bennett "appearing" on McCrea's painting canvas.
Future Hollywood power player Hedda Hopper co-stars as McCrea's devious sister. Hopper played supporting roles in two other Constance Bennett pictures, including The Easiest Way (1931) and Topper (1937). Connie Bennett and Hedda Hopper reportedly nursed a grudge against each other. Much of the animosity may have been the Bennett family's contempt for the muckraking press and critical know-it-alls. Connie's father, distinguished stage actor Richard Bennett, was famous for having battles with critics and wrote scathing letters to them, while Connie's sister Joan Bennett once sent a de-scented skunk to Hopper. Connie Bennett harbored this same powerful disrespect for the power of the press.
Producer: Harry Joe Brown, Charles R. Rogers
Director: Paul L. Stein
Screenplay: Robert W. Chambers (novel), John Farrow, Horace Jackson
Cinematography: Hal Mohr
Film Editing: Charles Craft
Art Direction: Carroll Clark
Music: Arthur Lange
Cast: Constance Bennett (Valerie West), Joel McCrea (John Neville, Jr.), Lew Cody (Nick Cardemon), Robert Williams (Sam), Hedda Hopper (Mrs. Claire Collis), Marion Shilling (Stephanie Brown).
BW-74m. Closed captioning.
by Scott McGee