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 Our Betters

Our Betters

Wednesday October, 22 2014 at 10:45 AM

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Although W. Somerset Maugham had written the 1923 London stage play of Our Betters as a satire of rich Americans who buy their way into European society, the film version (1933) saved its hardest punches for the Continental Set. Where the movie is concerned, the title appears to ironically indicate that, although the British upper crust may have superior manners, they are hardly "better" than Americans in matters of morality. Constance Bennett stars as an American heiress who discovers that her titled British husband has married her only for her money. To maintain her family?s newfound status and social connections, she attempts to maneuver her sister (Anita Louise) into another titled marriage, only to find that the sexual liaisons of the rich and royal present considerable stumbling blocks.

George Cukor, who worked as a stage manager for an American tryout of the stage version of Our Betters, had met "Willie" Maugham at that time. Ten years later, after the two had established a close friendship, Cukor was assigned by RKO to direct the screen version of Maugham's play. Cukor had followed his friend, producer David O. Selznick, to RKO, as he would later to MGM when Selznick went to that studio at the invitation of his father-in-law, Louis B. Mayer.

Despite their friendship, Selznick demanded that Cukor stick to his ideas of economy and efficiency. After 14 days of work on Our Betters, the director received one of Selznick's infamous memos, advising him that he was four days behind schedule because he had shot 44.6 minutes rather than the optimal 46.4 minutes. Selznick insisted upon an average of 3.2 minutes of usable film per day.

For Our Betters, Selznick engaged Elsa Maxwell, the former cabaret entertainer who had become a gossip columnist and professional party-giver, to advise on the film?s costumes and general tone. Maugham biographer Bryan Connon wrote that Maxwell "claimed to be a dear friend of Willie, but he regarded her as unutterably vulgar, though he thought of her as a useful bridge player." Maxwell could hardly have endeared herself to Maugham and Cukor, both homosexual, with her stated view that she "loathed" most gay men even though she often admired their literary and artistic accomplishments. In her autobiography, I Married the World, she took three pages to explain her views, declaring that there should be one rule for homosexuals who were "rich in mind" and social ostracism for all others.

A final bit of trivia: The cast of Our Betters includes Charles Starrett, later to gain fame as "The Durango Kid" in B-Westerns and serials.

Producer: David O. Selznick
Director: George Cukor
Screenplay: Harry Wagstaff Gribble, Jane Murfin, from W. Somerset Maugham?s play
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase
Cinematography: Charles Rosher
Costume Design: Hattie Carnegie
Editing: Jack Kitchin
Original Music: Bernhard Kaun, Roy Webb (both uncredited)
Cast: Constance Bennett (Lady Pearl Saunders Grayston), Violet Kemble-Cooper (Duchess Minnie), Phoebe Foster (Princess Flora), Charles Starrett (Fleming Harvey), Grant Mitchell (Thornton Clay), Anita Louise (Elizabeth "Bessie" Saunders), Gilbert Roland (Pepi D'Costa).
BW-84m.

By Roger Fristoe

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