Cast & Crew
H. B. Warner
Constance Newton, "Connie" to her friends, yields to the importunings of her friend, Bobby Brandon, and attends a party. She immediately regrets her decision, beating a hasty retreat into the nearest bathroom, where she finds composer Neil Hartley, who is also looking for an escape. After talking for a while, he offers to take her home and cook her a spaghetti dinner. She gladly accepts. Neil falls in love with Connie immediately, persuading her to stay the night. The next morning, Bobby, who has been calling her all night long, tells her he knows where she spent the night. At a party at Neil's country house, Connie is introduced to Arthur Raymond, one of Neil's students. It is love at first sight for both of them, and soon Neil realizes that he has lost Connie to Arthur. After learning that Arthur is married, Connie attempts to end her affair with him, but he stops her, telling her that his marriage was arranged by his father and he never loved his wife. He adds that he will ask for a divorce as soon as his wife returns from Europe, and afterwards he will marry Connie. After the boat docks, however, Arthur's father Melville knocks on Connie's door and tells her that Arthur and his wife are going to reconcile. Apprised by Melville that she is unworthy of Arthur, Connie agrees never to see him again. Trying to forget, she is about to leave for Europe, when Bobby invites her to go with some friends to a series of New Year's Eve parties. Unknowingly, they arrive at the Raymonds'. When Arthur sees Connie, he tells her that he loves her and cannot let her go. Bobby walks in on them as they talk and maligns Connie's reputation. Arthur shoots Bobby. Melville comes in after the shooting. He believes that Connie murdered Bobby and insists that she will "pay for it." She says she will tell everyone that Bobby was going to run away with her. Faced with the scandal, Melville agrees to defend her. He convinces the coroner that Bobby committed suicide. Disgusted, Connie returns to Neil and offers to marry him.
H. B. Warner
That composer, Neil Hartley, is played by Warren William, who would later make a name for himself playing urbane cads as a Warner Bros. contract player. But in Expensive Women, he's an unapologetic charmer. His digs are less palatial than the ones Constance lives in, though it's clear he has plenty of money himself: He invites her to a weekend party at his little "mountain shack," a rustic setting on which the rich descend to eat hot dogs and make whoopee.
It will take a while for Constance and Neil to get together -- practically the whole movie, in fact -- but in between, Expensive Women offers plenty of naughty pre-code pleasures, including a saucy, diminutive minx, played by Polly Walters, who keeps showing up to dish out salacious gossip. But its chief attractions are Costello and William, the former a silent-film star who, at the time Expensive Women was made, was navigating a tricky transition into talkies, the latter a charming smoothie who was just diving into a Hollywood career.
Costello, in her late twenties by the time she starred in Expensive Women, had already appeared in some 20 features and numerous shorts. Her acting career began while she was still a child: She was the daughter of Maurice Costello, an early matinee idol, and performed on-stage and in early shorts with her sister, Helene. In 1925, a talent scout signed her to Warner Bros. The next year, she appeared in The Sea Beast, an adaptation of Moby Dick, opposite John Barrymore, and the two fell deeply in love. Upon their first meeting, Barrymore is reported to have said, "I have just seen the most beautiful woman in the world. I shall not rest or eat until I have seen her again."
Watching Expensive Women, you can see why. Costello is radiant but also vaguely sorrowful-looking, as if she's holding a deeply submerged unhappy secret: Her large eyes are bright but also somewhat shadowy, as if she's perpetually just an hour short of all the sleep she needs. Costello and Barrymore married in 1928; the union was famously tumultuous, owing at least in part to Barrymore's drinking problem. The couple divorced in 1935, and though Costello spent most of the 1930s in somewhat undistinguished movies, she did give notable performances in Little Lord Fauntleroy (1936) and, even more significantly, in the 1942 The Magnificent Ambersons. Costello made her last movie, This Is the Army, the following year, though she lived until 1979. (She is also, it's worth noting, the grandmother of Drew Barrymore.)
William's role in Expensive Women is much smaller than Costello's, but their scenes together are marvelous. William, the son of a newspaper publisher, originally planned for a career as a journalist, but instead found his way to Broadway, appearing in some 17 plays between 1924 and 1930. In 1931, after Warner Bros. failed to renew John Barrymore's contract, William was signed by the studio, ostensibly as something of a replacement: With his pencil mustache and regal bearing, he came off as an undeniable class act. But even though William's character in Expensive Women is a gentleman of extremely high principles, William would go on to become the '30s go-to guy for playing charismatic but completely amoral men. In Gold Diggers of 1933, he plays Joan Blondell's sugar daddy; in Roy Del Ruth's 1933 Employees' Entrance, he's a sleazy department-store owner who preys on a preternaturally innocent Loretta Young.
But in Expensive Women, there's no doubt that William's character, a generous soul in a trim dinner suit, is the right match for Costello's: The two flirt and banter in an early scene and then lose each other for most of the movie, as Constance dallies with a seemingly upstanding, moneyed Romeo (played by English actor Anthony Bushell).
As an actor, William had a way with even the most outlandish dialogue. New York Times film critic Janet Maslin once called him "the best-kept secret of 1930s films," and watching Expensive Women, you can see why. With lady-killer breeziness, his Neil tells Constance, "When two people are brought together by a bathroom, they sort of belong together, don't they?" She can't argue with him, and neither can we.
Director: Hobart Henley
Screenplay: Raymond Griffith and Harvey F. Thew; based on short story by Wilson Collison, "Passionate Sonata"
Cinematography: William Rees
Film Editing: Desmond O'Brien
Cast: Dolores Costello (Constance "Connie" Newton), H.B. Warner (Melville Raymond), Warren William (Neil Hartley), Polly Walters (Molly Lane).
by Stephanie Zacharek (Stephanie is the chief movie critic for Movieline - www.movieline.com)
The New York Times
Although Dolores Costello appeared in the 1930 film Second Choice, contemporary sources call this film her come back effort after a two-year absence from the movies.