Ernst Lubitsch was one of Germany's most renowned and successful directors when Mary Pickford brought him to America to direct her transition from woman-child waif to adult romantic actress in the lavish historical epic Rosita (1923). While audiences were resistant to Pickford's reinvention, Hollywood embraced Lubitsch, and Warner Bros. quickly signed him with irresistible terms: Lubitsch had story approval, complete production autonomy and final cut. "Warner Bros. was a new studio and [Harry Warner] wanted to give it some class," recalled Jack Warner Jr. "Lubitsch was the first real class that my father's company had."
Three Women was the second picture under his Warner Bros. contract and his third American film, after Rosita and The Marriage Circle (1924). Popular starlet May McAvoy receives star billing as sunny college girl Jeannie, the daughter of New York socialite Mrs. Mabel Wilton, a wealthy, middle-aged woman (Pauline Frederick) attempting to lose herself in frivolous functions and romance. When her 18-year-old daughter arrives home for a visit and catches the leering eye of mother's cad of a lover, her vanity and jealousy give way to maternal instincts.
Stage star Frederick made her big screen debut in 1915 and soon became a major leading lady. She continued working in theater during her busy film career and was shooting Three Women by day while appearing on stage in the evenings. Lew Cody plays the opportunistic womanizer who treats romance as a sport, "a stock 'cad type' in all studio casting files," in the words of Lubitsch historian Herman G. Weinberg.
As the title suggests, there is one more player in this romantic tangle. For the role of the other "other woman" Lubitsch cast The Marriage Circle costar Marie Prevost. The former Mack Sennett "Bathing Beauty" became a star in 1920s, but her career stalled with the coming of sound. Sadly she is remembered by most for her lonely death in 1937, which was sensationalized by Kenneth Anger in his gossipy, salacious, largely debunked book "Hollywood Babylon."
McAvoy went on to star in one of Lubitsch's most acclaimed silent films, Lady Windermere's Fan (1925), along with two landmark productions of the 1920s: the original Ben-Hur (1925), the most lavish Hollywood epic of the silent era, and The Jazz Singer (1927), the film that ushered in the talkies. She retired after marrying in 1929 but returned a decade later to play small roles in dozens of MGM films.
Three Women was a modest financial success and a critical hit. Charles S. Sewell, writing in Motion Picture World, proclaimed that "Mr. Lubitsch's direction is marked by the same subtle touches, the same unerring ability to portray human nature, its fine points and its frailties; the same touches of comedy." Life magazine film critic (and future playwright) Robert E. Sherwood wrote that it was the "first really memorable movie of the season" and praised Lubitsch's direction of the actors. And while The New York Times film critic Mordaunt Hall believed the material beneath the talents of the filmmakers, he praised Lubitsch as "a talented stylist in direction, a producer who makes the most of every detail and whose work scintillates with original ideas." Or as Weinberg succinctly put it, "Out of this dross, Lubitsch spun pure gold."
Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise, Scott Eyman. Simon & Schuster, 1993.
"A Calculating Villain," Mordaunt Hall. The New York Times, October 6, 1924.
How Did Lubitsch Do It?, Joseph McBride. Columbia University Press, 2018.
The Lubitsch Touch: A Critical Study, Herman G. Weinberg. Dover, 1977.
AFI Catalog of Feature Films