For Reel


The Common Law (1931)
July 18, 2012, 10:28 pm
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Director: Paul L. Stein

Not long into The Common Low, Constance Bennett strips just off screen in a memorable expression of pre-Code sexuality. The display is relatively tame, but under Joseph Breen, even suggested nudity was unwelcome in Hollywood. Director Paul L. Stein titillates the audience with a shot of Bennett’s naked leg just before pulling the camera back far enough so that he can show her figure using only distance and clever blocking to obscure her body. Beyond the scene’s appeal in its unabashed eroticism, it is a fitting entrance for a woman who is wrought to be modern and appealingly unapologetic. She has live-in relationships with at least two separate men over the course of the film, which was undoubtedly worthy of gossip for an unwed woman of the period. McCrea’s sister is so appalled that he has fallen in love with such an immoral woman that she attempts to sabotage the relationship by inciting bouts of jealousy between them. The irony, of course, is that McCrea’s sexual history seems just as – if not more – dense, exposing the double standard that women faced (and certainly continue to face). Whatever intrigue these ideas of sexism and classism bring, however, Bennett is merely serviceable in her role while McCrea, on the other hand, is a complete bore, as he so often was early in his career.



Born to Love (1931)
July 18, 2012, 10:27 pm
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Director: Paul L. Stein

A quietly affecting wartime melodrama, Born to Love stars Constance Bennett as a woman whose thought-to-be dead lover returns soon after she has already married another man. Director Paul L. Stein – along with cinematographer John J. Mescall (he of Bride of Frankenstin) and editor Claude Berkeley – skillfully evokes the chaos of wartime London in the very first minutes of the picture in which the carefree patrons of a nightclub are interrupted by quick cuts to a blaring siren. In walks Bennett as an American army nurse, her eyes fixated on the sky with curiosity, before Joel McCrea, an American pilot, whisks her away to safety. The way their relationship unfolds in only twenty minutes, culminating with an idyllic boat ride and a scene of off-screen intimacy, is an impressive feat of economical storytelling, packing just enough romance that it is genuinely heartbreaking to watch Bennett hear the mistaken report that McCrea has been killed in combat. Even if unwed mothers and ill-fated romances were not particularly new devices at the time, Born to Love is distinguished not only by one of Bennett’s best performances of the early-1930s, but by Stein’s handsome and understated direction. A mourning Bennett is proposed to on the occasion that the streets of London celebrate their victory, and as she reluctantly gives in to her future husband’s request, the cheers slowly fade in to the soundtrack, both establishing a sense of entrapment and reminding her of the war that she believes to have claimed her man.



Sin Takes a Holiday (1930)
July 18, 2012, 10:23 pm
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Director: Paul L. Stein

Constance Bennett was one of RKO’s biggest box office draws in the early 1930s. Despite her appealing comedic talents, her draw was much more superficial: her wardrobe. Her sleek, slender body was a clotheshorse for the greatest couture fashions of the time, and fittingly she was often accompanied with ravishing art deco interior design that established her as the ideal socialite. Sin Takes a Holiday is a prime example of Bennett’s stardom – the transformation that one sees in her wardrobe is far more interesting than anything that the script provides. As Bennett’s boss – who “employs” her as his wife so that he can get his girlfriend off of his back about progressing their relationship – Kenneth MacKenna gives an admirable performance, with the best scene in the picture occurring when he and the bitter Bennett must put on their charade in front of his suspicious lover. Bennett’s ultimate decision comes as a surprise, but perhaps that is the point. This is a shallow world of vain pseudo-sophisticates, and as such it would be implausible to expect that the end would result in anything resembling authentic romantic love.