15 March 2002 | Michael-110
Hitchcock excels in cracking silent about divorce
"Easy Virtue" is an early and impressive Hitchcock in which the master displays a range of innovative filmic devices (such as the way we learn about a marriage proposal by watching the eavesdropping hotel switchboard operator rather than by seeing the man or woman talking on the phone).
The story is based on a play by Noel Coward and (contrary to the other posted IMDB comment on the film) I believe the movie is excellent. The solo organ score on the videotape I watched was absolutely stunning.
The film tackles a range of issues relating to divorce that would become taboo after adoption of the Production Code in 1934. Our heroine Larita is married to a drunken brute. After he catches her almost (but not quite) being seduced by the artist who has been painting her picture, he brings suit for divorce. Adultery is the only ground for divorce in England at this time and we see a gripping trial scene in which the jury has to decide whether to believe Larita's denials. Of course, the jury can't see beyond its Victorian preconceptions (if she's alone with him all day, of course they've slept together) and it finds her guilty.
Now a disgraced woman of "easy virtue," Larita takes to the Riviera where she ensnares a rich young suitor (after he hits her in the eye with a tennis ball). Unfortunately, she doesn't tell him about her checkered past and naturally Larita's family hates her on sight.
This story takes on a range of highly relevant divorce issues. The film skillfully lampoons the absurdity of fault divorce and the need to try questions of adultery to a jury. It takes quite seriously the way that society treated a divorced woman as damaged goods. It attacks the sexual double standard with zeal and skewers the stuffy English aristocracy to great effect. After 1934, divorce didn't exist in the movies (except in comedies where the spouses remarry in the end) and the important legal and social issues raised by divorce and female sexuality were erased from the screen by the censors. Very few early films (silent or sound) ever dealt so candidly with the harsh realities of divorce; "Easy Virtue" compares favorably to the outstanding "One More River" (1934) in its straightforward and quite moving treatment of the issues.