20 December 2006 | lianfarrer
A decidedly UNcommon film!
Granted that this film shows its age and stagebound origins, it nevertheless has a lot to recommend it. Some of its message falls under the rubric of standard-issue moralizing, but it also tells us that the rich and educated have many of the same vices as the poor and uneducated... sometimes even more so. It also offers some unconventional views on topics such as unwed motherhood, social justice, and women's independence.
The lovely Constance Bennett is eminently watchable as Ellen Neal, a young woman fighting against the circumstances of her birth, gender, and economic situation to make something decent of her life. While the chic, sophisticated actress is somewhat cast against type, she manages to create a character who is strong, sympathetic, and believable. Bennett makes us willing to overlook (at least most of the time) the long string of clichés and incredible coincidences that pass as a plot. She delivers a couple of breathtaking speeches about morality and "family values" that made me want to stand up and cheer.
The movie packs an incredible amount of storysome of it quite far-fetchedinto less than 90 minutes. It begins with 18-year-old Ellen being arrested in a raid on a speakeasy, where so far she's managed to keep her virtue intact (at least that's what we're told). A sympathetic judge lets her off with the admonition that she's heading down a bad road. Heeding the warning, Ellen eventually manages to find less lucrative but more honest work as the maid for a wealthy upper-crust family, the Fullertons. It turns out, however, that the high-society folk are no better than the speakeasy lowlifes; they swill bootleg whiskey, indulge in wild parties, and all of the men seem to be on the make, particularly for Ellen. Among her pursuers is Hugh, the Fullertons' college-age son (played by an appropriately boyish Lew Ayres). Learning of her disreputable past, Hugh believes Ellen will be an easy conquest, but she fights bravely and eloquently for respect. Eventually, though, the two fall in love.
After Hugh returns to school, Ellen discovers she is pregnant. Receiving no response to her letters to Hugh, she is forced to quit her job and move back with her mother (played with touching sweetness by Beryl Mercer). Following the birth of her son, Ellen contacts Hugh's family. Suspecting a shakedown, Papa Fullerton (played by Purnell Pratt) asks family friend Judge Filson (played by Hale Hamilton) to pay off Ellen and avoid a public scandal at all costs. But Ellen is not looking for money; what she wants is for the Fullertons to acknowledge precisely what they wish to keep secret: her relationship with Hugh and his paternity of her child. She hires a lawyer, the seedy but honest Yates (played to eccentric perfection by Tully Marshall) to press her claim.
Earlier in the film, we learn that as a young man, Judge Filson himself once fathered a child out of wedlock, but that his lower-class lover made no claim on him for fear that she would ruin his social prospects. He does not know what became of his sweetheart and the child he has never seen.
When Judge Filson meets with Ellen, he discovers she's not the conniving gold-digger he'd expected. As a matter of fact, he's quite taken with her and believes her when she insists that Hugh Fullerton fathered her child. Filson encourages Hugh not to repeat his own mistake and to claim both Ellen and the baby. But Hugh's father, as well as his friend Bud, continue to regard Ellen as low-class trash and refuse to allow Hugh to reconcile with Ellen.
Ellen has no choice but to have her lawyer Yates drag the whole issue into court. The trial scene is not to be believed (or missed). Besides some amazing revelations that follow pell-mell one after another, the scene is a hoot from a legal-procedural point of view. I'll not reveal the outcome, but suffice it to say the many, many loose ends do get tied up in tidy fashion.
It's sad that a movie that's so entertaining, so fascinating from a socio-historical perspective, and directed by the great Victor Fleming should be unavailable on video and so rarely shown anywhere. If you have a chance to catch it, don't miss the opportunity.