The 1932 obscurity Misleading Lady is designated as a "comedy," but I'm not sure that's a proper designation. Because really, this is one twisted film – even when taking into consideration the sordid world of Pre-Code cinema.
Claudette Colbert stars as Helen Steele, a glamorous socialite who's bored with her staid life of luxury. Claudette by the way looks bizarrely young here – if you've seen Lubitsch's 1931 film "The Smiling Lieutenant," she pretty much looks the same in this movie. Bobbed hair cut chin-length, her kohled eyes anime-sized, she appears almost waiflike; indeed it's hard to reckon her appearance in this movie with how she looked just a few months later in DeMille's "Sign of the Cross."
The plot's preschool simple: Helen Steele wants to be an actress, and in order to convince a theater director she's the right leading lady for his new play, she bets she can make the famous, Hemingway-type big game hunter Jack Craigen (Edmund Lowe) propose to her
in three days. (If I'd had the role of Craigen this film would've been five minutes long – "Yes, I WILL marry you!" The End.)
Helen plies Craigen with charm, Claudette really laying it on thick. Sulky, slinky, casting languorous looks, sprawling on divans and blowing thick puffs of cigarette smoke through her nostrils. Three days? More like three minutes and I'd be down on one knee.
But anyone can see where the plot's going: Helen gets her man with ease but guess what, she finds that she's developed feelings for him too. Craigen proposes and through a laborious, pre-audio tape method Helen records his proposal on vinyl as proof of her conquest. The record's inadvertently played however and Helen's ruse is discovered. Craigen storms off, Helen tries to apologize
And here the movie gets really weird.
An enraged Craigen tosses Helen into an autogyro and flies her against her will to his cabin in the middle of the snow-swept woods. There he manhandles her, drags her around, berates her, forces her to disrobe due to her soaking clothes (a nonetheless erotic scene in which Claudette is stripped down to her undergarments while cloaked in Sternbergian shadow), and even pinions her to the ground with a steel chain girdled about her waist. Through it all Claudette screams, she shrieks, she sobs. You want very much to murder this Craigen, and you wonder once again why this movie is designated as a "comedy."
But it gets worse. A psychopath named Boney (Stuart Erwin) – an escaped mental patient who believes he's Napoleon – turns out to be hiding in Craigen's cabin. But before you think this movie's about to get even more twisted, it turns out Boney's one of those harmless, "slapstick" sort of psychopaths one only encounters in movies; Erwin attempts to lend the character a sort of Marx Brothers feel but fails miserably. I wonder if he's fully to be blamed. Stuart Walker directed this mess, and word is that despite (indeed perhaps due to) his theatrical background he had no competence in film directing; the majority of his films apparently were directed by assistants (ie Mitchell Leisen, who directed the Walker-credited films "Tonight is Ours" and "The Eagle and the Hawk," receiving only an "assistant" credit for his efforts).
And make no mistake – Misleading Lady is a mess. Like most other early talkies this movie is ALL OVER THE PLACE. The first twenty minutes are a delightful romantic comedy, nearly screwball – bored socialite Helen attempting to tame the Great White Hunter but inadvertently falling for her prey. Thirty minutes in the movie becomes a date rape fantasy from hell, with Helen now the screaming abductee of her onetime prey. And the final twenty are something else altogether, nothing but drawn-out "comedic" bits with psycho Boney blathering about Wellington and Waterloo. In fact Claudette actually disappears from the film for several minutes and the abduction angle is just forgotten.
Everything comes to a head when all of the main characters show up at the log cabin (despite that it's in the middle of the woods) and Helen and Craigen embrace, truly in love. Even though he kidnapped her, stripped her, chained her to the floor. Show this flick to Women's Lib groups and they'll go mad. And I can't say I'd blame them – this movie is just flat-out WRONG. The diverse parts don't hang together and the abduction-in-the-woods sequence is unforgivable; in today's day and age Craigen would be locked up and his public image ruined for life.
Claudette's super-cute throughout, displaying all of the traits which would rocket her to stardom in a few years – and which would sustain her throughout her six-decade career. She does both comedy and drama, trading quips and batting her big anime-girl eyes in the more romantic parts. And she really projects terror in the abduction sequence. This is likely the closest she ever got to appearing in a horror film, and Claudette pulls it all off – gnashing her teeth, whimpering in fear, screaming, crying so hard that she sobs. These scenes could've easily come off as histrionic but Claudette gives them the right touch, makes it all believable. You feel her terror. Which only strengthens my argument that this movie is not a comedy.