There weren’t many women directors in the US film industry in the 30s. In fact there were two I can think of. One was the somewhat overrated Dorothy Arzner; the other was Dorothy Davenport. Davenport is now forgotten, which is perhaps a pity. The 1934 murder mystery The Woman Condemned is one of her films.
Dorothy Davenport was also notable for being just about the only female director to work in the shadowy but fascinating underworld of exploitation film-making in the 30s and 40s, the golden age of that strange phenomenon. She made several movies for Willis Kent Productions. They were one of those ultra-ultra-low budget outfits that were even further down the food chain than the Poverty Row studios. They did not belong to the The Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA) and thus were not bound by the Production Code.
Her 1934 effort The Road to Ruin is one of my all-time favourite exploitation movies. It has everything - booze, drugs, nudity, good girls gone bad, even strip poker! And it’s enormous fun. The Woman Condemned is a straight murder mystery but it’s not without interest.
It boasts a fiendishly complicated plot. Jane Merrick (Lola Lane) is a singer and a star attraction on a radio station. She suddenly announces she’s going on a vacation, and disappears. The radio station hires a female PI, Barbara Hammond (Claudia Dell) to investigate. She gets nabbed by the cops watching Merrick’s apartment from the fire escape and ends up in Night Court. A fast-talking reporter Jerry Beall (Richard Hemingway) gets her off the hook, but there’s a price. The judge is wise to Beall’s tall stories and decides to have some fun of his own. Beall’s story was that Barbara was his fiancée and was playing a practical joke. The judge plays his own practical joke. He marries them there and then.
This is somewhat disconcerting since the newlyweds had never met until ten minutes before the wedding. But they take it in a good spirit. After all they can always have the marriage annulled. In the meantime they might as well have dinner together. Over dinner Barbara decides that Jerry is really a pretty nice guy, and Jerry decides that Barbara is a pretty swell gal. Maybe they might even have a second date.
Before that can happen Barbara has to go back to work, so it’s back to the fire escape. And this time she not only picks up some interesting information, she finds herself witnessing a murder. And when she climbs in the window she picks up the gun, and when a neighbour walks in (he heard the gunshot) there she is holding the murder weapon. So when the cops arrive they arrest her.
Jerry knows that a swell gal like Barbara is no murderess, but how can he prove it? And the complex twists and turns of the plot have barely started at this point.
Now when I said this was a low-budget effort, I wasn’t kidding. In the world inhabited by companies like Willis Kent Productions a budget of a couple of thousand dollars was regarded as lavish. A shooting schedule of more than a few days would have been thought of as the wildest extravagance. Doing a scene in more than one take was simply hopeless self-indulgence. With the actors they could afford what they gave you on the first take was probably the best they were ever going to give you.
When judging Dorothy Davenport as a director you have to take this into account. The Road to Ruin showed that even under such conditions she could make an entertaining movie. The Woman Condemned lacks the outrageousness of that opus but it’s still a passable murder thriller.
This is not a movie that is likely to be released on a Special Edition Blu-Ray any time soon. The dodgy public domain prints floating about are as good as you’re ever going to see where this movie is concerned. My copy was from Mill Creek. Sound quality is very poor but the dialogue is quite understandable. Picture quality is at best fair with quite a but of print damage evident.
The insanely complicated plot makes this one worth a look if you can accept the rock-bottom production values.