Thursday, December 15, 2022

Kept Husbands (1931)

Kept Husbands is a 1931 romantic melodrama. If the title hasn’t already given you the clue, this is a pre-code movie.

Dick Brunton (Joel McCrea) is a factory worker but he was at one time a war hero and a famous college football player. It’s on the strength of having been a hero that he gets an invitation to dinner at the home of the fabulously wealthy Arthur Parker.

He attracts the attention of Parker’s daughter Dorothea (Dorothy Mackaill). She was expecting to get a great deal of amusement out of the social embarrassment of a working man but she finds to her surprise that she finds him insanely attractive.

Dorothea is used to getting whatever she wants. If she wants a bracelet or a new dress she just goes ahead and buys it. She figures that she can do the same with men. If she wants Dick Brunton she can just buy him.

Dick is crazy about Dorothea but he has a few doubts about the wisdom of marrying her. He has a lot of pride. He doesn’t want to be a kept husband.

Once they’re married he finds that he is indeed a kept husband. He doesn’t like it but there doesn’t seem to be anything he can do about it. He’s so crazy about her and she can make him agree to anything.

Dorothea is spoilt and insensitive and she can be manipulative but she’s not really a bad person. She really does love her husband. She is genuinely unaware that she has taken away his self-respect.

There’s not a huge amount of pre-code raciness in this movie. It’s an odd mixture of the sort you often get in this era, with attitudes that seem very modern mixed with attitudes that seem very old-fashioned. In this case Dick’s obsession with the idea that marrying a rich woman means the loss of his self-respect may seem a bit excessive to modern viewers but it certainly reflects the way men felt until very recently.

What mostly marks this as a pre-code movie is its reluctance to make rigid moral judgments. Dorothea has no awareness that she is damaging Dick psychologically and the movie doesn’t make harsh moral judgments on her. She is spoilt but mostly she’s just never had to learn that she needs to think about the effect her actions have on others. There’s nothing malicious about her.

For quite a while Dick accepts his position as a kept husband and the movie also doesn’t judge him harshly.

Mackaill and McCrea have real chemistry even though they seem like a mismatched couple.

I’ve never seen Joel McCrea looking so young. He was in his mid-twenties at the time. He displays a pleasing easygoing charm.

Dorothy Mackaill was, briefly, quite a big star. Her career crashed completely with the advent of the Production Code. I like her a lot in general and I think she’s terrific in this movie. All her pre-code movies are worth a look. I reviewed several during my last bout of pre-code enthusiasm a few years back - The Reckless Hour (1931), the breezy and charming Bright Lights (a 1930 backstage musical with romance and murder added) and the stupendously sleazy but delightful Safe in Hell (1931). Safe in Hell almost qualifies as a pre-code noir.

I believe this movie is now available on Blu-Ray. My copy is an ancient Alpha Video DVD that I bought many years ago.

Kept Husbands has some humour. There’s some comic relief from Ned Sparks as Dick’s mother’s lodger Hughie Hanready and it’s mildly amusing. Mostly however this is a romantic melodrama, but a pre-code melodrama and pre-code melodramas have their own unique flavour. The likeability of the two leads is a major asset.

Kept Husbands is not one of the really great pre-code movies but it’s rather enjoyable and it’s a chance to see Dorothy Mackaill at her peak. Recommended.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, they definitely used to make movies a whole lot different than they do now