Monday, April 3, 2023

The Common Law (1931)

The Common Law is a 1931 RKO pre-code romance directed by Paul L. Stein and it’s a movie that doesn’t seem to get a lot of attention.

Valerie West (Constance Bennett) travels to Paris after deciding to break with the wealthy Dick Carmedon (Lew Cody) who has been keeping her for some time. Valerie applies for a job as an artist’s model. John Neville (Joel McCrea) is an American trying to make a name for himself as an artist, against the opposition of his wealthy blue-blood family.

At first Valerie is just a little nervous about posing nude, but she soon gets over that. John is delighted with her - she becomes his muse as well as his model. Initially Valerie is not expecting to get personally involved with John, but romance inevitably starts to blossom. Soon John and Valerie are sleeping together.

John has some old-fashioned ideas. He wants to marry Valerie. At least he wants to marry her until he finds out about her previous relationship with Dick Carmedon. He is horrified to discover that his intended bride wasn’t an innocent virgin until he came along. The wedding is most definitely called off.

John indulges himself in self-pity. He can no longer paint. Valerie turns to pleasure-seeking but it doesn’t satisfy her.

Their paths will cross again. The question is whether John can accept that maybe a woman like Valerie might be worth marrying.

There are other obstacles in the way of this romance, the biggest being John’s interfering bitch of a sister, Clare (played by Hedda Hopper, later to become the notorious gossip columnist).

This being a pre-code movie you can’t be quite sure how it will end. That’s one of the many joys of pre-code movies.

Constance Bennett was a very major star in the pre-code era and she’s excellent. Joel McCrea is equally good in a fairly tough rôle - he has to make John a sympathetic character even though he’s a prig and a fool. McCrea makes use of his considerable charm and pulls it off reasonably well.

The supporting cast is fine, with Lew Cody playing Dick Carmedon as a likeable fellow who simply ignores the social conventions. Hedda Hopper really is smoothly sinister as the manipulative Clare.

Are we in genuine pre-code territory with this movie? The answer is definitely in the affirmative. It’s made clear that at the beginning of the story Valerie is a kept woman. It’s made crystal clear that John and Valerie are sleeping together even though they have no firm plans for marriage. Valerie poses nude. And yet, in spite of all these grievous sins, she’s an entirely sympathetic character. She’s a really nice girl. And these sins have not led her to a life of misery in the gutter. The movie is typically pre-code in the sense that it’s not attacking marriage, merely suggesting that maybe having sex outside of marriage isn’t a big deal. And it suggests that posing nude is a perfectly reasonable way for a girl to make a living. Maybe women like Valerie don’t deserve to be punished. After 1934 the Production Code would have insisted that she be shown to be severely punished.

To put its pre-code credentials beyond doubt there’s even a fleeting nude scene.

This film is included in Pre-Code RKO, a five-movie DVD boxed set from Manga Films. It’s a Spanish release but all five movies are in English with removable Spanish subtitles. The transfer of The Common Law is more than acceptable. This boxed set is pretty much a must-buy if you’re a pre-code fan.

The Common Law is a rather delightful romance. I have no idea why it isn’t better known since it has most of the ingredients that pre-code fans crave. Highly recommended.


  1. Dee, I enjoyed reading your write-up of THE COMMON LAW(1931), which is a movie that I've never viewed. I'll be on the look-out for it.

    1. Walter, THE COMMON LAW is one of five movies included in an excellent Spanish DVD set called Pre-Code RKO Volume 1. The movies are all in English with removable Spanish subtitles.

      There's a Volume 2 as well which I'm tempted to grab.