Woman to Woman (1929)

Grapevine Video is an excellent and resourceful organisation which regularly produces new DVDs of silent films and early talkies that are otherwise quite unobtainable. (Hint to anyone at all interested in old movies, especially silents: subscribe to the organisation’s email newsletter.)
One of their June offerings is Woman to Woman (1929). This is a talkie, and the second film version of Michael Morton’s 1921 play. The first (1923) is tantalisingly lost; it was directed by Graham Cutts, with the young Alfred Hitchcock as scriptwriter and art director.
The 1929 film is directed by Victor Savile, who was his own man, so is probably significantly different from the silent version. Both films, however, star Betty Compson as Lola, and the most important alteration that the 1923 adaptors made to the original play in 1923 is copied in 1929. Let me explain.
Michael Morton’s play tells the story of David, trapped in a childless marriage with a frigid wife. In 1914 he decides to enlist, much to his wife’s scorn. (When she senses that he is overjoyed at the chance to leave his unfulfilling life and do something noble, she comes up with one of my favourite lines in all WW1 literature:“I don’t see that war is a matter for any person’s pleasure: men always take an inhuman delight in anything savouring of the bestial.”)
On leave in Paris, he meets, Lola, a dancer. They have a passionate affair, but he has to return to war, and is taken prisoner. After the war he returns home to his wife, who has improved slightly.
He has quite lost touch with Lola, and certainly does not realise that as a result of their liaison she has a son (also christened David).
Several years later, Lola, now a famous dancer known as Deloryse, comes to London. David meets her and his old love is rekindled. A son is what he had always wanted, and he asks if he can adopt the boy. His wife scorns the thought, and also refuses him a divorce. He and Lola plan to go off together, but in a strong scene the wife talks to her, ‛woman to woman’, and persuades her that this would only cause suffering to both Davids. The older one would be excluded from all decent society because of his immorality, and the younger one would bear the taint of bastardy.
Eventually Lola gives up her son, ignores her doctor’s orders that she should give up dancing, and dies.
The play was a big hit – mostly, I think – because it offered two juicy roles for actresses, and it was chosen for adaptation to the silent screen..
This adaptation, however, made a major change to the plot. This was hardly uncommon in those days, especially when the original was a wordy play like Morton’s, whose big scenes were long debates between the principals. In this case, though, I think that another factor was relevant.
The original play centred on an act of adultery that, while punished, would be viewed sympathetically by the audience. This was passed by the Lord Chamberlain’s office for theatregoers, but films were more closely regulated, mainly because they were seen as catering to a working-class audience who must not be given immoral ideas. Local watch committees were quick to ban and punish any film that seemed to promote immorality.
The film’s plot was changed to avoid the adultery. David the soldier is unmarried. In Paris he proposes to Lola, but is whisked back to the front before they can actually marry. He is wounded in battle, and develops an amnesia that makes him forget everything that has happened during the War years. He marries the icebox and is unhappy – but one day sees Lola dancing, and the memories come back.
This fits in with a common use of amnesia in war fiction – to render the sufferer innocent. (see A.M. Burrage’s story: The Enemy over Yonder). What I would like to know is this: was it Alfred Hitchcock who introduced the amnesia theme into the story. It would, after all, be a trope to which he often returned in later films – Spellbound, for example, or Marnie.
Anyway, the 1929 film version uses the amnesia the plot developed in 1923. As one watches Savile’s film, one can’t help but wonder what else has been inherited from the earlier movie. There’s a clever bit of narrative economy, for example, by which the wife’s icy nature is established in just a couple of shots. When I saw it, I thought ‛Quintessential Hitchcock!’ – but I could be wrong.

One Comment

  1. Posted March 24, 2016 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for finally writing about >Woman to Woman (1929) Great War Fiction <Loved it!


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