Frail Women (1932)

Mary Newcomb

Another Maurice Elvey film from Talking Pictures TV, to go with his Who Goes Next? which I wrote about yesterday.

Frail Women is a melodrama that uses the trope of the war baby to explore the themes of illegitimacy and responsibility. Mary was born in 1916, placed in a care home and then adopted by a kind woman on condition that she had nothing to do with her mother. When the adopter dies, her pharasaic family find the truth about Mary’s origins and want nothing to do with her. The mother, Lilian, is found, and Mary given back to her. She is a brassy and truculent woman, now the kept mistress of a bookmaker.

Mary sees through her mother’s hard and defensive exterior, and comes to understand her. A young man of the upper classes loves Mary, but she feels that the taint of illegitimacy is not something that she can inflict on him and his family.

The plot thickens, of course, and Peter’s potential employer, Colonel Harvey, is revealed as the officer who loved and left the woman in wartime. He is a decent man and wants to do what he can to remedy the situation.

I won’t reveal more plot spoilers, but will just say that though the film is melodramatic, and at times stagey, I enjoyed it greatly. The performance of Mary Newcomb as Lilian, the mother, is very good at suggesting the woman beneath the hard exterior. Even better is Edmund Gwenn as the cockney bookmaker with whom Lilian is living. While some of the others are stagey and declamatory in their performances, Gwenn shows a man whose disreputable trade and relaxed morals hide a great deal of decency.

This film shows how useful the war could be to writers deveral years after it had ended. Illegitimacy was a subject that the cinema had handled before (Maurice Elvey had directed Hindle Wakes in 1918, and it was remade in 1922, 1927, 1931 and 1952; later there were several TV versions.) It was a tricky subject, however, if you did not want to make the responsibility-avoiding father seem utterly deplorable.)

A war baby, the result of a brief fling between a woman and a soldier on leave, to some extent mitigated the blame. Things happened in wartime that were outside the ususl moral frames of reference. If not to be condoned, war babies could at least be understood. This film seems not to want us to regard Lieutenant Stanley as an utter rotter. Even though he behaved pretty shabbily – giving his name to Lilian as ‘Smith’, the pressure of war gives him at least a little excuse. A mere civilian running off and leaving his girl in trouble could not, I think, have been treated so leniently by thirties cinema.

I won’t reveal the rest of the plot, except to say that everyone behaves fairly nobly, and it still ends badly. As Lilian says at some point in the film, ‘It’s always the woman who pays.’

I do hope that Talking Pictures TV have more films of this vintage. Meanwhile it’s worth noting that in early April they will be showing Dear Mr Prohack, a film of Arnold Bennett’s novel updated from the end of the First World War to the end of the Second. Many years ago I wrote about it in this blog.

Post a Comment

%d bloggers like this: