The Movie Waffler Pre-Code Retrospective - Illicit (1931) | The Movie Waffler

Pre-Code Retrospective - Illicit (1931)

Directed by: Archie Mayo
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, James Rennie, Ricardo Cortez, Joan Blondell, Charles Butterworth, Natalie Moorhead

After allowing herself to be pressured into marriage, liberal society girl Stanwyck's fears of the "sacred institution" are realised.

She and Rennie are a young couple with much affection for each other who shack up at the weekend unbeknownst to their society peers, or so they think. Butterworth, entertaining in the obligatory drunken buffoon role, informs them that tongues, and disapproving fingers, have begun to wag. Stanwyck is an independent girl and couldn't give two hoots what society thinks of her but Rennie is uneasy; "don't tell me you don't love the pussyfooting" she jokes. When Rennie's father turns up at their hotel room Stanwyck gives into his pressure to conform despite her belief that marriage will put a strain on the relationship. Of course her fears are affirmed as Rennie begins carousing with predatory blond Moorhead.
Stanwyck has always been one of my favorite actresses and she's at her sultry best here, prowling around in figure-hugging backless gowns, an ass like a bag of panthers. She became known for playing strong women and in her formative years here she plays as independent a female as could have been represented at the time, standing up to society but ultimately broken by it.
Archie Mayo is a forgotten director, wrongly in this writer's view. He directed one of my favorite thirties pictures "The Petrified Forest" where he made stars out of no less than Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart. Despite the stagey nature of this script, he manages to inject some visual flair into the proceedings. The moment when Stanwyck realises she is being cheated on is handled effectively with a simple tracking shot into her expressive eyes.
It's an early role for Joan Blondell too who doesn't get much to do save stand around looking cute, a task she's well up to. 
Ultimately the mores of it's time halt this movie from realising it's potential but I recommend it for fans of both Stanwyck and pre-coders.