Another Language / What Every Woman Knows DVDs Review: The Helen Hayes Code

Unless you’re an actual resident of Manhattan itself in this day and age, it’s almost hard to fathom a time when Broadway ruled the world of entertainment ‒ especially when said time was long before people could upload videos to the Interweb for all to see. Personally, I can only think of five instances in my lifetime (most of which were pre-Internet) when people were raving about something related to Broadway. Three were positive: the massive successes of The Phantom of the Opera, Chicago, and The Producers. And then there were two embarrassing instances that fit in much better with our contemporary age of cynical mocking: Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, and Quentin Tarantino’s ill-fated debut as a Broadway actor.

With the career of the The Hateful Eight director as a “legitimate” Broadway star basically consisting of one (poorly reviewed) show, it makes you all the more curious of that far-off time when they actually had people who could actup there. One such lingering memory within the annals of Broadway was actress Helen Hayes, who ‒ unlike Tarantino ‒ earned many a flattering nickname for her performances on-stage. As the already established (but still infantile) motion picture industry began to expand in the early ’30s, Ms. Hayes found herself as one of many actors who attempted to make the transition from stage to screen. And while the journey was ultimately rocky, the versatile actress nevertheless managed to make a name for herself on both platforms.

Recently, the Warner Archive Collection released several titles from the late performer’s legacy, including Another Language (1933) and What Every Woman Knows (1934). A third title, Vanessa: Her Love Story (1935), was also made available at the same time, but was not requested by this reviewer. Although, in hindsight, I probably should have requested that one over What Every Woman Knows, as that particular film bored me to tears, but that’s just the way it goes in this business sometimes, kids! The 1933 pre-Code ditty Another Language, on the other hand, was much easier to connect with ‒ possibly due to the fact that anyone who has ever been married has probably encountered the same story.

The film opens with Stella Hallam (Helen) returning from Europe in the arms of her new hubby, Victor (Robert Montgomery). Here we witness the happy couple primarily reserved for the end of a motion picture at the end of their honeymoon. And while they’re both just as happy as can on-board the seafaring vessel they booked passage on, the disillusionment immediately begins once they disembark and Stella meets her new in-laws. For you see, Victor hails from one of those families where the matriarch (Louise Closser Hale) conveniently grows “ill” every time her oldest son Victor is taken away by a woman. And it’s not an “I just saw Quentin Tarantino try to act on Broadway”i kind of illness, either: this one is purely made-up.

Sure enough, Mother Hallam has been not-at-all well since her baby darted off to Europe with some broad he married, but recovers just enough once her son returns to immediately start making snarky comments towards her new daughter-in-law: something most of the entire ignorant Hallam clan ‒ which includes The Wizard of Oz‘s loathable witch, Margaret Hamilton (in her film debut), and It’s a Wonderful Life‘s loveable angel, Henry Travers ‒ joyously chimes in on. Three years later, Victor is unable to escape his mother’s grasp, prompting poor Stella to fall into a state of abject misery greater than what select Broadway audiences surely would have experienced had Quentin Tarantino starred in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.

It is only when Victor’s nephew, Jerry (John Beal, in his film debut), shows up that Stella discovers she has an ally who recognizes how cruel the rest of the family is treating his hot auntie. Sadly, Jerry also recognizes how hot his hot auntie is ‒ adding an extra level of unwanted family frustration to the equation. Edward H. Griffin directs this film adaptation of a play originally by Rose Franken. Margaret Hamilton, along with co-stars Irene Cattell and Hal K. Dawson, were the only actors to reprise their roles from the stage version. Hayes herself (who took the role after actress Norma Shearer was unable to accept) would later reprise the role of Stella, nearly twenty years after the fact, in a 1950 radio adaptation. The original theatrical trailer is included as an extra in this Warner Archive release.

As I had previously iterated, the other title in this two-fer of a review, 1934’s What Every Woman Knows, did not grab my attention. Set in Scotland (so get set for phony accents, boys and girls ‒ although none are as bad as Tarantino’s Australian accent), the film ‒ an adaptation of the play by Peter Pan creator J.M. Barrie ‒ finds Hayes as Maggie, the unmarried daughter of the Wylie clan, who had been figuratively left at the altar by a minister of all people! When an enterprising young man named John (Brian Ahern) breaks into the Wylie home to read books from their library (wait, what?), the men of the family make a pact with the young lad: they will loan him several hundred pounds to further his education if he will consider marrying Maggie within five years (“I’ll take things that never happen in contemporary America for £300, Alex!”).

Sure enough, Maggie later finds herself married to the young fellow ‒ who is soon joining Parliament (not the band, sadly) and advancing his political career thanks to our heroine. Naturally, despite his advanced education, John doesn’t fully recognize that behind every great man is a great woman, and his eye starts to wander in the direction of Lady Sybil Tenterden (Madge Evans). Will he come to his senses before it’s too late and Helen is off in the arms of her new nephew? Oh, wait, that’s the wrong damn movie! Hayes also reprised her starring role from this film in a 1947 radio production, and also appeared in a 1926 stage revival of the tale. Co-star David Torrence had appeared in the original 1908 Broadway run. Lucile Watson, Dudley Digges, and Donald Crisp also star in this film.

What Every Woman Knows proved to be nowhere near as well-received as Another Language, and was put back into production for retakes. This was done, presumably, after the surviving family members of preview patrons who surely died of boredom sued, and the recorded bits of history indicate the act of reshooting the film upset Ms. Hayes so much, that she actually quit acting in the movies and went back to the stage (she returned to films again in the ’50s, after the industry “matured” a bit more). Once again, an original theatrical trailer is the sole bonus content for the Warner Archive MOD DVD-R. Both titles reviewed here are presented in their intended 1.37:1 aspect ratios with their original monaural audio tracks in accompaniment.

As previously stated, What Every Woman Knows and Another Language (Wait, “What every woman knows is another language”? That explains so much!) are two of three classic films starring Ms. Hayes now available on DVD-R. No matter how much What Every Woman Knows may have bored me, personally (although I’d still rather watch it as opposed to Pan), I can still recommend reserving seats for these Warner Archive releases. Not only is it an affordable way to see one very classy, classic lady of the stage hard at work in offerings that were actually once performed in Manhattan’s famous theater district, but you won’t have to spend your entire life savings to see them like you would today.

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Luigi Bastardo

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