Movie fans tend to always compare Bette Davis and Joan Crawford—I know I do. This is probably because they famously feuded for many year, including during their costarring appearances in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, and because they both had extremely long careers stretching into five separate decades each. I have always been more of a Joan Crawford fan, but I have really been getting into Bette recently and I realize that while Crawford got some really meaty roles, her rival was more consistently a good actress. Davis had just turned 25 when Ex-Lady was released and she is almost unrecognizably young, but he is great in a role that has surprisingly three-dimensional for the time. This was poorly reviewed at the time, and a clip of this was used 30 years later in Baby Jane as an example of what a bad actress Baby Jane (also Davis) was. But I think the faults of the film are with the overly melodramatic script, and possibly the director, but definitely not Davis.
Ex-Lady is a perfect textbook example of a pre-code film as the film production code that went into effect the slightly more than one year later, in the summer of 1934, wouldn’t have allowed even the basic premise. The film opens with a wild Saturday night party breaking up because the hostess, Helen, a successful magazine illustrator (Davis) has to catch up with work on Sunday. Everyone leaves but her boyfriend Don (Gene Raymond), who hangs around. Helen’s father barges in the next day and clucks his tongue at his daughter, calling her “cheap” for shacking up before marriage. Helen holds her own and bluntly tells her father that she has very modern ideas about romance and isn’t interested in getting married, not bothering to hide the nature of her relationship with Don. Don confesses he does want to get married, but Helen has a successful career and finds the very idea of marriage terribly boring.
She has a change of heart and they marry to appease her father from the old country. Since she is an illustrator and he is in advertising, they join forces, but working together doesn’t go well as she clearly has the greater talent of the two. In a very modern move, they decide that living apart while continuing to be lovers as before is the best thing, but the both start running around with other people. In the end, though, they are forced to concede that the typical marriage set up is the best after all.