“Marriage is disastrous for love.”
The pre-code film Illicit stars a very young Barbara Stanwyck in one of her earliest roles. She’s cast as the freethinking, independent Anne Vincent who’s involved in a relationship with the wealthy Richard Ives (James Rennie), the son of a prominent society family. While Richard wants to get married, Anne refuses–she sees marriage as the killer of romance. But when rumours reach Richard’s father that the young couple are sneaking off for weekends in Connecticut together, he urges them to marry. Both Richard and Anne try to make opposing moral stands on the issue, but Anne eventually submits and becomes Mrs. Ives.
Anne and Richard return to their Long Island home after an extended honeymoon in Europe, but the trouble really begins when they return to New York and to their old crowd of friends. Both Anne and Richard are tempted to stray by former loves–Margie (Natalie Moorhead) and Price Baines (Ricardo Cortez). While the film contains Anne’s proto-feminist ideas, it also quite clearly contains the message that there are different standards of acceptable behaviour for Richard and that there’s a certain amount of shenanigans that Anne should just ignore.
In this role, Anne’s behaviour is rather mealy-mouthed, so this is not the magnificent Barbara Stanwyck at her best. But in a couple of scenes there are flashes of the emerging Stanwyck temperament, and her presence in this film raises it above the ordinary. Directed by Archie Mayo, Illicit was re-made and retitled as Ex-Lady just a couple of years later, and that version starred Bette Davis.