“Nobody belongs to anyone.”
Grab your hankies for That Certain Woman–an unashamedly exploitive tearjerker that follows the trials and tribulations of a woman who can’t leave her past behind. When the film begins, Mary Donnell (Bette Davis) works for married lawyer Lloyd Rogers (Ian Hunter). Mary has a notorious past. She married a gangster at age 16, but he was killed a few years later. Although she changed her name, her past still crops up–usually in the form of annoying reporters who want to write a “where-is-she-now” piece. Mary’s boss is in love with her, but he seems to accept that he’s unhappily married to someone else and contents himself with keeping Mary as his efficient secretary.
Jack Merrick (Henry Fonda)–the wastrel son of a domineering, wealthy father (Donald Crisp) returns from Paris, with the intention of marrying Mary. Mary and Jack sneak off to get married, but Jack’s irate self-righteous father interrupts the newlyweds on their wedding night. Much to Mary’s disgust, Jack doesn’t stand up to his father’s demand that they annul the marriage. Disheartened, Mary leaves. The marriage is annulled, Jack goes off to France, and Mary gives birth to a child.
In many ways, this is an old familiar story of a decent woman who makes a mistake early in her life and isn’t allowed to live it down. In That Certain Woman, the plot dives into soap opera territory repeatedly, and exploits every possible cliched plot twist along the way. All the characters seem to strive for sainthood, and in some scenes, one can almost catch a whiff of burning martyr. The film doesn’t offer Bette Davis much in the way of a role–she’s primarily the victim throughout the whole film, and what she sees in the spineless Jack really isn’t clear. In the beginning of the film, Bette Davis is cast as deliberately dowdy–although she spruces up a bit around the half way mark, and she’s only allowed to show her claws in one scene when she wallops someone with her mink stole.
From director Edmund Goulding, the film is well acted, but it’s still a poor vehicle for Bette Davis’s acting ability. Davis fans (me) will want to watch it as they won’t be able to help themselves, and it’s always great to see her in any film.