“Cheap, cheap, my daughter, cheap!”
In Ex-Lady single career girl, illustrator, Helen Bauer (Bette Davis) maintains a long-term relationship with advertising agency owner Don Peterson (Gene Raymond). He wants to get married, but she’s averse to the idea. She’d much prefer to live together. With proto feminist ideas, Helen sees marriage as “dull” and the death of romance and freedom. The married couples in the film underscore that notion. While Helen and Don’s relationship sparkles with the joy they find in each other’s company, married friends seem bored and disinterested in one another.
Don presses the idea of marriage, and Helen finally gives in. The newlyweds leave for a whirlwind honeymoon to Cuba, but when they return, Don’s business has lost several accounts in his absence. Helen, who has given up her freelance illustrator status to join Don’s firm, has job offers–but with other advertising agencies. Soon there are strains in the marriage, and both Don and Helen feel the loss of the marvelous freedom they’d enjoyed when they lived together.
Ex-Lady is a morality tale. Both Don and Helen have to learn the hard way that marriage is a commitment. When they get married, it’s as though they’re ‘trying marriage’ to see if it works for them, and then of course, when the first obstacles occur, marriage takes the blame for it. Would-be lovers distract both Don and Helen from the marriage. Nick Malvyn (Monroe Owsley) is waiting for Helen to come to her senses and go off with him. And Peggy Smith (Kay Strozzi), the much younger wife of an aging businessman, can’t wait to get her hands on Don.
This pre-code film is interesting for its proto feminist ideas, and one of the best lines occurs when married friend, Hugo regrets the fact that the hobble skirt is no longer in vogue. He notes that women “couldn’t walk fast nor far in the hobble skirt. You could trust them.” As a vehicle for Bette Davis, this pre-code film is a pedestrian romance. The fine talent of this great actress is contained in little more than a sweet bedroom drama, and Davis is confined in a role of a glamorous woman whose emotions never rise above mildly disappointed. There’s no fire or passion here, and that’s unfortunate. As a hardcore Davis fan, it’s still hard to pass up the opportunity to see her in anything, but Ex-Lady was NOT a film Davis was proud of. Incidentally, Ex-Lady is remake of an earlier film , Illicit, starring Barbara Stanwyck. From director Robert Florey.