Ann Vincent (Barbara Stanwyck) is a modern woman with modern ideals. She believes that marriage can only end up one of two ways: unhappy and still married, or unhappy and divorced.
Not favoring either of these options, Anne argues against her rich, well-known boyfriend Dick Ives II (James Rennie) and his father, who both think marriage is the best solution.
Dick’s father, portrayed by Claude Gillingwater, is much more accepting of Anne’s perspective than one would expect. Though he whole-heartedly wishes to avoid a scandal for his family, he doesn’t forcefully try to change her mind. He seems to have the best interests of both his son and Anne in mind, despite the fact that he values society’s input a bit too much.
Anne does her best to convince them that marriage isn’t an option and that she should be able to live “in sin” if she pleases, but eventually agrees to become the new Mrs. Ives.
As Anne and Dick partake in all of the usual high-society pre-marriage traditions, Anne recieves a telegram from Price Baines (Ricardo Cortez), one of her ex-lovers, saying that he wants to visit her. Dick tries to forbid Anne from seeing Price, but she acts against his wishes. Price arrives and tries to convince her to be true to herself and cancel the wedding.
Archie Mayo directs 1931’s Illicit, which is based on a play by Edith Fitzgerald and Robert Riskin. Appearing alongside the films three lead stars are Natalie Moorhead, Charles Butterworth and the wonderful Joan Blondell.
The first thing to strike the viewer upon watching this film is the great styling, especially for Stanwyck. When the film opens she’s wearing an asymmetrically colored robe (light on one side, dark on the other) and wears her long hair down. Throughout the rest of the film she wears dresses with striking details, such as high-contrast accents (a dark dress with a few touches of white, for example), bold stripes and draped necklines. At one point she even wears an extremely sparkly party dress. She looks very glamorous throughout the entire film.
Visual appeal aside, there’s a lot to enjoy in this film. There is a great banter between Stanwyck and Rennie early on in the film and a very cute chemistry. These lovable aspects of the couple are later contradicted as their relationship changes.
The pace of Illicit is not particularly fast, but it does a good job of keeping the viewer’s interest nonetheless. Part of the story is told through newspaper clippings of the society pages, which is a technique that I always get a kick out of. Here, I think it saves the film from feeling like it drags. Since the pace is already a bit slow, hyphenating some of the events by sharing them through print works well.
There aren’t any big surprises, and the film isn’t quite as scandalous or stereotypically “pre-code” than one would expect from the premise and opening scenes. But still, the film is nowhere near dull. It is decent in its slowest moments and a thrilling story in its best moments.
In terms of performance, Stanwyck steals the show as usual, but her supports are very good too. I was delighted to see Joan Blondell, who I didn’t realize was in the film before watching. I loved Blondell and Stanwyck as a screen pair in Night Nurse, so I wish they had more scenes together.
Archie Mayo’s Illicit is a pretty good watch with generally solid performances, but it isn’t one of Stanwyck’s most gripping films. Still, fans of the actress or any viewer who finds the premise intriguing will get some enjoyment out of a viewing. The score: 3/5