If I had to pick only one favorite actress, it would probably be Barbara Stanwyck. After that, the list gets quite complicated to make. There are so many enormously talented women who have made names for themselves throughout the history of cinema. How can I possibly single out five or ten?

One thing’s for sure, though: Bette Davis would be near the top of any list I’d attempt to make. The Petrified Forest, Mr. Skeffington, Dark Victory, Watch on the Rhine, All About Eve… she was in so many phenomenal pictures!

(Image via Caren's Classic Cinema)
(Image via Caren’s Classic Cinema)

I’ve considered Bette a favorite for many years, but I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t seen many of her pre-codes. Her Hollywood career began in 1931, so she had a good few years of saucy movie-making before the moralistic production code took over. When TCM screened a few as part of their Friday Night Spotlight series in September, I jumped at the chance to watch a couple of them.

This was what led me to a screening of 1933’s Ex-Lady.

The film follows Helen Bauer (Davis), a young and talented commercial artist. Helen is dating and living with Don Peterson (Gene Raymond).

Helen’s parents don’t approve of her live-in relationship with Don, but Helen’s got her own beliefs and she sticks to her guns. She has no desire to marry, and when Don himself starts pressuring her to get married, she resists.

Will Helen give in and become a wife or continue leading an anti-marital life? Her decision and its consequences are revealed in Ex-Lady, directed by Robert Florey.

As expected, Ex-Lady is somewhat “ahead of its time” in terms of subject matter. Davis’ character doesn’t want to marry and doesn’t even want to think of children until she’s at least forty years old. She wants to enjoy her youth and have fun. She quarrels with her parents over this belief, with her father saying outright, “What’s good is old-fashioned,” condemning Helen and Don’s lifestyle.

The film can be pretty talky in getting across its points about love and marriage. Its moral issues are fleshed out through dialogue rather than action. In the beginning, as Helen and Don debate the pros and cons of marrying each other, their conversation seems like a backwards “after school special”: similar in dialogue stiffness, but without the heavy anti-“sin” slant.

(Image via Doctor Macro)
(Image via Doctor Macro)

As a result of the heavy focus on dialogue to tell the story (a mistake, what with Davis and her very expressive face leading the film), the pace sometimes feels a tad bit sluggish. There’s very little tension, and very little emotional investment on behalf of the viewer. Ex-Lady is less than an hour long, but feels infinite.

I enjoyed watching Bette Davis in what TCM points to as her first starring role, and there are a couple of strong scenes in the film (the opera-singing scene in which Helen notices Don getting too friendly with another woman, for example) but I wouldn’t jump at the chance to watch Ex-Lady again. The score: 1.5/5