The following review is one of several that I composed for the ClassicFlix site under the column title “Where’s That Been?” Most of those columns made the transition to CF’s new site but some of them stayed behind for reason or another…and since my writer’s ego is just big enough to where I don’t like having what I’ve penned shielded from the large number of folks who surf the Internets I have reprinted it here. Enjoy!
Richard “Dick” Ives II (James Rennie) and Anne Vincent (Barbara Stanwyck) are a young couple madly in love with one another (mahd, I tell you!)—so much so that they flout conventionality by sleeping together despite their unmarried status. (Horrors!) Dick isn’t particularly comfortable with this arrangement but it suits Anne fine: she loves Dick so much she’s concerned that a march down the matrimonial aisle will ruin their relationship, making them as stodgy and dull as all the other couples they know. Speaking of stodgy and dull, the senior Ives (Claude Gillingwater) drops in after one of the couple’s late-night assignations (which finished with an early morning breakfast crescendo) to tut-tut his disapproval, and he pressures his son to fish or cut bait with regards to the marriage thing. Anne feels the pressure, too, and wearily agrees to become Mrs. Dick Ives II.
There are already storm clouds on the distant horizon, however; before the nuptials, Anne receives a telegram and then a visit from an old beau named Price Baines (Ricardo Cortez). Baines begs her not to go through with such a fool scheme, but Anne remains loyal to Dick. After this initial turbulence, the Ives marriage takes a predictably steady course…after a year, the predictability is what threatens to scuttle the union. Bored with one another, Dick’s wandering eye zeroes in on one of his old flames, Margie True (Natalie Moorhead), and when Anne catches her hub in a lie when he denies taking her to a nightclub, she suggests she and Dick separate temporarily, with Anne moving into her own apartment. In their case, absence makes the heart grow fonder—soon, Anne and Dick reconcile and, missing each other so, agree to take things slowly.
This peace and quiet doesn’t last long: an awkward situation occurs when Dick finds Price hanging around Anne’s apartment, and the Margie problem rears its ugly head when Margie confides to Anne that she’s always loved Dick and she intends to make a life with him since Anne appears to have thrown him over. Convinced Dick is running away to be with his lady love, Anne tries to convince herself that she’ll enjoy her new freedom…thankfully, Dick turns up at her place at the last minute, confessing he loves her too much to go away with Margie. Both husband and wife resolve never to separate again.
Nowadays, audiences wouldn’t bat an eyelash to see a movie heroine unmarried and enjoying romantic freedom…but in 1931, when Illicit was first released to theaters, this was fairly steamy stuff. In the pre-Code era, even the title of the film caused local censor boards to clutch their pearls and head for the fainting couch. The “free love” philosophy of Illicit can’t quite mask the fact that it’s a bit duller than the usually racy pre-Code product…plus, viewed through a 21st century prism, having to endure the rather chauvinistic attitudes of Ives pere et fils (Daddy Ives refers to Anne’s reluctance to do the rice-and-old-shoes deal as her “theories”) might make modern audiences wince. (In all honesty, moviegoers were aghast more at the independence exhibited by the Anne Vincent character than any flaunting of immorality and infidelity.)
Illicit, however, is an important film in the oeuvre of actress Barbara Stanwyck; it was her first starring role after her breakout performance in Columbia’s Ladies of Leisure (1930)—the studio lent her to Warner Brothers for $7,000 a week (according to Variety), and Babs went on to further pre-Code triumphs at that studio like Night Nurse (1931), Ladies They Talk About (1933), and the notorious Baby Face (1933)…in which Stanwyck uses her considerable female charms to climb the ladder of success.
While Illicit has its problems (its direction by Archie Mayo is uninspired and as such, its pacing lags painfully at times), Stanwyck gives a sensational performance; she exhibits a natural effervescence and playfulness in Anne Vincent that proves contagious in her interactions with co-star Rennie, who otherwise settles for saying his lines and not bumping into the furniture. The supporting cast also acquits itself nicely: Joan Blondell is fun as Helen “Duckie” Childers (Illicit was the first of two films Joanie would make with Babs), and Natalie Moorhead and Ricardo Cortez are aces as the respective female and male “home wreckers.” (Curiously, Cortez tones down his usual caddishness and seems a bit more subdued than usual.) But it’s Charles Butterworth who commits cinematic grand larceny as Georgie Evans, a besotted pal of Dick and Anne’s who dominates every scene he’s in. (If the censors had gotten their way, the drinking scenes would have been considerably trimmed and Butterworth would have been left with bupkis.)
Based on a play by Edith Fitzgerald and future Frank Capra collaborator Robert Riskin (his first screenwriting effort), Illicit (adapted by Harvey Thew) would later be reworked into a Bette Davis vehicle, Ex-Lady (1933). I find the Davis effort to be the superior film (the direction by Robert Florey is better by leaps and bounds) but I don’t dismiss Stanwyck’s version (it’s hard to dislike a movie where she spends a lot of its running time decked out in a loose-fitting kimono…if you know what I mean). Illicit provides the blueprint for the subsequent performances that have made Stanwyck a classic movie favorite: those of gutsy, take-no-guff women whose independent spirit quickly elicits empathy from the audience no matter what their station in life.