Kept Husbands (1931)
If you’re looking for a deliciously scandalous movie with witty dialogue and delightful characters, this is not it. But if you’re on the hunt for a mediocre flick with flat characters and a predictable plot, you’ve found it! On the plus side, it stars a very young Joel McCrea!
Kept Husbands is a drama about the corrupting power of women and money. As TCM notes, despite its Pre-Code pedigree, it’s really not that shocking. I could imagine the same movie being made in 1935 under the Code. Gender conventions are upheld, raciness is kept to a minimum, and sex is barely even implied! Oh, well. You can’t have everything.
So although the film isn’t that scandalous nor what you’d call progressive, the art deco style is gorgeous, the dialogue is charmingly old-fashioned, and the silent film actors turned talkie-stars are fun to watch. And of course there’s Joel McCrea. That’s all I really need.
Besides McCrea, the film stars Dorothy Mackaill, a British-born actress who came to New York in the ‘teens, appeared in the Ziegfeld Follies, and made her first silent movie in 1920. Unlike many silent stars, she successfully transitioned to sound films in 1928 and remained a popular star through the early 1930s. She retired from movies in 1937 at the age of 34.
This was the second film starring Joel McCrea and Dorothy Mackaill, but they first met at the Heart “Ranch,” aka Hearst Castle in San Simeon. William Randolph Hearst took a liking to McCrea long before he was a star, and often invited him to the ranch, especially when he found out that McCrea was a good tennis player.
Mackaill was another frequent visitor having befriended Hearst’s longtime mistress Marion Davies back in their New York theater days. McCrea remembered that he and Mackaill “hit it off right away” when they met at the Ranch. They became good friends and occasional doubles partners.
“She had a tremendous sense of humor,” recalled McCrea, and they had a ball together goofing around. Mackaill and her mother often invited McCrea to tea or dinner in their apartment across from the Ambassador Hotel, and they enjoyed teasing each other about their various suitors.
He later explained that despite the rumors, “I never even kissed her except in a picture…A lot of guys were nuts about her, but I didn’t have the urge…We ended up just calling each other ‘Softie’… I just wanted to be her friend. She just said, ‘Softie, come on,’ and we’d go to the beach together…”(This was all before McCrea and Frances Dee met and got married in 1933).
The Ranch remained a favorite destination for both of them: McCrea recalled how “Dorothy and I would talk about when we were going to San Simeon again, because she loved to go up there. Hearst was crazy about her. He liked to have her there, because she was full of fun all the time.”
Mackaill and McCrea went from tennis partners to co-stars on Once a Sinner (1931) and then immediately made Kept Husbands (1931). It was a shocking rise for McCrea: Mackaill was an established star getting $5,000 a week at the time (about $75,000 in 2017 dollars!), and he was pulling in $250. After all, he was just two movies away from uncredited roles!
McCrea quite literally grew up in Hollywood and worked as a stuntman/extra for a few years before landing his first big role in The Silver Horde (1930) when he was twenty-five-years old.
Then he made Lightnin’ (1930) and the two Mackaill films. His most famous films, Foreign Correspondent (1940) with Hitchcock, and the Preston Sturges’ comedies Sullivan’s Travels (1942) and The Palm Beach Story (1942), were about a decade away when he made Kept Husbands.
Kept Husbands was directed by Lloyd Bacon, an actor-turned-director who appeared in over forty movies and directed nearly 100 over his long career. Besides McCrea and Mackaill, the film features the famous silent film actress Clara Kimball Young in her first movie in six years. This was her sound film debut. She plays the shrill, wealthy woman Mrs. Post with the “kept husband.”
Another prolific silent film actor, Bryant Washburn, has a small but memorable role as Mackaill’s former flame, and Ned Sparks shows up as a family friend/lodger and fellow steel mill employee who constantly and cynically spouts maxims such as “What can’t be cured must be endured,” and “Beggars can’t be choosers.” You may recognize Sparks from his appearances in 42nd Street (1933) and Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933).
To the film! We open in a glorious mansion with old-fashioned, heavy furnishings. Mr. Parker (Robert McWade) regales his wife and daughter with the tale of a worker’s heroic rescue of several colleagues down at his steel mill.
But what really shocks Mrs. Parker (Florence Roberts) and Dorothea “Dot” (Dorothy Mackaill) is that the worker refused Mr. Parker’s check of $1,000 as a reward. But they’re about to get an even bigger surprise: Mr. Parker has invited the man to dinner that very night! Horrors!
The two women go on a tear about how this common working man will be a perfect barbarian: he will probably show up in overalls and pile mashed potatoes onto his knife! They’re the worst. But when the humble worker, Richard “Dick” Brunton (Joel McCrea), arrives, he’s not the uncouth wretch the Parker ladies imagined. He doesn’t drink from the finger bowl, he knows how to use a napkin, and he doesn’t befriend the servants! My, my!
Dot stares at him in wonder and a gold football charm on his watch chain catches her eye. Suddenly she realizes why he looks familiar: he’s the Dick Brunton, the all-American half-back and the “man who beat Yale.” (These little gold footballs were awards given to outstanding players, as we also see in The Sport Parade (1932) when Joel McCrea and his teammate win the same tiny gold footballs for their stellar football careers at Dartmouth.)
Suddenly the lowly worker is the toast of the party! Idolizing athletes is nothing new, folks. Dick doesn’t talk about his football past because he’s a very honorable, modest man who doesn’t want to trade on his athletic fame to get ahead. He believes in hard work! Boring.
After dinner, Mr. and Mrs. Post arrive and demonstrate the phenomenon of the “kept husband.” She’s a rich socialite (Clara Kimball Young) and he used to be a promising architect. Once they married, she wouldn’t let him work, and now she gives him an allowance. His main responsibilities are taking care of her yappy little dog and responding “Yes, dear,” on the rare occasions when he is included in a conversation. He is a shell of his former self, and once he leaves, the other men lament his “kept husband” status.
This little vignette is obvious foreshadowing but is also quite interesting in terms of gender relations. It’s a fairy tale when a rich man marries a poor woman (so long as she is Pure and Good, of course, and not a gold digger!), but it’s practically an abomination when a rich woman marries a poor man!
Anyway, after dinner Dot corners Dick for a chat. She is fascinated by him, and he’s bedazzled by her. She’s bold, beautiful, and confident to the point of reckless, selfish cruelty. But it’s endearing because she’s so pretty. I guess? You can watch the dinner scene here.
I enjoy studying Joel McCrea in these early starring roles. He hasn’t yet found his natural, charming acting style and is still a little stiff. And Mackaill rarely alters her upbeat, brassy delivery, which doesn’t give McCrea much to bounce off of. Also, I think he’s best in comedies, and this movie doesn’t give him a chance to work up a twinkle in his eye. It’s hard to be wry and cute when you’re delivering serious, sometimes clunky dialogue.
After Dick leaves, Dot bets her father that Dick will propose to her in four weeks. Her dad is skeptical but indulges his spoiled brat of a child anyway. And that’s the problem right there, Daddy.
When Dick gets home, he tells his sweet mother (Mary Carr) that Dot was lovely but “just plain spoiled,” and he can’t imagine her as a wife. So he’s not totally stupid. But he’s also a man…so Dot will probably win the bet.
An intertitle announces that four weeks have passed. It’s a holdover from the silent era, but rather charming.
Dot takes Dick to lunch at a swanky club even though he intended to work through lunch on a very important project. She is already corrupting his morals! After lunch, he shifts uncomfortably when she pays the bill, but she dismisses his concerns. She’s a member so he can’t pay anyway. Plus, she’s loaded and he’s not.
Dot has reached the deadline on her bet, so she has to be extra bold. She flat out asks Dick to propose to her, but he refuses because he has nothing to offer a girl like her. She wouldn’t be happy living on his salary. But she eventually wears him down. Dot is an expert at emotional manipulation. Finally, she proposes to him, and he says yes.
Then she produces a ring and gives it to him to give to her, announcing that she will wear it until he can afford to buy her one. Yikes. So right off the bat we see that she is not willing to alter her lifestyle one bit. She has acquired him as though he is a lap dog, not a partner, and emasculates him by proposing and providing a ring. This must have been shocking back in 1931!
When Dot tells her parents about her engagement, her mother is horrified. She cannot believe that her daughter is throwing herself away on a common steel worker!
But her father is happy because he knows that Dick is a good man. He hopes that Dot will become a better woman with him. But he should know better.
Especially because Dot immediately asks him to promote Dick at the steel company and increase his salary. She can’t continue her fancy life on his paltry earnings, and her dear Daddy wouldn’t want her to suffer, would he?
Initially, he balks at her request to give Dick a $50,000 salary, (roughly $750,000 in 2017 money) but when she says, “I want him more than anything in the world! Won’t you please let me have him?” he can’t resist.
He promises to give Dick a promotion and a raise, but he will have to supplement the salary out of his private funds to avoid totally messing up the company’s wage structure.
After sorting out her finances, Dot goes to Dick’s house to meet his mother. The dichotomy between poor/rich that the film has been working on blossoms into a painfully obvious, sickly-sweet flower. Unlike Mrs. Parker, Mrs. Brunton has no prejudices about Dot and loves her immediately just because her son does.
We have now learned that the rich are debauched, selfish, and cruel, and the poor are hardworking, honorable, and kind. Because life is that simple. You can watch the scene here.
Soon it’s Wedding Time! And Honeymoon Time! Mr. Parker offers Dick a check for “spending money” before they sail to Europe, but Dick refuses it. Then Mr. Parker piles on the guilt about how Dick simply must take it because now he has darling Dot to think of–he wants her to be happy, right? Dick accepts the check, though he is still uneasy about taking money he didn’t earn.
The honeymoon starts happily enough on the ocean liner on the way to Europe. It’s a very spacious cabin. I love seeing the insides of ships, or at least the set designers’ ideas of the insides of ships.
Eventually, Dick and Dot make their way to Paris. Dot amuses herself with couturiers and $10,000 fur coats, but all of this luxury is beginning to bother Dick. He feels like a “kept husband” and wants to get back to work. But she wants him to enjoy all the upper class luxuries with her, and obviously he can’t if he is at work all day!
After another encounter with Mr. and Mrs. Post that bangs us on the head about how awful kept husbands are, Dick tells Dot that he wants to go home and get back to work. She is horrified. She’s even more upset when he refuses to wire her father for more money (for the third time!) and quashes their plans to continue to Nice, Monte Carlo, and Biarritz. They’re going home! But she turns on the fake tears and he folds. You can watch the scene here.
When they finally return home, the movie settles into a familiar pattern. Dot spends too much, Dick gets mad, she cries or kisses him, and then he begs for forgiveness.
For example, she rents an insane mansion decorated in the latest art deco style, and he insists they move to a small apartment he can actually afford. But guess where they stay? As I mentioned, she’s an expert manipulator, and now she’s got emotional and sexual ammunition! Even so, Dick is way too easily outmaneuvered.
He can’t even do anything when he catches his wife snogging her old flame, Charlie Bates (Bryant Washburn). She insists it was nothing and makes Dick feel disloyal for suggesting otherwise! She’s a master.
We cut to six months later to find that Dick is a Vice President at his father-in-law’s company. But instead of designing bridges, he now works on his bridge hand (get it!?) on the rare occasions when he actually goes to the office. The only calls he gets are from his wife demanding his presence at various receptions, teas, recitals, and parties. Even his secretary is bored.
Just when we think all hope is lost, Mr. Parker gives Dick an exciting new bridge project based in St. Louis. Dick is thrilled and gets to work immediately.
That evening, he rushes home to tell Dot the great news. He assumes she will be delighted, too, and will accompany him to St. Louis. (Clearly he doesn’t know his wife at all.)
But Dot refuses and forbids him from going, too. After all, she needs him to accompany her to all the recitals and dinners and parties she has planned!
But this time, she isn’t able to change his mind with pouts and kisses. He packs up and leaves while she paces in her pretty bedroom and plots her next move. This movie isn’t the greatest, but it’s worth watching for the incredible interiors, costumes, and hairstyles. It’s another world!
Dot eventually decides to put on a fancy new dress and go out on the town!
Meanwhile, Dick stops by his mother’s house to say goodbye. Dear, Sweet, Compassionate, Terribly Poor Mrs. Brunton urges her son to call his wife and make things right. She is sure that Dot didn’t mean anything she said, and she will be happy to go to St. Louis now! So not only is Mrs. Brunton Good, she is also Stupid.
But Dick can’t get through to Dot because she is on a date with her ex-boyfriend at his great apartment. That staircase railing!
Dot and Bates enjoy some drinks, and then she watches him lock the front door…. Cut to Dick as he calls around town trying to find his wife.
Then we return to Dot and Bates at 2AM. The ellipsis between the first scene at Bates’ apartment and the second implies that something sexual happened between them, but then Bates chases Dot around the apartment. He wants some lovin’, but she refuses. (So what have they been doing for all those hours?) Fun fact: the chase is a farce of silent film melodrama when the heroine runs from the cartoonish villain in order to save her all-important virtue. They even use dialogue and characters that evoke the genre.
Eventually, Dot leaves with her aforementioned virtue still intact. I guess? It’s almost as though the movie wants to deny the sexual impropriety that it suggested a few minutes before with that ellipsis! Plus, we’ve already seen Bates and Dot kiss as though it was nothing at all, so a little misbehavior would be very in character for both of them. But the chase and Dot’s repeated refusals imply that nothing happened. Not very pre-Code, is it?
Still, Dot’s disheveled, drunken return home is the final straw for her husband. He tells her he wants a divorce. He’s tried living her life and he is through. He hates being a kept husband, and he’s sick of her friends, that “rotten bunch of pasty-faced loose-lipped wasters. Parasites!”
Off he goes, and we cheer! The next morning, her father stops by Dot’s house with a letter from Dick announcing his resignation. He’s furious. And finally Dot realizes she’s been terrible.
Dot goes to see Dick’s mom, who is not only Dear, Sweet, Honorable, and Poor–she is also Wise. She tells Dot that all husbands are “kept:” some by the wife’s money, but some by the wife’s love, sacrifice, etc. Basically, every wife has some hold over her husband that makes him stay, but Dot has been using the wrong thing. Ugh.
Meanwhile, Mr. Parker convinces Dick to postpone his resignation until after he finishes the St. Louis bridge project. Off he goes–but Dot is waiting for him in his train compartment.
She apologizes and begs him to start over with her. From now on, they will live on his salary! The dummy believes her. And we end with a clinch!
It’s a frustrating “happy ending” because they are far too different to ever be happy together, but that’s the way the movie goes.
This film was in production in December 1930 and premiered in February 1931. They worked quickly back then!
The New York Times review found the premise a little tired, noting that it’s yet another movie reminding audiences “that poor men who marry rich women face the loss of their self-respect. The screen has been delivering itself of this portentous lesson for a long time and the current variation sheds little light on the subject.”
However, “within its limits,” the movie “makes quite an interesting entertainment. It tells its story in straightforward style, presents a group of believable human beings in reasonably credible situations, and avoids the usual psychological pitfalls of films which attempt to elucidate a problem. Dorothy Mackaill and Joel McCrea perform intelligently in the principal roles and render the rather undistinguished dialogue very well.”
Photoplay‘s review in April 1931 called the film “lively entertainment” and noted that “it is fun watching Dorothy Mackaill trying to make a tea hound out of Joel McCrea. They make an attractive pair.”
As I mentioned, Kept Husbands came towards the end of Mackaill’s career but the beginning of McCrea’s. Mackaill’s last movie premiered in 1937, though her career had slowed down considerably by 1934. In 1955, Mackaill moved to Hawaii and lived in the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki until her death in 1990. She swam in the ocean nearly every day, and she and McCrea remained friends until she died.
After Kept Husbands, McCrea kept working at a furious pace. He quickly became a popular leading man and appeared in almost every kind of movie. He starred opposite the biggest actresses of the era, including Barbara Stanwyck, Constance Bennett, Jean Arthur, and Claudette Colbert. In the mid-1940s, he started exclusively making westerns, and kept “riding the range” onscreen into the 1970s.