Mary Astor leads a mostly fine ensemble cast in RKO’s adaptation of Myron C. Fagan’s Nancy’s Private Affair, the title tamed down on film to Smart Woman. Minna Gombell played the lead on stage in a production which ran for 136 performances at the Vanderbilt Theater in the first part of 1930.
Gregory La Cava, who later directed the classic My Man Godfrey (1936), keeps a quick pace and makes the most of the stagey primary setting of the Gibson couple’s somewhat palatial home. Talkies are rapidly developing in ‘31, but at the same time we’re still really in the early days, so an adaptation with more or less a single setting was not that unusual a choice to be put into production by RKO. In this instance they made the wise choice of tackling adult subject matter handled through a witty script, giving us plenty of action inside Smart Woman’s words and themes.
There is just a single scene filmed off of the Gibson’s estate, and that’s the ship board opening sequence featuring Mary Astor’s Mrs. Nancy Gibson and John Halladay’s enamored Sir Guy Harrington. The expected noise of the docking ship allow Astor and Halladay to help out the audience, and perhaps themselves, by repeating their lines. It may have been the only way to make the crowded exterior scene work as part of a talking picture, because the audio is pretty bad.
It’s during this brief scene that Sir Guy professes his interest in Mrs. Gibson, but Nancy politely spurns him by stating her return home is her return to everything she loves: her house, her garden, her husband. She’d only departed for Paris because her mother was ill, but as her brother-in-law Billy (Edward Everett Horton) later makes clear, 1931 is no time for a wife to leave her husband’s cage door unlocked. What else is he to do but play around under such circumstances? Even worse, Billy and his wife, Sally (Ruth Weston), break the news that Nancy’s husband (also Sally’s brother), Donnie (Robert Ames), wants a divorce so he can marry Miss Peggy Preston (Noel Francis).
Nancy is heartbroken but as Donnie enters to break the news himself she pulls herself together to face him and with the interruption of a neighborhood gossip, starts spinning a plan to win him back. First she convinces Donnie to phone Miss Preston to invite her and her mother (Gladys Gale) to come and spend the weekend with them. Later after everyone is settled in she unleashes phase two whereby Sir Guy comes to visit with her posing him as her own European lover.
Mary Astor is excellent as the lead among the other half dozen actors having her best scene after Donnie hands her the phone and we’re privy to her faltering emotions as she rouses all of her moxie to invite Peggy Preston for the weekend in her most casual possible tone. But we’re allowed to see that beyond the voice that she’s a broken woman by the time she hangs up, her back hiding her wretched expression from her husband. She however quickly recovers to pull herself together when forced to face him again.
Edward Everett Horton wisecracks through his part, more cutting than even he usually is, riffing one double entendre after another at both Peggy and especially her mother. Ruth Weston, playing Horton’s wife, has a pretty thankless role, mostly skulking about angry at her brother’s beastly behavior, but also allowed a few scenes where she kicks back to exchange barbs with husband Horton.
John Halladay is wonderful as Sir Guy, who after catching on to Nancy’s ruse showers her with adulation in such a forced hammy way that he recalls the great John Barrymore’s work later in the 1930’s. The bouquets he tosses are caught, at least momentarily, by Astor’s Nancy, who practically melts against the railing in response to Sir Guy’s romantic playacting.
Noel Francis clearly comes across as the gold digger she’s supposed to be, quite the vixen playing up to the highlife while at the same time her general look gives her away as cheap. I enjoyed her, nonetheless she was one of the weaker links. Her mother as played by Gladys Gale overshadows her and is treated to better lines throughout due to many more exchanges with the witty Horton than her daughter.
Then we come to Robert Ames, who to me resembled George Brent after a dose of sour milk. His character, Donnie, the cheating husband is selfish, highly sexist by today’s standards but I could imagine even the most doting women bristling at some of his lines even then, and to top it all off not all that bright. That description probably does him too much justice as the focus is really on the last trait—he’s selfish and sexist because he is a dope. How in the world the beautiful and well-composed Mary Astor character wound up with this jerk in the first place is well beyond me.
But I mainly think of Donnie as a bit of a horses’ ass, and I’m going to feel bad saying this in a second, mainly because of Robert Ames’ failure in the role. After the image of a sickened and sleazy looking George Brent drifted ever so slightly away the truth sort of hit me; this guy looks like an alcoholic. He’s laboring while the others, even Francis, are not. Well, sure enough, and here’s why I feel a little bad, Smart Woman premiered at the Roxy in New York in September 1931—just two months later, November 1931, Robert Ames was dead. The headline on the December 1, 1931 New York Times story: Finds Liquor Killed Ames: Dr. Schwartz Says Autopsy Shows He Had Delirium Tremens.
The poor guy appeared in two more films after Smart Woman, I can only imagine how terrible he must have looked in these, though according to newspaper clippings Smart Woman was the film in release throughout much of the country at the time of his passing. Ames, just 42 years old, had been married four times and was in a relationship with actress Ina Claire when he died.
Doctor’s initially cited a ruptured bladder as cause of death but put the case under further investigation when finding a large amount of whiskey along with over 100 packets of sleeping powders in his room. Ames was successful both on stage and screen and seems to have warranted extra notice because of his several marriages and relationships. Besides the drink and drugs around his body it was reported that there were several photos of women found throughout the room, most of Ina Claire, whom hotel records showed he had phoned three times the night of his death. Claire refused visitors at the time of Ames’ death, secluding herself in her Hollywood home where reports stated she deeply mourned his loss.
While I found Ames pretty bad in Smart Woman, he’s not enough to ruin it. You know who would have been good as Donny? How about the real George Brent? Oh well, he was just getting his feet wet in Hollywood that year.
Smart Woman plays with as much wit and sophistication that theater going audiences of 1931 could have possibly expected from a motion picture. The setting is pleasant, though the Gibson’s spacious home and obviously fat bank account was possibly a bit gut-wrenching for period viewers, the wealth does play into a slight but important twist in the story. I’d imagine this setting, along with it’s cosmopolitan themes, would find success for Smart Woman on the coasts, but I can’t imagine Middle America taking to it all that well.