The Lady Refuses gets frustratingly close to making it to the finish. It collapses in its final moments, though it’s barely been keeping it together through the third act, when everything (by everything the main plot and the single directly related subplot) comes together and profoundly fizzles. The only reason it provides any tension at all is because the movie puts its most likable, appealing character—maid Daphne Pollard—in some kind of danger. Without that peril, it’s just a shrug, like everyone’s lost enthusiasm for the story.
Not a surprise given the eventual resolution.
The film tells the age-old tale of London gal down on her luck, Betty Compson, who has to chose the bridge or working the street–Refuses is kind of shockingly real about that dichotomy—and picks the latter. Only her first night out the cops decide to harass her so she knocks on a fancy door and who should answer but lonely old widower Gilbert Emery. Refuses juxtaposes the cops on Compson’s trail and Emery’s layabout drunkard son John Darrow being disinterested in hanging out with Emery and Emery getting the sads. So when Compson needs help—any kind of help—Emery’s an enthusastic aid.
Soon after a nice dinner and Compson’s assurances she’s never actually worked the street before tonight and hasn’t yet had any customers, Emery hires her to get Darrow away from Margaret Livingston. Now, Darrow thinks Livingston is just after him for a good time, but she’s actually in cahoots with his childhood friend Ivan Lebedeff to get a sizable chunk of Emery’s estate somehow.
By somehow it involves Livingston bedding Darrow on a regular basis and Lebedeff getting more and more insanely jealous over it even though he’s apparently in on it. It’s unclear. There’s zero backstory for any of the characters outside an occasional line—actually, wait, I’m not sure there’s anything in backstory except Darrow and Lebedeff being childhood friends, no one else gets anything.
For instance, there’s no explanation to Emery being openly British and Darrow being obviously American. Ditto Compson, who’s ostensibly a Brit but the character maybe makes more sense if she’s American and there’s even an implication but it’s subtle and Refuses, you know, refuses to do subtle. And the only time Compson does try an English accent… well, a more gracious reading would have her being faking it intentionally.
Things quickly become a love triangle—wait, actually a pentagon when you through in Livingston and Lebedeff—because while Darrow falls for paid personal savior Compson, Compson and Emery are in love. It’ll all work out in the end, Compson and Emery are sure.
As The Lady Refuses is a Pre-Code melodrama (not to mention the title), things very obviously do not work out and the last twenty to thirty minutes they just get worse and worse.
Acting-wise, Compson’s probably the best, though she’s far more effective for her ability to emote than to read her lines. Though the biting her lip thing is kind of annoying (but nowhere near Darrow’s terrible Groucho Marx impression). Darrow’s bad. Emery’s occasionally cute but not good. Archainbaud’s direction is standoffish but when it’s Emery, it just seems British. Albeit British with some boring composition, which eventually gets editor Jack Kitchin in trouble because Archainbaud’s obviously not shooting enough coverage.
Refuses is occasionally academically interesting as an early talkie or a Pre-Code or whatnot, but it’s a fail overall. The resolution’s an odd mix of disappointing and insulting.