The Woman Between (1931, Victor Schertzinger)

The Woman Between ought to be the most scandalous, salacious Pre-Code soap possible given the tawdry subject matter—trophy-ish wife Lili Damita (it’s complicated, she’s got her own business and she’s French) cheats on her husband on her latest voyage back from Europe and it turns out she’s shacked up with his son, Lester Vail. Now, they don’t know each other because Vail ran away from home when dad O.P. Heggie announced he was getting married. Apparently Vail didn’t even know Damita’s name? It seems like he might’ve heard it since she was a famous dress shop owner in New York but whatever….

The film takes about fifteen minutes—it only runs seventy—to get to that core drama; until then, it spends a bunch of time following Heggie’s daughter, Miriam Seegar, around as she prepares for Vail’s homecoming. Including going to Damita’s dress shop. But it actually opens with Seegar’s friend, Anita Louise, in an inventive opening title sequence.

Sadly that opening title sequence is the last time the film is inventive.

And then once it gets to the dress shop it seems like at the very least there will be amazing Art Deco set design. But then the shop is the only place with amazing Art Deco set design and we’re rarely going back to the shop.

When Damita arrives… well, she’s opposite Seegar and Louise and Seegar and Louise have already had enough material it’s clear they’re going to be godawful—it can’t be all their fault, given Schertzinger’s direction—but Damita gets some initial sympathy because Seegar and Louise are so bad. Then Heggie shows up and he’s bad, but then Vail shows up and he’s annoying; Damita runs out of sympathy fast.

Pretty soon, once Damita and Vail have realized what they’ve done, Woman Between gets engaging for it’s pure proto-camp value. Damita’s vamping around, Heggie’s doing this weird comedic thing, Seegar’s hissing… but the film’s got no sense of humor. It’s got joke sequences, always involving the staff—Halliwell Hobbes plays the butler and gets a bunch of it, but there’s some poor Black elevator operator who has to mug for Damita in an initial attempt to make her seem likable (which we never get again, actually)—and it’s always terrible. Because if Schertzinger’s even aware he needs timing, he’d have no idea how to execute it. And William Hamilton wouldn’t be able to cut for it.

Though, I’ll be a little nice—great photography from J. Roy Hunt.

The movie’s terrible and not even worth it for cringe-laughs, but Hunt’s black and white photography is excellent. Even though Schertzinger usually just has him shooting people standing against a wall–Woman Between might be a play adaptation, but it’s not stagy, it’s wall-y—at an angle. Terrible blocking in the film. Just real bad.

The ending makes a bit of a louder flop than expected—the third act, with better direction, might’ve been suspenseful—but the real problem is the performances, specifically Schertzinger’s direction of them.

Plus, you know, the script’s not good either. It’s just a soapy stinker.

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