Saturday, July 20, 2019

Tonight's Movie: Our Betters (1933) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

Constance Bennett stars in OUR BETTERS (1933), a pre-Code comedy about life among the British upper crust, available on DVD from the Warner Archive.

I was vaguely expecting OUR BETTERS to be a melodrama, but it turned out to be a comedy of manners, based on a play by W. Somerset Maugham. Bennett plays Pearl, an American hardware heiress who as the movie opens weds Lord George Greyston (Alan Mowbray).

Pearl is moved by the ceremony and pledges to George that she'll be a fine wife, but she's still wearing her wedding gown when she discovers George loves a woman named Diana (Finis Barton). Pearl has the title, George has her money, and that is sadly the end of their relationship; they're married in name only, leading separate lives.

Pearl covers her hurt by morphing into a bit of a wild woman in British society; her behavior is sometimes shocking but she's accepted because she's also entertaining. As George depletes her income she begins a relationship of sorts with another American, Arthur (Minor Watson), who supports her with an allowance.

Pearl's young sister Bessie (Anita Louise) comes to visit, followed a few months later by her sweetheart, Fleming (Charles Starrett). Bessie's head is turned by society life and she accepts a proposal from Lord Bleane (Hugh Sinclair), to Fleming's great disappointment.

Though Pearl encouraged the match with Lord Bleane, ultimately she realizes she doesn't want her own shallow life for Bessie and works to set Bessie on a different path.

This was an interesting and enjoyable 83-minute film, with Bennett in fine form as the sarcastic, manipulative Pearl, who carries on with a gigolo named Pepi (Gilbert Roland) behind the backs of both Arthur and Pepi's companion, Minnie (Violet Kemble Cooper). She puts on performances as a coy, weak woman for Arthur's benefit, reaping in his checks, while offering razor-sharp commentary on other characters and slyly encouraging Pepi.

While the film is amusing and holds the attention thanks to all the snark and some good lines ("If I leave you, you'll have no one but your husband!"), in the end it's also a bit sad; the only characters with redeeming qualities are Bessie and her two suitors. Most of the characters are unhappy, living lives of futility despite being blessed with luxurious lifestyles. One might say it's a tragedy overlaid with comedy, though it ends on a hopeful note as Pearl frees Bessie from British society's clutches and sends her back to a more wholesome life in America.

The supporting players, who also include Grant Mitchell and Phoebe Foster, are all very good. It was fun to see another early film with Anita Louise, recently reviewed here in MILLIE (1931) and GLAMOUR FOR SALE (1940).

Eight years after OUR BETTERS, Bennett would marry Roland, but they were divorced after half a decade and two children together. She married John Theron Coulter two days after her divorce from Roland, a union which lasted until her passing in 1965. She is buried with Brigadier General Coulter, who survived her by three decades, at Arlington National Cemetery.

OUR BETTERS was directed by George Cukor and filmed by Charles Rosher.

The Warner Archive print is somewhat soft, as is often the case for films of this age, but it doesn't have any major defects. The soundtrack is occasionally a bit muffled, which is slightly problematic at times given all the British accents, but for the most part it was understandable.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered from the Warner Archive Collection at the WBShop or from any online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays are sold.

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