Honor Among Lovers
Director: Dorothy Arzner. Cast: Claudette Colbert, Fredric March, Monroe Owsley, Charlie Ruggles, Ginger Rogers, Avonne Taylor, Ralph Morgan. Screenplay: Austin Parker and Gertrude Purcell (based on a story by Austin Parker).

Was there ever a lovelier, more incandescent actress than Claudette Colbert? Her onscreen radiance, so utterly natural and unostentatious, has the effect of wiping the memory of every other actress right from the viewer's mind. Why wasn't this faultless comedienne, this shrewd interpreter, this angel cast in every single movie Hollywood ever made? Part of Colbert's appeal is an impression of modest sincerity—she seems like a performer who would be embarrassed by praise. It simply isn't in her to steal a scene on purpose; but, just as surely, I've rarely seen her in a scene that she didn't steal anyway.

The picture that has reignited my Claudettophilia is Dorothy Arzner's Honor Among Lovers, which was screened in Ithaca as part of a traveling series of Arzner films recently restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive. As far as I can tell, Honor Among Lovers isn't readily available on video; neither the Time Out Film Guide nor Leonard Maltin's rental encyclopedia even register its existence. I'll be surprised if UCLA doesn't eventually parlay its beautiful restorations into some kind of retail package, but for now, the upshot is that you owe it to yourself to check your local papers and see if the Arzner series might be arriving anywhere near you. This film alone is a reason to get excited—if the other titles, including the deliciously monikered Merrily We Go to Hell, are anywhere near this luscious, I won't even know what to do with myself.

Honor Among Lovers, which clocks in with typical Arzner efficiency at a brisk 75 mintues, begins in a corporate boardroom where a debate about an audit has been stalled in the absence of the head honcho, Jeremiah "Jerry" Stafford (star-in-the-making Fredric March). While the big cat's away, one of the lower-rung executives is trying to push through an unpopular measure, but the rest of the men around the table call in Julia Traynor (Colbert), Stafford's longtime secretary, to register his own wishes and prevent the mini-coup. In fact, not only does she blithely and efficiently quash the one-man insurrection, she reveals that she's already taken the necessary steps to realize her bosh's wishes. Translation? She's quietly, competently, and charmingly running the show.

Much is delightful about this sequence. The whole scene plays on the logic that anyone who has ever worked in any office already knows—the secretary is the one who knows what's really going on, and the reins of power often rest right at her (or his) desk. This is not to omit the reality, of course, that Julia's influence is unofficial and only informally sanctioned; later in the film, her institutional wisdom and personal charisma will be no match for the passing, venal caprice of a male superior. But the film's astute sense of sexual and professional politics does not prohibit the film from reaching several highs of comic banter and medium-budget studio elegance. That so much of the repartee and crackling sexual teases happen within the office is its own special joy. Modern films frequently turn the workplace into a locale of pure drudgery, and of course in many people's experience, the workplace is just this; but Honor Among Lovers, like His Girl Friday, Woman of the Year, or the early scenes in Sullivan's Travels, proves how much comic and emotional potential often goes unnoticed in the boardroom and around a desk.

The plot of Arzner's picture continues to alternate between what we expect and what we don't. It's clear from the moment that randy-seeming Fredric March sits down for an office brunch with clever Claudette, he's going to ask to marry her, but we are surprised how much he relies on his money to capture her interest, and also by how boldly he suggests that they join each other on round-the-world trips, or in city apartments, even if she won't marry. Once we meet Claudette's real boyfriend, a small-time financial manager called Philip Craig (Monroe Owsley), we can see why she's more comfortable with a humbler man of less imposing stature. Of course the two suitors will cross paths, at a roadside restaurant, but the romantic decisions that are made that night are surprising, and the subsequent responses of other characters are even more so. Honor Among Lovers suddenly seems like a starker, nastier picture than the first half-hour suggested, and we still have much ground to cover: a cocktail party, a financial swindling, a stolen kiss, a sexual proposition, and a gunshot that made the entire theater gasp out loud. It isn't for nothing, after all, that the title phrase puns on the more customary expression, "honor among thieves."

I earlier compared Arzner's movie to some of the greatest classics of Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges, and while the specific analogy was apt, Honor Among Lovers is in truth a very different film. Its canvas feels smaller than that of His Girl Friday or a Sullivan's Travels, though this is hardly to say that Arzner's picture is lacking in ideas or ambitions. They're just of a different order: a few powerful emotions, desires, and social realities get smacked up against each other in a simple narrative by a small, deftly chosen cast. The short running time contributes to the overall impression of brisk, impassioned social melodrama, where no Major Life Lessons are either learned or imparted, but the movie nonetheless demonstrates a shrewd, street-hardened view of how the world really works. Not all of Arzner's movies can be described this way—Sarah and Son, Oscar-nominated for Ruth Chatterton's central performance, is much soapier and implausible, while Christopher Strong and The Bride Wore Red are pretty thinly-sketched star vehicles for Katharine Hepburn and Joan Crawford. Honor Among Lovers is working on a totally different plane, calling to mind some other films and filmmakers (William Wellman's Other Men's Women, Robert Z. Leonard's The Divorcée) that administer potent social allegories at a swift pace, without sacrificing what Hollywood has always consecrated as "entertainment value." If Arzner had worked longer and gotten madder, I think she had the sensibility and the muscular craft to have produced something on the order of Sam Fuller's Pickup on South Street, though doubtless from the Thelma Ritter character's point of view. The consecutive, arbitrary standards that came to be applied to Hollywood films—to last at least an hour and a half, to tie up the loose ends and affix a lengthy, audience-gratifying conclusion—make it all but impossible to revive this genre (admittedly a highly various one, even as I seek to describe it) of minimalist social melodramas.

A similar argument could be made about the cast. If Colbert seems especially sexy here, as a clever girl who keeps up her moral standards but clearly likes to be liked, and if Fredric March has a raffish, debonair charm that we don't always associate with him, we have to remember how seldom these stars would be given parts like these. The burden of being a star, which neither Colbert nor March really was in 1931, was among other things a call to duty: sometimes to play noble or serious (Since You Went Away, The Best Years of Our Lives), or only to be funny in a safer commercial package that played more easily into the audience's hands (It Happened One Night is a brilliant but viable example). It's a kick here to watch Colbert and March whip up these characterizations in short, punchy scenes that range all the way from saucy flirtation to criminal interrogation. Other actors are having a blast, too, especially Charlie Ruggles as a comic-relief alcoholic called Monty and a young pre-ballroom Ginger Rogers as the dumbest of dumb blondes. Arzner hasn't made a perfect film—not all of the tonal shifts are equally compelling, and Colbert loses too much screen time to the piece's villains, acting rather showily at that, in the last third of the story. But Honor Among Lovers, more than any Arzner pic I've seen, makes the case for her not merely as a historical curio, as the first woman director (much less the first lesbian director) of any note in the Hollywood studios, but as a film artist with sharp instincts for casting, story, and flavorful, unmawkish melodrama. Honor Among Lovers, which not only exhibits Arzner's gifts but puts them in the service of one of the era's most marvelous, engaging actresses, has to count by any measure as an overlooked classic in the popular American cinema. Grade: A–

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