“I’m really just an old fashioned girl… with some modern decorations.”
The Common Law is surprisingly modern with its female character living with two men even though she not married. Even her views on marriage are pretty modern… and when I say modern I mean our modern not 1931 modern. The character Valerie West was living a life like the women from Sex and the City (just not as wild and tame)
Valerie West (Constance Bennett) had been living with a man named Dick Carmedon. She was his kept mistress, whatever she wanted he gave to her. Valerie has had enough of the life she had been living so she decides to move out and get a job of her own. She finds a job in the paper for a nude model for an artist named John Neville (Joel McCrea).
At first Valerie is uncomfortable with the idea of posing nude but after some time she becomes John’s muse. The more they work together the more John falls in love with her. He even gets into a fight over Valerie with a Spanish artist who wants to use her for one of his paintings. One day a friend of John’s comes by the studio. He tells John about Valerie having lived with Carmedon for time. John is furious at her for having not told him about Carmedon and for not being a virgin. They break up but the whole time they miss each other terribly. When they meet at an art ball John is incredibly stubborn and will not even look at Valerie. But she follows him home and they work things out.
John wants Valerie to marry him but she does not want to because she does not think the love will last. Their love is tested big time when John’s sister Claire has a plan to break them up since their living together without being married has been the talk of the town. She invites them for a weekend on the family yacht. She also invites Carmedon and an old girlfriend of John’s whom he almost married, her plan being that the exes will cause a rift between the lovers.
In the end Claire’s plan falls by the wayside when Valerie realizes she really does love John and is finally ready to marry him.
As I mentioned at the beginning that Valerie reminds me a bit of the women from Sex and the City. The difference between Valerie and the others is that Valerie did not go out looking for a good time and for someone to be with when she left Carmedon she was out looking for work to be on her own. The Sex and the City women went out looking for a good time and someone to screw. Valerie like Carrie Bradshaw and the others were skeptical about relationships and if they would last. Valerie loved John too but she did not want to rush into anything she just wanted to see if the relationship would work out. Today men and women live together without being married, I am sure men and women did the same thing back then but there was a lot more talk. The main reason their relationship caused a little more controversy was because John came from a rich family.
John is a pain in the ass. He was so stubborn about Valerie having been with Carmedon before him. Men seem to do that a lot even in films today. They get so uptight over what women do that they get stubborn and will not listen.
I cannot be too upset with the characters of John, Claire, and their friends because the story reflects the time period and the double standards between men and women and well society’s view of women and marriage.
Constance Bennett was great. She was beautiful and played the part perfectly. Her look of longing when she sees John at the art ball is beautiful. Bennett was this tiny thing but whenever she walked into a scene she just exuded so much star power and sexiness. Joel McCrea was incredibly handsome but his performance was stiff and not that great. He had been in films before this but he had not hit his stride yet. Bennett and McCrea looked great together.
Famed Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper plays John’s sister Claire. Yes, THE Hedda Hopper was an actress before she became a gossip whore. By this film she had already made eighty-five films!
Paul L. Stein’s direction is nothing to brag about but there is one scene that I really liked. He gets a good shot of just Constance Bennett’s leg moving as John directs her to for the painting. Not only did Bennett have a great face but had great legs as well! I liked the shot because it is sexy, all you hear is them talking while you see her leg moving.
The Common Law is not an exceptionally good pre-code but it is great for seeing the sexual double standard in America at the time. I always tell people not to go into watching old films with a modern mind set you have to go into them with the time period they made in mind. But with The Common Law some of these double standards still exist… maybe this is one film where you have to be in mindsets?