Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Devotion (1931)

Another of the movies that had been sitting on my DVR for a long time before I finally got around to watching it was a new-to-me early talkie called Devotion. Note that this is not to be confused with the 1946 Devotion about the Brontë sisters; I notice that the date of that post is April 2021 which means that I had today's movie on my DVR for a good two years.

In this one, Ann Harding stars as Shirley Mortimer, daughter of an upper-middle-class London family who seems on her way to becoming a spinster, which seems like a bit of a surprise because it's not as if Ann Harding is homely or unlikable. Coming to the Mortimer house for dinner one evening is David Trent (Leslie Howard), a well-to-do London barrister. Shirley immediately falls for David, which is a problem for a bunch of reasons. One is that she's shy, but the bigger problem is that David is still technically married as his wife won't grant him a divorce, even though he has custody of the son.

But this gives Shirley an idea. She'll make herself look older, and get a job in the Trent household as the governess to David's son, since the son needs a governess. All Shirley needs to do is put on a wig and glasses and take a fake name, and certainly there's no way anybody would ever recognize Shirley, now going as Sylvia. You'd think Richard Basehart in Tension saw this movie and came up with the daft idea to switch out his glasses for contacts so that nobody would recognize him.

Yeah right nobody's going to recognize her. David might have suspicions, but he's not letting on, and can't prove it anyway, at least not without violating all the rules of etiquette that people in his social class have to adhere to. Not being in quite the same position is Norman Harrington (Robert Wililams). Norman is a painter, but also one of David's clients, having been the defendant in a murder trial who is acquitted thanks to David's brilliant defense. After the trial, Norman sees Shirley/Sylvia, and sees a few strands of hair peeking out from under the wig. Norman immediately figures things out, and draws a sketch of "Sylvia" that looks remarkably like beautiful Shirley.

This confirms David's suspicions. He's more than willing to fall in love, but as mentioned, he's still got that estranged wife, and you just know she's going to show up. Meanwhile, Norman has decided that Shirley would be a perfect model for him. As he's sketching her, he realizes that he's falling in love, but isn't so certain he wants a wife since his trial was for the murder of his previous wife. It wouldn't do to take a new wife so quickly, even if Norman didn't know Shirley until after the trial. But because he won't marry her, Shirley goes running back home, now with neither David nor Norman as a love.

Eh, you can probably figure how this is going to wind up. Devotion is the sort of movie that, from the one-sentence synopsis, made me wonder if it was going to be another knockoff of the Madame X story line. The synopses, after all, involve a woman disguising herself and seeing a man's son. But beyond that, Devotion is nothing like Madame X. Instead, it's a competent enough early talkie. However, it's also the sort of movie that, while watching it, is easy to see why it's one of those movies that's largely gone forgotten. The sort of societal values depicted here went out of date with the Depression, and if not then, then certainly during World War II. And the story is also a bit far-fetched.

It's not that high up Leslie Howard's filmography, or even Ann Harding's, although she wouldn't go on to have quite as distinguished a career as Howard. And spare a thought for Robert Williams. He does well here, and would do even better in his next film, Platinum Blonde. But he developed a case of appendicitis that killed him at the end of 1931. No film career for him.

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