I originally wrote this posting a while ago, but have now rewritten it as part of my William Wellman season here. I first watched Other Men’s Women on a dodgy bootleg copy, which was the only way of seeing it at the time, but am now delighted to have a beautifully remastered official DVD, issued as part of the Forbidden Hollywood 3 box set.
This is a fast-moving film which really appealed to me because I am a fan of both melodrama and gritty early Warner films focusing on people’s working lives. The fact that it also features an early performance by James Cagney, though in a very small part, is another attraction. It has some dramatic, dark and grainy footage of trains in rainstorms – Wellman very often uses rain in his films, partly to give a feeling of his characters being up against it and facing a hostile world, as in the famous scene with Cagney in the rain near the end of The Public Enemy, made in the same year. I gather some of the train scenes were done with miniatures, but they still look convincing to me.
The working title for the film was The Steel Highway, which would have been far more appropriate for a movie centred on railways, but it seems as if it wasn’t sexy enough for the studio and the name was changed. The change of title does highlight the emotional storyline about a love triangle, but is misleading – as there is only one “other man’s woman” involved.
I do give away the plot in the rest of my discussion of this movie. The drama centres on two railway workers, Bill (Grant Withers) and Jack (Regis Toomey), who are best friends. Bill has a drink problem, which is largely played for slapstick laughs early in the film, but is nevertheless putting his job under threat. When he is thrown out of his lodgings, Jack takes him in to keep an eye on him and help him dry out. (None of this is ever stated in so many words – Jack just asks Bill to come and stay with him for a bit, and the rest is understood.) However, their friendship comes under strain when Bill falls in love with Jack’s wife, Lily (Mary Astor), and the two men have a fight on a moving train, resulting in a disastrous crash which leaves Jack blinded and Bill tormented by guilt.
I found Withers somewhat hammy in his earlier film Sinners’ Holiday (1930), where he also appears with Cagney. In this movie, by contrast, I find him riveting to watch – his movements and gestures are still sometimes larger than life, not surprisingly as he had also starred in silent films, but his face is very mobile and registers every emotion.
One scene I liked with Withers is where he goes into a chemist and, surreptitiously in this prohibition era, asks “Do you have something for a headache?” He is handed bottles of booze wrapped in brown paper, stored under the counter – something to give him a headache rather than cure one. He also has a slightly comic catchphrase, handing everyone he meets a stick of chewing gum and saying “Have a chew on me!” I was quite surprised to see this as I didn’t even realise chewing gum was around at this time – I think it only became popular over here in the UK a bit later, brought over by American GIs during the Second World War.
In any case, the way Bill hands out the gum helps to make his character endearing and slightly child-like. Although the early scenes are largely comic, there is also a poignancy to his character. It is clear that he is rootless and has no home, as he eats his meals in a canteen, flirting with hard-drinking waitress Marie (Joan Blondell) or is shouted at by his landlady. When he first goes to visit Jack and Lily, he is reluctant to go into the house, as if he thinks he belongs outside.
Lily’s world is in stark contrast to the tough railroad scenes, as she concentrates on cooking or tending her sunlit garden (there’s no rain here). The scenes of her and Bill becoming increasingly attracted to each other are well done, as she first cuts his hair, meaning they have an excuse to touch, and then they have a mock boxing match where they never actually make contact but the chemistry is simmering. They finally do kiss when she mends his shirt while he is still wearing it, in the kitchen, in an unusual combination of domesticity and melodrama.
I was impressed that Lily is made so sympathetic – as portrayed by Mary Astor, she is no scarlet woman or vamp, but a loving wife who nevertheless finds herself attracted to someone else, and who is tormented with guilt. When I first reviewed this film I said that Astor and Toomey seemed a little colourless, but now I think that is probably deliberate – they are an ordinary couple who find their lives spiralling out of control as they are caught up in their own passionate melodrama.
I was a bit disappointed that there is so little Cagney in this movie – he is really a reserve best friend, brought in as a temporary confidant for a couple of scenes where Bill’s friendship with Jack has broken down. However, it’s interesting that, although he has so little screen time, Wellman still gives him a chance to show the essence of his screen personality, just as he does with Gary Cooper in his brief scene in Wings. Here, Cagney is seen dancing (the first time he danced on screen!), and he also has a striking sequence where he is walking about on top of a train, as well as a scene where he recounts a boxing match he’s just seen, re-creating all the punches. Nothing to do with the plot, but everything to do with establishing his combination of grace and toughness. I also think he’s very good in a brief scene where he is worried about Withers’ character and watching him out of the corner of his eye all the time. Joan Blondell also has a small part, but Wellman also gives her a chance to show what she can do. Like Cagney, she makes the most of what she is given in this movie, with some snappy lines, funny but poignant too at times – she has the same kind of wise-cracking toughness that she has in Wellman’s Night Nurse (1931), although her character in this one is less sympathetic, as Marie doesn’t seem to care about Bill at all. When he is hitting the bottle in despair, she actually has the line “It’s good to see you drinking again.”