What Every Woman Knows (1934)

What Every Woman Knows (1934)

Directed by Gregory La Cava (My Man Godfrey (1936) & Stage Door (1937)) this J. M. Barrie play was adapted by Monckton Hoffe (The Lady Eve (1941)) John Meehan (Boys Town (1938)) and James K. McGuinness. It stars Helen Hayes (The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931)) Brian Aherne (Juarez (1939)) Lucile Watson (Watch on the Rhine (1943)) Donald Crisp (How Green Was My Valley (1941)) and Henry Stephenson among others (Donald Meek appears uncredited as a jeweler at the very beginning). It is a very good comedy about a homely near old maid (Hayes) who manipulates a young man (Aherne) that becomes her husband to elected office and beyond.

The Wylies are a proud family which owns a marble business in Scotland headed by Alick (David Torrence) and his sons the bumbling James (Dudley Digges) and the practical David (Crisp). As they lament yet another jilting of their sister Maggie (Hayes) who seems to accept her fate and homeliness an opportunity arises in the form of a poor young student John Shand (Aherne). Shand who is quite outspoken with his political ideas is caught sneaking into the Wylies’ home to read their books in order to educate himself. Though the undereducated businessman don’t really object to Shand reading the books they have merely for show David has an idea. After discussing it with his father he makes a proposal to John: the Wylies will fund his education with 300 pounds if after 5 years and their sister’s still unwed John agrees to marry Maggie provided that’s what she wants. Even though John learns that she is 5 (really 6) years older than he is after thinking it over he agrees to the deal which is put in writing and signed.

At the end of five years John is ready to fulfill his agreement when an opportunity to run for parliament arises. As an honorable man of his word he is willing to give up his dream to marry Maggie. Touched and realizing what her status would be as the wife of an elected official she allows him to extend their agreement and then with the help of her family assists him in winning the election against the incumbent. The night he wins the election John’s ego makes him believe that he alone was responsible even though Maggie was pushing the buttons all along. He then meets the attractive and single Lady Sybil Tenterden (Madge Evans) and her aunt (?) La Contessa la Brierre (Watson) when they come to congratulate him on his victory. Separately the ladies meet Maggie and not realizing who she is insult the newly elected’s would be wife. However John shows no real interest in Sybil and La Contessa learning Maggie’s real identity apologizes to his fiancée. On the train ride back home Maggie discusses the contract with John. She has learned that though he has great respect for her John doesn’t love her but is willing to honor their bargain. Admitting that she’d be crazy for letting him go especially now Maggie tears up the contract as they arrive at their destination. However John announces to the crowd which greets them that he’s to be married and introduces Maggie as his bride to be.

Two years later Maggie has helped John’s political career immeasurably though without his knowledge. One evening when the head of his party Charles Venables (Stephenson) comes to call La Contessa witnesses Maggie’s subtle ability to promote & guide her husband without taking any of the credit. She learns that Maggie’s motivation has to do with the fact that John married her homely self when he didn’t have to do it. Unfortunately Sybil has been openly assisting John by running several supportive committees for him such that he has fallen in love with her. When Maggie learns of this the funniest scene in the film occurs because it coincides with a visit to London by her brothers David is ready to fight John and proud father. It is then that Maggie’s ability to surreptitiously manage situations is put to the ultimate test because she decides to save John’s career (e.g. from scandal) and perhaps even her own marriage.

NOTE: Hayes’s performance is excellent and it’s unfortunate that the director harrassed her so much during the making of this film that she soon left the movie business to focus exclusively on the stage for almost 20 years.

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