Politics on Film is the topic for the Classic Movie Blog Association's Fall Blogathon running from October 20th to 23rd. Click HERE for the fascinating contributions to this timely blogathon.
John Shand is a young man of great confidence and ambition. Shand has a lot of opinions and a talent for self-expression. Shand feels that he was born to be a politician. Brian Aherne plays up all of John Shand's vanity and flamboyant self-interest.
Shand's confidence is somewhat tempered by his lack of education which is dependent upon non-existent funds. However, where there is a will there is a way. The way is the library of the Wylie family. The merchants are very successful but their library is mostly for "show." Shand will put those books to good and proper use, as any Scotsman worth the title would do, even if he has to break into the house at night to do so!
Maggie Wylie is a few years older than John Shand and has a clear-eyed picture of her place in the grand scheme of society. She may be the light of her father and brother's eyes for her cleverness and sweetness, but there is no denying she is a spinster. A minister, her most recent prospect, has vacated the post, and Maggie's family worries for her future. Helen Hayes plays Maggie's subtle humour and pragmatic personality to perfection. After all, she played Maggie in a 1926 Broadway revival of the play for 268 performances.
Brian Aherne, Helen Hayes
James M. Barrie's What Every Woman Knows opened to great success in both London and New York City in 1908. Through his plays, including Quality Street, Rosalind, and Mary Rose, Barrie showed great empathy for and understanding of his female characters. What Every Woman Knows moves deftly between very public and very private matters.
The Wylies comically set a trap for the intruder and are not subtle about their demands on the said intruder, once Shand is in their grasp. The affectionate and blundering family are played winningly by David Torrence as the father David, and his sons blustery David by Donald Crisp, and hesitant James by Dudley Digges.
Brian Aherne, Janet Murdoch, David Torrence
Dudley Digges, Helen Hayes, Donald Crisp
The Wylies are willing to finance John Shand's education if he agrees, five years hence, to marry their Maggie. Maggie is attracted to John Shand and agrees to agree to the bargain. Shand agrees to agree to the bargain, even to the extent of signing a contract. He sees this as a great sacrifice to assure his political future. Maggie views her situation with a strong sense of irony and absurdity, much as she views life in general. Her attitude goes over the collective heads of her family but is something that they admire in her just the same.
John Shand eventually wins a seat in Parliament and keeps his bargain to marry Maggie Wylie despite her offering him an out. She doesn't want to take someone who is unwilling but he feels that sense of obligation to a bargain. Shand also takes comfort in seeing himself as somewhat of a martyr to a greater cause.
The ego of the standard-issue politician cannot see past his own glory. In John Shand's case, he does not realize how many of his ideas emanated from conversations with Maggie. Nor does he realize it is Maggie's skill at letter writing that has impressed members of his Labour Party and others of influence.
Brian Aherne, Lucile Watson, Madge Evans, Helen Hayes
John's success brings him into contact with wealthy patrons in London. La Contessa le Brierre played by Lucile Watson and her niece Lady Sybil Tenterden played by Madge Evans make a strong impression on the young politician. The beautiful and cultured Lady Sybil finds the charismatic newcomer to London very attractive, and the feeling is mutual. For the time being, Mrs. Shand can do nothing but watch from the sidelines.
John's influence in his Party and in Parliament continues to grow, along with Maggie's lowkey assistance which is noticed by La Contessa and her old friend, the leader of the Labour Party, Charles Venables played by Henry Stephenson. In the meantime, romance has overtaken John Shand, who is willing to throw everything away for the love of Lady Sybil.
Maggie plays one more hand to save her marriage and John's career. She is assisted by La Contessa who offers her country estate as a getaway for John to work on an important paper. Also invited is Lady Sybil. Will she be impressed spending so much time with the basically vain and shallow John Shand? Will Shand find pleasure being drawn away from his work to pay homage to the basically vain and shallow Lady Sybil?
Maggie takes a major stand in one last move to save John's career for him by composing a letter of resignation that so impresses Venables that John is offered an important post in a newly forming coalition government. Finally, after the let down of the Lady Sybil affair and an uprising by the Wylie clan in defense of their Maggie, John's eyes are opened to the true worth of his wife and of himself. John Shand begins to see life through Maggie's ironic eyes and to accept his own absurdity.
Directed by Gregory La Cava (My Man Godfrey) in 1934 for MGM, the former animator had the right touch for letting the comedy in the manners and characters take precise precedence over any drama in a situation. La Cava's sensibilities combined with Barrie's play and its screenplay by Monkton Hoffe (The Lady Eve, story), John Meehan (When Ladies Meet), and James Kevin McGuiness (The Cat and the Fiddle) provided a sturdy platform for the performances.
The characters, even or perhaps especially with their faults are endearing. The males of the Wylie family with their stubborn Scottish pride and unwavering affection for Maggie paint a picture of a true family. Aherne as Shand is an energetic mix of pride and sincerity. Helen Hayes as Maggie owns the movie with the delicate handling of her loved ones and the task of making John into the man he should be.
What Every Woman Knows has been revived and adapted continually since its premiere. Illustrating the old adage "Behind every successful man there is a strong woman," the play/screenplay also gives an honest look at how one woman reacts to what society expects of her and what she expects of herself. What Every Woman Knows shows us that the political manipulation of Parties, policies, and constituents is nothing new, but a game that must be learned in order to succeed.
Despite its pedigree and its genuine thought-provoking entertainment value What Every Woman Knows was a box office failure. Perhaps audiences in this American election year will find something to enjoy in this tale set in a fictional British election of long decades past.