By: Megan McGurk
Robert Montgomery usually trades upon breezy gin-marinated smarm in his romantic roles, such as the louse he plays in The Divorcee (1930), a man who takes advantage of Norma Shearer’s marriage trouble to wheedle sex, or the department shop heir who watches Joan Crawford undress after she appears in a fashion show in Our Blushing Brides from the same year. Rich boy with entitlement issues was his character pigeon-hole throughout the 1930s. He wore a groove in celluloid as louche playboys more comfortable handling a cocktail shaker than a leading lady. He’s a bit of a surprise in Gregory La Cava’s Unfinished Business (1941), because for the first time, he drops the detached bravado long enough to register empathy for a woman. Montgomery’s Tommy Duncan observes what escapes everyone else in the room: Irene Dunne’s humiliation. For a man who has enough privilege to buffer any acknowledgement of human suffering, he nonetheless catches Dunne’s emotional agony. And he applies a balm of comfort.
What leads Irene Dunne’s Nancy Andrews to table side humiliation begins when she joins the ranks of screen heroines who leave domestic obligations and claim a right to their own adventure. Garbo in Susan Lenox, Crawford in Possessed, Lombard in No Man of Her Own, Stanwyck in Baby Face, Crawford in The Damned Don’t Cry, rank among a legion of women in film who exchange traditional family roles for independence.
Once Irene Dunne’s Nancy watches her younger sister marry, she’s free from her mothering role, and able to leap headlong into a plan to become ‘unsettled’. Although the newlyweds extend a room for her in their house, by way of compensation for her sacrificed youth, Nancy decides to become a professional singer in Manhattan. At 43 years-old, Irene Dunne looks at least ten years younger, so we understand her reluctance to occupy a rocking chair and sexless doom. Viewers may regard La Cava’s picture as an updated version of John Stahl’s Back Street (1932), where this time around, Irene Dunne’s character need not scurry around the margins of a man’s life for two decades.
On the train to New York, the likelihood of romance Nancy had wished for dissipates with the grim bargain struck between Preston Foster’s Steve Duncan and his friend Frank (played by Dick Foran) to find the prettiest girl on the train. Once they fan out at opposites ends to inspect the women to win the $100 stakes, there’s no possibility for human connection. Their pact somehow resists age or reason. You could stage the same exact wager between men today without losing a shred of plausibility. Yes, this is how some men pass the time, by hunting women, just short of bagging and tagging their prey. La Cava underscores their creepiness, and spares us any degree of glossy boys-will-be-boys treacle.
Unabashed, the men indulge in bouts of howling catch calls, heads thrown back, yearning for cave fires and dragging women by the hair. Steve and Frank consider themselves heroic Casanovas, except they appear more recognisable for what they are–spoilt middle-aged lechers with an empathy deficit.