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Honor Among Lovers

Honor Among Lovers, 1931

Julia (Claudette Colbert) works as a secretary to a man named Jerry (Fredric March). Jerry is smitten with Julia and frequently offers to give her money, an apartment, a cruise, etc. Julia is also being wooed by Phillip (Monroe Owsley), who one night after some strong-handed pressure from Jerry, convinces Julia to get married. Julia agrees, and then must navigate Jerry’s resentment and Phillip’s insecurities.

A somewhat cynical look at trying to find love as a working woman, a mostly insightful story is let down a bit by an unnuanced conclusion.

There’s something especially bleak about a film that centers romantic relationships but all of the options are terrible. Jerry and Phillip are both total creeps in their own way, and the great tragedy of the film is the idea that Julia needs to pick between them.

Even if you think that office romances, including between a boss and an employee, can be okay, there are still a lot of red flags in Jerry’s behavior. He constantly talks about being together at work. What he’s proposing---giving her money, getting her an apartment--is all side-piece stuff. At a nightclub later in the evening, he corners her and demands that she let him take her on a cruise. When she demurs, he grabs her arms, to the point that she has to tell him to let go of her. Julia doesn’t seem charmed by Jerry’s attention so much as afraid and overwhelmed.

And it’s with this unrelenting pressure that Julia ends up with Phillip. This part of the film feels incredibly realistic. Julia isn’t so much drawn to Phillip as she is being driven toward him by Jerry’s uncomfortable and constant pestering. When Jerry finds out that she married Phillip, naturally he fires her. This means that Julia is even more reliant on Phillip because she’s now unemployed. Jerry immediately offers Phillip a job helping to manage his money, which sits in this interesting space where it looks like he’s grudgingly supporting Julia, but really he’s just putting himself in a position of power over her by controlling her husband and her financial situation.

Phillip is a total goober, and so it’s only a matter of time before he messes up. When this inevitably happens, Julia has no choice but to turn to Jerry for help, which ratchets up the tension in the “love triangle” to incredible proportions.

But it’s in this last act that the film lost me a bit. I read one review that argued that we the audience are meant to see that Jerry has masterminded this whole scenario, cornering Julia into a position where she is indebted to him and where he can be her savior. And honestly, I’m not 100% sure how I read the end of the film. The staging of the scene where Julia asks Jerry for help and a later scene between the two--the acting, the music score, etc--all seems to point more to an interpretation that Jerry has realized he needs to offer Julia a real relationship and that he’s now the more mature choice for her to make. It makes me think of something like the ending of Gigi, where we are expected to cheer for a man deciding to offer a woman a real relationship instead of just making her his mistress.

I give the film major points for showing us just how sleezy Jerry is and how much of an absolute turd Phillip is. It’s self-aware enough in the first two-thirds of the film to feel like something of a subversion of the classic love triangle romantic drama. I think that it’s let down a bit by the events of the final act and where it leaves the main characters.

Worth a look for sure.