Classic Movie Review: The Flirting Widow
By Stephanie Star Smith
Basil Rathbone was quite the handsome devil back in the day.
Now I know that sounds hard to believe if you've only seen the Universal Sherlock Holmes films; after all, the man was 50 when the first of that series, The Voice of Terror, debuted in 1942, and certainly by the franchise's end, he was looking every bit his age. But any of you who have caught The Adventures of Robin Hood or Son of Frankenstein have a better idea of what I mean; the features seem a tad less sharp, the famous Sherlockian aquiline nose less pronounced, and the features somehow softer, more aesthetically pleasing.
And while he was never as classically handsome as, say, Cary Grant, in his 30s, Rathbone could give many a modern matinee idol a run for his money, which likely accounts for the number of romantic leads he had in films of the late '20s and early '30s (for those as skilled at math as I, yes, that means Rathbone was born before the turn of the 20th century). These light and fluffy trifles present not only a youthful Rathbone that is more pleasing to the eye, but also offer a window into the manners of a society long since forgotten. And given these were pre-Code films, many of them handled more adult themes than was allowed once the cosseted Will Hays laid down the iron law on film production.
Which brings us to the airy little comedy in question, The Flirting Widow. Now one of the not-so-quaint conventions of a bygone era was the concept of wearing green stockings. More common in European society of the 17th and 18th centuries, it referred to the ritualized societal ostracizing of an eldest daughter when her younger siblings married before she. In its original form, the daughter actually had to wear green stockings whenever she went out in public, as if remaining single in a society that valued women marrying at the earliest possible age and watching her sisters find love when she had not wasn't humiliation enough. Amongst the supposedly more civilized upper-crust Easterners of the New World near the beginning of the 20th century, it was more a societal stigma than a physical demonstration, and the eldest daughter was often seen as somehow less worthy of affection than her siblings. The mindset sometimes went so far as to view the spinster as somewhat less than female and turned her into a virtual servant; the poor single girl often was forced into becoming the de facto female head of household, serving everyone else's needs and not seen as having any of her own.
So this is the society in which The Flirting Widow is set. In an affluent family with three daughters, the middle one is already married, and the youngest wishes to become engaged. The paterfamilias, however, has decreed that the eldest, Celia, shall not wear green stockings again, even though he shows little regard for her in every other ways. After a vacation to Boston, Celia returns and learns that her youngest sister has been denied wedded bliss, and deciding she no longer wishes to be the subject of pity, nor continue to serve at the household's beck and call, she invents a fiancé, a soldier stationed in Arabia, by the name of Colonel John Vaughn-Smith, whom she affectionately dubs "Wobbles". This not only affords her sister the opportunity to become engaged, but enables her to enter into the affairs of society in a way which she was never allowed as the green-stockinged social outcast. She even joins her middle sister, whose husband is also stationed in Arabia, in writing a letter to her soldier beau, fully intending to burn the letter without ever sending it, and after a suitable period has passed, plans to plant a death notice in the local paper listing her paramour as one of those who has paid the ultimate price in serving his country.
But Celia is called away before she can destroy her missive, and her sisters, on finding the letter, "help" her by making sure it gets addressed properly and put into the last post of the day. And those of you familiar with the conventions of romantic comedy have already gotten to the next plot point: there actually is a Colonel John Vaughn-Smith stationed in Arabia, who is naturally quite puzzled to receive such a heartfelt letter from his "fiancée". After making discreet inquiries of his commanding officer, Colonel Vaughn-Smith decides to pay a visit to Celia, arriving - naturally - on the very evening the notice concerning his "death" has appeared, and as he is in uniform, the family assumes the army has sent him to comfort dear Celia, and bring her some "mementos" of her darling Wobbles. And believe it or not, gentle readers, this covers only the barest beginnings of the plot, for it is at this point that the comedy and film truly take off.
So why on Earth would a 21st century special effects-fed savvy film viewer be interested in a slight romantic comedy made when their grandparents were teens?
Well, one very good reason is the film is remarkably funny. Harkening back to the beginning of this piece, Rathbone not only was quite comfortably cast as a romantic lead in that era, but he was also a capable comedic actor. Only bits of that talent showed in his most famous role, with scarce but snippets visible in his last film role in The Comedy of Terrors. But he gets a chance in The Flirting Widow to really play up his comedic talents, resulting in not only some genuine laughs but also providing a more rounded picture of this actor known primarily as the very serious Sherlock Holmes (although anyone who's seen The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was already aware that Rathbone could be quite the ham, another trait on display here). For lovers, or even interested observers, of the acting craft, it is fascinating to see an actor step outside the confines of previous perceptions and show the audience a fresh side to his talent, especially when it is a successful venture.
And there is certainly a fascination to glimpsing mores and societal conventions that are so foreign to us we may as well be watching a piece set two centuries ago, instead of something that was a contemporary piece in what is considered modern times.
But perhaps the best reason to seek out this just-over-an-hour glimpse into the not-too-distant past is that no matter how much society or technology may change, some things are constants. There will always be families and the dynamics of same; men and women will always fall in love and always have misunderstandings; and sometimes, if you're really lucky, everything works out all right in the end. In short, the best comedy, whether at the turn of the last century or the turn of the next, always stems from humans being humans, and well-written films are a treasure regardless of age.