Director: Robert Stevenson
Starring: Hedy Lamarr, Dennis O’Keefe, John Loder, William Lundigan, Morris Carnovsky, Natalie Schafer, Margaret Hamilton
Screenplay: Edmund H. North, Andre de Toth (uncredited) and Ben Hecht (uncredited), based upon the play by Margaret Ayer Barnes and Edward Sheldon
Loosely based upon the 1857 case of Madeleine Smith (as filmed by David Lean in Madeleine), the play Dishonored Lady had a successful Broadway run in 1930 with Katherine Cornell in the leading role. Playwrights Margaret Ayer Barnes and Edward Sheldon received some feelers from Hollywood at that time and attempted to turn their work into a screenplay. They were unable to produce anything satisfactory, however, and the idea was dropped…until in 1932, MGM released the Joan Crawford melodrama, Letty Lynton. Officially, the film was an updating of the novel of the same name, written by Marie Belloc Lowndes (best known for The Lodger), which was also based upon the Madeleine Smith case. However, taking in the film, Barnes and Sheldon didn’t like what they saw; they consequently brought an action against MGM for plagiarism of their play. They eventually won their suit, the result being that Letty Lynton, considered one of Crawford’s best early starring vehicles, is all-but unseeable to this day
Dishonored Lady, released in 1947, credits the Barnes / Sheldon play as its source, but sits a considerable distance from it, not only being set in contemporary times but having undergone some severe revisions, in order to make its central character, Madeleine Damien (Hedy Lamarr), the “dishonoured lady” of the title, acceptable to the prevailing Production Code.
In fact, what we have here is an interesting history of shifting mores. Madeleine Smith herself, of course, when tried for the poisoning murder of her lover, escaped with the Scottish verdict, “Not Proven”. In the play Dishonored Lady, Madeleine Carey poisons a blackmailing former lover who seeks to disrupt her engagement, as Madeleine Smith may or may not have done; she is tried but acquitted, and the play ends with her confessing all to her fiancé and releasing him: “At least, I did not ruin you.” In Letty Lynton, two years pre-Code, Letty is not technically guilty of her ex-lover’s murder (he drinks a poisonous brew she had intended for herself; she realises too late to stop him, and gloats as he dies) but is charged with the crime anyway. Her new lover, who knows all about her past, concocts a false alibi for her and the two of them live happily ever after.
By the time of Dishonored Lady, however, Madeleine Damien is not only on trial for a murder she emphatically did not commit, but refuses to defend herself on the capital charge out of guilt for having concealed her sexual past from her new lover.
When the film opens, Madeleine Damien is by day the art and fashion editor of a high-powered magazine, and by night a party girl who moves unfeelingly from casual fling to casual fling. She becomes the obsession of jewellery magnate Felix Courtland (John Loder), and the two begin an affair. However, Madeleine’s intense nervousness and air of desperation are evident even to the self-absorbed Courtland. Soon afterwards she attempts suicide by crashing her car, but is thrown clear and not much hurt. The “accident” happens almost on the doorstep of psychiatrist Dr Richard Caleb (Morris Carnovsky), who takes her in to treat her physical injuries, and diagnoses her psychological ones without much difficulty. Caleb tells Madeleine that if she is serious about fixing her life he can help her. She is at first angry and defensive, but after another suicidal impulse, she submits herself to Dr Caleb’s care.
Much of the entertainment value of Dishonored Lady today comes from the screenplay’s efforts to dance around Madeleine’s sexual escapades. Innuendo and circumlocutions abound, with the mere mention of Madeleine’s name provoking ribald chuckling from her male co-workers. The double standard is not only alive and well here, but thriving: Madeleine is the object of open scorn from men who not only behave exactly as she does, but who try to make time with her between sneers. Moreover, the owner of the magazine for which Madeleine works makes no bones about hiring female employees chiefly so that he can have an easy shot at them. Madeleine is even told off over her behaviour by a colleague, Jack Garet (William Lundigan), who is progressively revealed as a liar, a blackmailer, an embezzler, a thief and a killer…and yet the film here grants him the moral high ground!
The double standard is also present in the film’s contention that while this behaviour is perfectly natural for a man, no woman could behave as Madeleine does unless there was something wrong with her. Typically for its time, the psychiatric angle of Dishonored Lady is very simplistic Freudianism. Dr Caleb diagnoses Madeleine as a nymphomaniac (although I’m sure I need hardly tell you that the word itself is never used: for the record, the euphemism of choice is “seeking reassurance in excitement”), and her problems are found to stem from – surprise! – her daddy issues.
Her father, an artist, raised Madeleine by himself after her mother walked out; and the girl spent her childhood watching him go from party to party and woman to woman. “I was certain he was the happiest man in the world,” Madeleine concludes, “until he killed himself.” Rather cleverly, the screenplay then has Caleb draw a comparison between Madeleine’s condition and alcoholism, which allows him to discuss it frankly without uttering a single objectionable word.
Madeleine accepts Caleb’s challenge to rebuild her life. She quits her job, severs all contact with her old cronies and takes rooms in an inexpensive part of town, trying to support herself as a painter. (Hilariously, and absolutely typical of MGM, Madeleine’s move to the simple life is indicated visually by her swapping her haute couture wardrobe for a series of designer “peasant” outfits.) She even finds love with David Cousins (Dennis O’Keefe), another occupant of her building. But the past is not so easily escaped.
Sacked from the magazine, Jack Garet takes a job as Felix Courtland’s “personal assistant”, which requires him to be the businessman’s legman, private investigator and, it is fleetingly implied, pimp. Stonewalled by Caleb, Courtland sets Garet to track Madeleine down, which he eventually succeeds in doing. One night, having just parted from David, Madeleine finds Courtland waiting in her apartment, much to her horror. He jeers at the thought of her falling in love and rightly guesses that she hasn’t told David about her past.
David’s subsequent absence from town on business gives Courtland the opportunity he wants. Receiving a relayed message from an old “friend”, Ethel Royce (Natalie Schafer), who has taken her position at the magazine, Madeleine allows herself to be lured out for cocktails. Ethel sets about getting her drunk, giving Courtland the chance to manoeuvre her first into his car, and then into his house. His attempted seduction of her is interrupted, however; and as Madeleine lies dizzily on a couch, there comes the sound of a violent quarrel in the next room. She takes the opportunity to flee the house via a back door – leaving behind plenty of evidence of her presence, including her fingerprints on the elaborate stand-lighter with which Felix Courtland is beaten to death…
Madeleine’s arrest and trial for murder make public all the lurid details of her life that she had failed to confide to David upon his asking her to marry him, in spite of Dr Caleb’s warning that she must take the risk of telling him the whole truth, and not try to build a life on a lie. David’s reaction to his bitter disillusionment is everything that Madeleine feared it would be, and in her despair, although pleading not guilty to the murder, she sits impassive as the trial proceeds, refusing to defend herself or to let her attorney put up a decent fight. Unable to bear the spiteful testimony – most of it coming from the people who helped get Madeleine in this mess in the first place – David flees the courtroom. He is followed out by Dr Caleb, who tells him bluntly that in her mind, Madeleine is on trial not for murder, but for her other transgressions; and that he, David, is her judge.
Back in the courtroom, David belatedly learns that Madeleine was under psychiatric care, and that she attempted suicide. (We get a wonderful 1940s moment during Caleb’s testimony: apparently the fact that people who see a psychiatrist have “problems” is a shocking revelation.) He also squirms through the subsequent testimony of Dr Caleb who, when the district attorney tries to build motive out of Madeleine’s failure to tell David the truth about herself, retorts drily, “Having met Dr Cousins, I think I understand why Miss Damien hesitated to confide in him”; adding in the same stingingly contemptuous tone that in his professional opinion, “Dr Cousins has neither the emotional nor the intellectual capacity to understand a problem like [Madeleine’s].”
The courtroom melodramatics climax in one of those moments so beloved of screenwriters, with David being compelled under oath to admit he is still in love with Madeleine. This brings Madeleine out of her near-catatonic state and makes her active in her own defence. A re-examination of the events of the night of the murder brings to light a possible alternative motive for Courtland’s death, and offers David the chance to redeem himself.
David Cousins’ rejection of Madeleine has its basis not only in outraged conventions and wounded pride, but is explicitly put down to his naivety and inexperience with women – which in turn is linked to his choice of profession. Although a qualified doctor who served as an army surgeon, David has subsequently rejected medicine in favour of a career in science (huzzah!), and is still fighting to establish himself in his new milieu when Madeleine first encounters him; the obligatory cute-meet occurring when Madeleine recaptures a mouse that has escaped from David’s apartment. (He is both impressed with and puzzled by her failure to scream and faint.)
It is soon evident that David has all the necessary qualifications for a (movie) scientist: he is absent-minded, somewhat divorced from reality – it takes a considerable time in Madeleine’s presence before it dawns on him that she is “a very lovely girl” – and incapable of taking proper care of himself. Seeing David and Madeleine heading out one night, their landlady, Mrs Geiger (Margaret Hamilton), calls after them tartly, “See that he eats! He hasn’t got any more sense than a goose!” David also manages one of filmdom’s worst ever proposals of marriage: “I’ll never forget you standing in that hall, with a mouse in your hand. I didn’t know what was happening to me. I thought I had the flu!”
While this insistence upon the fundamental dysfunctionality of the scientist is, as always, rather exasperating, it is compensated for in Dishonored Lady by the way in which science is tacitly held up as example of good honest work, to be engaged in by good honest people. There is a blunt contrast drawn between the corrupting environs of Boulevard Magazine and the superficial lives of those connected with it, with their nightclubs and cocktails and meaningless affairs, and the personal sacrifices of the novice scientist, devoting himself to the treatment of disease. (“It’s important, isn’t it?” Madeleine later comments, having grasped the purpose of David’s research. “I mean, not just to you, but…really important.”) In this respect, Dishonored Lady would make a fitting double-bill with The Silver Cord: as in that film, the choice of science as a career is explicitly treated here as an indicator of generosity of spirit and emotional stability.
At the same time, though, there is also a hint that the film’s writers were either themselves a little uncertain about the career chosen for their protagonist, or that they were afraid that their audience might be. It is David who finally deduces the true chain of events leading to Felix Courtland’s murder, and identifies the guilty party. However, this purely intellectual exercise is followed by David capturing the murderer himself, in a action-filled sequence that feels jarringly out of place in this film. There is a definite sense here, as there was in the scientist-as-hero drama Kid Glove Killer, that the writers were worried that as a career for their leading man, science was a little too effete for comfort; and also as in the earlier film, Dishonored Lady reassures its audience by giving David the chance to prove his masculinity through fisticuffs.
And while he doesn’t exactly distinguish himself in his behaviour towards Madeleine in her hour of need, even aside from his last-scene redemption there are a couple of aspects to David Cousins that rather won over this viewer, at least: first, the revelation that the escapee mouse is not an experimental subject, but one that David brought home from the lab to keep as a pet after becoming attached to it (it happens more often than you think, people); and second, the unconcealed horror with which he regards his inevitable professional fate, should he fail as a scientist – namely, returning to small-town Oregon to hang out a shingle.
Given that it is really only symbolically important, Dishonored Lady is surprisingly specific in dealing with the nature of David’s research – particularly considering that this material was all freshly penned for this film. (In the play on which this is loosely based, the leading lady’s fiancé is a member of the British aristocracy; her determination to conceal her past is therefore rather differently motivated from this Madeleine’s.) Having introduced himself in passing as a pathologist, David later calls upon Madeleine and hires her as an illustrator for a paper he is writing. Unusually for a movie scientist, David has both a recognised source of funding, a fellowship, and a real lab to work in; his progress is charmingly if not entirely accurately conveyed via a montage of test tubes, distillation equipment, and bubbling Conical Flasks filled with Mysterious Coloured Fluids.
However, it is in his own apartment that David does his writing, and there that he keeps the microscope and the slides that Madeleine uses to prepare the blood cell sketches intended to support David’s paper, The Effect Of Anti-Reticular Serum On Cell-Tissue. Briefly, David is following up the real-life research of Professor Alexander Bogomolets in the 1930s, in which anti-reticular cytotoxic serum, prepared from cadavers, was supposed to confer resistance to disease, to promote the healing of injuries, particularly bone fractures, and to extend the lifespan by helping regenerate the body’s connective tissues; it is after discussion with “Russian medical officers” during the war that David is inspired to follow this line of research. Bogomolets’ book, The Prolongation of Life, was translated into English in 1946 and created quite a stir in America. The public began to clamour for ACS treatments, to the frustration of local doctors and researchers who rejected Bogomolets’ claims. At the time of Dishonored Lady, the subject was as cutting-edge as it was controversial.
Hedy Lamarr was very active in getting Dishonored Lady produced, and it is possible that the film’s apparent interest in contemporary scientific matters was due to her involvement. Whatever her fame as an actress, it should be more widely known that Ms Lamarr was also a self-taught researcher who played a role in the development of technology that would ultimately produce the mobile phone. While still living in Austria, Lamarr absorbed the conversation and concerns of her weapons manufacturer husband and his cronies. When he began collaborating with the Nazis, Lamarr fled first to England via Paris and then to America, where she set to work designing a means by which radio-guided weapons could avoid being jammed by having their control signals transmitted via a rapidly-changing series of frequencies nearly impossible to predict or interfere with.
Ms Lamarr patented this technology and offered it to the American government in 1942. However, the authorities found her design, created in collaboration with composer George Antheil and based upon that used to keep the rolls in player-pianos in synch, too cumbersome. The concept – known today as the “spread spectrum technique” – sat untouched until the development of the transistor in the post-war era, after which it was put to military use. Today it forms the basis of much of our wireless technology. Thankfully, recognition did not come too late for Hedy Lamarr, who received a series of honours for her work in the years preceding her death. However, since the original patent had expired before the idea was exploited, she never received a penny for her efforts.
Hedy Lamarr’s personal life impacts upon Dishonored Lady in other ways, too. At the time of the film’s production, she and John Loder were married, although they divorced not long afterwards; this knowledge lends an edge to the scenes between Madeleine and Courtland. Overall, Madeleine emerges as a sympathetic character here chiefly because nearly everyone around her is either stuffy – yes, I am looking at you, Dr Cousins! – spiteful, or downright hateful. It is, however, necessary to buy completely into the film’s contention that all of Madeleine’s dubious behaviour is due to her psychiatric issues, because otherwise some of her actions are unforgivably stupid. (Looking squarely at things, we see that most of Madeleine’s difficulties stem from her refusal ever to just wait for a cab: she keeps accepting lifts that she shouldn’t!)
Fittingly, it is ultimately Morris Carnovsky’s Dr Caleb who steals the show here. If Dishonored Lady’s notions of mental illness are overly simplistic, at least Dr Caleb is a psychiatrist to warm the cockles of the heart. Obviously a graduate of the Claude Rains / Now, Voyager school of psychiatry, Dr Caleb is as adept with an insult as he is with a diagnosis, and tells off Felix Courtland and David Cousins with equal relish and aplomb.
Footnote: Sadly but not surprisingly, I was unable to find a science-y lobby card to head this review: most of those produced seem intent upon advertising Hedy’s wardrobe as much as the film itself. So you get Hedy in her peasant outfit instead.