Opposers of the Hays Code would surely have pointed to films such as Kept Husbands as evidence that not all films were encouraging out-of-marital sexual liaisons or other ‘loose’ behaviours. Lloyd Bacon’s romantic melodrama (released in 1931) is a conventional morality tale that touches on class, gender and marriage but colours neatly inside the lines and wraps the story up swiftly – the film only lasts a little over an hour.
The plot is formulaic, although it’s always refreshing to see movies examine what happens after the marriage – many simply conclude with the act itself. Spoilt socialite Dorothea ‘Dot’ Parker (played by Dorothy Mackaill) is scandalised when her father invites blue-collar steelworker Richard Brunton (Joel McCrea) to dinner to thank him for saving the lives of several co-workers. Brunton refuses a monetary award, preferring a meet-and-greet, despite the obvious hostility of the upper class family members. Dot’s despair soon turns to delight when she discovers that their handsome guest is a former All American football player who knows exactly how to eat his peas. She wagers a bet with her father; confident that she can get Richard to propose marriage in four weeks. When her plot doesn’t go to plan, she asks him and he eventually acquiesces, in spite of his initial reservations.
The marriage initially overwhelms Richard; he’s dragged into Dot’s social engagements and spends less time at work – even though he’s now Vice President, courtesy of his father-in-law. The money he earns isn’t enough to keep Dot in the furs and gowns she craves, and he becomes increasingly uncomfortable at his ‘kept man’ status. His attempts to reign in Dot’s spending and lavish lifestyle are met with distress, until he takes up his true role as ‘man of the house’ and insists they live within his means.
There are so many conventions built into Kept Husbands it’s impossible to know where to begin. Consider it from the class angle: the rich are lazy and frivolous; they spend all night partying and all day lounging. A $10,000 fur coat is just a drop in the ocean. At the opposite end of the scale, the working class are sensible and hardworking, they know what real life is because they live it everyday. Dot’s father, who understands the true value of work, sits outside the class stereotype, but that’s not too say his character is progressive. Of course, the context of this film is important: during the Depression, rich heiresses weren’t popular, so it was necessary to put Dot in her place by the end of the film.
Taking a gender viewpoint isn’t any better. Dot might do all the chasing, but she’s rewarded with an unhappy marriage and an unhappy husband. The underlying message? Class marriages are preferable, fathers shouldn’t (over)indulge their daughters, women should know their place and not choose their own lovers. And of course, the role of the man is to provide, and men who choose not to are laughed at openly or suffer from life dissatisfaction. To a modern viewer, the double standards are disappointing: if the roles were reversed, Dot would probably be encouraged to become a ‘kept wife’. The film’s conclusion – which wraps up swiftly – sees Richard embrace his career and Dot scale down her social ambitions. According to Kept Husbands, marriage is about compromise and convention.
Just one scene hints at bad behaviour. Dot and Charles (played by Bryant Washburn) return to his apartment alone after Richard announces his intention to dedicate more time to his work. The duo – who clearly have ‘history’ – flirt, but the effect is diminished through the adoption of role play, which shifts the focus from the character, making it difficult to discern whose voice we’re really hearing.
Kept Husbands isn’t a bad film; it’s just not a typical pre-code film. It hasn’t aged well – the morals are overplayed and double standards abound. But it’s worth a watch, if only for some wonderful philosophical one-liners from Hughie Hanready (played by Ned Sparks) and the chance to appreciate the often-overlooked talent of Dorothy Mackaill, whose pitch-perfect as Dot (look out for some convincing crocodile tears!). And at the very least, it will make you appreciate the more racy films of the era.