When I hear the name Barbara Stanwyck I usually think of a western TV series from the late 60’s called The Big Valley. Not because I ever watched the show, but because I remember seeing commercials for reruns of the show that aired on one of our local stations in Chicago. Stanwyck’s career goes back way further than that, though. She starred in many movies, including a fair number of titles from the pre-code era. Today we’re going to look at one such film with a title that suggests the possibility for some of what the pre-code era is known for…1931’s Illicit.
Stanwyck plays Anne Vincent, a woman involved in a relationship with a successful society-type, Dick Ives (James Rennie). There are rumors floating around that the couple often spend the night together though they are not married. The main reason those rumors are floating around is that…well, they’re true. Dick is anxious for the couple to make things official, and avoid scandal, but Anne believes that marriage causes love to die and just leads to unhappiness and divorce. Yet, she eventually agrees to marry Dick, ignoring the pleas of a former lover, Price Baines (Ricardo Cortez), to reconsider. Soon, Dick and Anne are living a lavish lifestyle; splitting time between a fashionable New York apartment and the family estate in the country.
As time passes, though, the couple’s lives become less exciting. Dick spends too much time working while Anne parties with friends (including Joan Blondell) without her husband. One night, though, Anne spots Dick with his old flame Margie (Natalie Moorhead) and the two are forced to reconsider their relationship. They decide to remain married but live apart. Does this open the door for both to hook up with their former flames, or will they get back together again?
Discovering the world of pre-code cinema has been one of the highlights of my last several years of movie watching. That makes it sadder for me to report that Illicit is one of the first big pre-code disappointments for me. Unlike so many other pre-codes I’ve seen, it lacks any real punch. I was surprised at just how flat the film was. It starts out quite promising. We have a couple of society types shacking up and causing all sorts of whispers and rumors around their community. It seems like some big scandal is getting ready to happen. But then Dick and Anne decide to get married and they become the two most boring people in New York. I’m all for the institution of marriage, but in terms of creating an interesting narrative it might’ve been better for these two to keep living in sin, so to speak.
Though the film plays a bit too much like a soap opera, I did enjoy Barbara Stanwyck’s performance. There’s a definite electricity she brings to the screen. Quite the contrast to her leading man, James Rennie, who almost fades into the scenery at times. Truth be told, I found a few of the supporting players to be much more engaging than either of the leads. Charles Butterworth should be considered a registered scene stealer playing Georgie, an always slightly inebriated friend of the lead couple. He’s always got a slight wobble to him that is quite entertaining. Also fun is Joan Blondell, who makes the most of her part but deserves a much meatier role.
Though I found this film to have a few redeeming qualities, Illicit pales compared to many of the other pre-code films I’ve seen. The title may imply something juicy, but the film just kind of sputters along before wrapping up the story a bit too easily and putting a big bow on it.