The romantic-triangle set against an environment of machines and technology was territory William Wellman had covered before (in Wings, most notably), and here, in Other Men’s Women, instead of planes, like in Wings, we’ve got trains.
Male friendship and work is very important in Wellman’s films, and here we see the friendship of Bill (Grant Withers) and Jack (Regis Toomey), both engineers at the railyards. They have known each other since boyhood, but their lives have taken different paths. Bill is a wild boy, living it up as a single man, although he does have a steady girl of sorts, Marie – played by Joan Blondell, in one of her stock performances (I mean that in the best sense) as a somewhat-floozy yet practical working girl. Marie wants to get married. Bill puts her off. He clearly has a drinking problem, which is why he always carries gum on him, offering everyone he meets “a chew” (it’s kind of an annoying bit).
Jack, on the other hand, has married a nice woman named Lily (played by Mary Astor, breathtaking here, what a face) and lives in an idyllic cottage with vines of sweetpeas in the garden and a roast in the oven, etc. Jack and Bill banter with one another as they take the trains out on their routes, Jack asking Bill why he doesn’t settle down, and Bill putting him off, wild oats and all that. Bill ends up getting thrown out of his rooming house for drunken disorderly behavior and Jack invites him to stay with him and Lily. For a while, things go well. Lily is adorable, funny and kind, giving Bill a haircut, and including him in family gatherings. She thinks he needs to be married. He clearly needs a woman to straighten him up. Slowly, the two fall in love, right under Jack’s eyes. Bill and Lily have a confrontation in the kitchen, after a sudden kiss, and Bill demands that Lily tell Jack what has happened. He cannot betray his friend. They must go to him and confess, and she must leave Jack so that they can be married. Lily, a good girl, is devastated. She loves Bill but she cannot hurt Jack.
Jack, who has come to suspect something has happened, confronts Bill one night on the train, and they have a huge fight which has a tragic result. Jack is blinded. Lily cares for him in the aftermath of his injury, but he can sense her pity and it is unbearable to him. Bill is haunted by what he has done. Poor Marie, hanging on all this time, having no idea what is happening.
Rain pours down for weeks on end, and the town is threatened by flooding. The last half hour of the picture takes place in a torrential downpour, filmed with stark realistic gloom. The river is rising. A bridge is threatened. Lily is sent away to stay with her mother. Jack, blind and yet determined, stumbles out into the cavernous railyards (seemingly endless, there is one fantastic shot of Jack walking along the lined-up locomotives, stationary and giant, as the rain thunders down), with a plan in his head, something he has hidden from everyone, a plan to make things right for himself, for Jack, and for Lily.
Other Men’s Women is at its best in its observations of everyday people going about their lives. There is the stuttering landlady, furious at the drunkard living under her roof. Bill imitates her stuttering back to her, causing her to fly off the handle. There’s Marie, slinging hash at the diner, and fielding off lecherous comments from the railyard men who sit at her counter. She declares that she is “APO.” One of the men asks, “What’s APO?” She states, fiery, “Ain’t Putting Out!” The scenes out at the cottage are filmed with a light touch. We aren’t drowned in domesticity in a way that sickens. It’s a lively house. The next door neighbor (J. Farrell MacDonald, a John Ford regular) is a crotchety kindly Irishman with one leg, whom everyone calls “Peg Leg”. There’s a wonderful scene where Mary Astor is planing sweet peas, and Peg Leg goes on before her, digging a hole for the seeds with his fake leg. James Cagney (who would soon be catapulted to fame and notoreity in another Wellman film, The Public Enemy) plays Ed Bailey, another engineer friend of Jack and Bill’s. It is Cagney’s third film, and he is a joy to watch. Watch the scene between him and Bill, where they stand on top of a moving train (this was obviously not shot in a studio, this is a real train with no back projector) and Ed regales Bill with a story of a fight he went to on Saturday night. Cagney is acting out the fight with gusto, and in the distance we can see a beam across the tracks, something that could decapitate them if they weren’t careful. Neither of them look back at it, neither seem aware that it is coming, and I thought to myself, “Boys, you’d best be ducking any time now …” and then, without even looking, and still talking, still throwing jabs and punches, the two men duck, as one. They knew the beam was coming. Of course they did. They know that railyard like the backs of their hands. A beautiful touch.
The love story between Bill and Lily was secondary to all of the other elements of the film. The friendship between Bill and Jack is really the linchpin of the whole thing. It is the loss of THAT which hurts the two of them the most.
Regis Toomey, an actor I have always loved, is terrific here. (I always think of that funny story about him having to describe to young Martha Vickers what an orgasm was while filming The Big Sleep.) He is not a stooge. He is not the “idiot husband”. He’s a good guy, and he’s in a bad situation. The scenes of him hanging out down at the railyard, following his blindness, are touching. The men all gather around, and drink coffee, and nobody thinks anything of his blindness. They help him when he needs it, they give him coffee, and they don’t alter their lively banter just because their dear friend has been so injured. It helps him to feel like a real man again. These are very good scenes.
Grant Withers is okay as Bill, although his leering gum-chewing drunk act wears thin pretty quickly. He seems to fall for Lily, I do buy that, she is a nice girl and he’s not used to nice girls. But, as with so many of these Pre-Code movies, I had some doubts about their feasability as a couple once the storm has passed. Can a leopard change his spots? Would a wild child like Bill ever be content going home to one woman, night after night? Playing records on the victrola and planting sweetpeas? I doubt it. In one of the scenes with Lily, they start to laugh and have a fake fight, but his punches and slaps come very close to actually landing. He’s rough. He wants to be rough. She laughs, but there’s something dark going on in that scene, something never explored but there, nonetheless. You can see who he really is in the scenes with Marie, one stand-out one at the dance hall in particular.
If you want to know why Joan Blondell was so beloved, why she was one of the hardest working women in show business, take a look at the scene in the dance hall. The camera is up close to the two of them and never moves. The whole scene is played with only one or two cuts. Marie probably knows something is up, but at least she is with Bill now, so she’s gotten very drunk and is trying to be happy. They sit in a booth and make out. Her lipstick is smudged on her face, giving her a broken-down aspect that is very disturbing. But Blondell never plays the pathos. She plays the hope. That’s what makes her different, special. She represents the hope that something might … might … work out. Even for a girl like Marie. But Jack doesn’t respect her. He’s drunk too. He’s got another woman on his mind. He slaps Marie across the face at one point, pretty hard, and she’s stunned for a second, but then laughs, and keeps on talking. My heart ached for her, ached, and you could tell that Marie’s heart was aching too but she’s a girl used to such roughness that heartache doesn’t even really register. Blondell is superb in this scene.
Jimmy Cagney comes into the dance hall and sees what is happening with Bill and his girl, and doesn’t like it. Watch how Cagney assesses the situation in one or two brief moments. I love seeing him here, before stardom, but doing what he does, with a surety and confidence that stands out. Up until the moment in the dance hall, all we have seen of Cagney is a kind of light-hearted fun companionable energy. He, too, is hanging out with a floozy dame, whom he has kept waiting, but he doesn’t like the look on Marie’s face, and he doesn’t like the way Bill is treating her. He tries to intervene. He’s a good man. There is also an electric moment when he dances onto the dance floor, and you suddenly can see the amazing dancer that Cagney was.
Cagney and Blondell had worked together onstage in the hit Penny Arcade, which had brought them both to Hollywood (they reprised their roles in the screen adaptation). They worked together a total of seven times, and were lifelong friends. Two wisecracking vaudeville-trained kids, the two both signed long-term contracts at Warner Brothers, although Blondell watched as Cagney parlayed that into big stardom, while she was mainly stuck in the working-girl-floozy supporting roles (with the salary to match). She was open about the fact that she wasn’t as ambitious as perhaps she should be, that people like Bette Davis were stars not just because they were talented, but because they were determined to be stars. Blondell wasn’t. Her vaudeville roots ran deep. She made her debut at four months of age in her parents’ act. She was just grateful to be working. But there were moments of envy, when Cagney’s salary skyrocketed (due to his own negotiations) and hers stayed the same. It’s fun to watch them together here. They are like two peas in a pod, although their paths rarely cross. Tough people, living in a tough world, doing the best they can, trying to keep their hearts/souls/goodness intact.
Other Men’s Women was written by Maude Fulton (I won’t call her a “female screenwriter” – that’s an insult! You would never say So-and-So the “male screenwriter”), who also wrote the script for The Maltese Falcon, and many other successes. It’s pretty frank, when it comes to sex, and filled with wit and observational humor. It’s poignant, too. Nobody is a villain here. Jack is not an angelic husband, and Bill is not a sneering villain come to sneak his wife away. The men are friends. Lily is not a harlot, and Marie is not a whore-with-a-heart-of-gold. Marie works, and hopes to get married. Like most women on the planet. Lily has married for companionship and is fond of her husband, but is swept away by other feelings when they arise. This is the way life often happens. The film doesn’t underline the obvious by resorting to stereotypes.
The film, for me, comes alive in the scenes of male friendship played against the backdrop of ferocious gleaming locomotives, chugging this way and that across the rails. Lily and Bill’s love affair is secondary to what happens in that “real” world, of male camaraderie and work, and it is filmed as such. I thought that Bill’s and Marie’s relationship had more “oomph” to it, in terms of its impact on the screen. It is clear they are not right for one another, and it is clear that Marie is on a pretty bad path. She’s hanging by a thread. There’s a sort of mad desperation that flickers through her eyes from time to time that makes me think that Joan Blondell would have been a helluva Blanche Dubois, given the opportunity.
If you are a train nut, you have got to see this movie. Oh, the trains in this movie! Beautiful, huge, strangely poetic as machines often can be, sometimes reaching as far as the eye can see. Wellman sometimes seems more interested in the trains than the people, but that’s no matter. These trains are to die for.