While hardly a cinematic masterpiece, Paramount’s 1932 romantic comedy The Misleading Lady (filmed at the Astoria studios in New York City) is an amusing romp that makes no special demands on its audience and has no pretensions about having something “profound” to say. Although the premise – taken from Charles W. Goddard and Paul Dickey’s 1913 Broadway play – is fairly predictable about ten minutes into the film, The Misleading Lady still offered enough wit to keep this viewer interested. At a brisk 67 minutes, the film doesn’t wear out its welcome, but rather has the effect of a genial, casual acquaintance who momentarily engages you in pleasant, idle chatter – and who is gracious enough to take their leave just as the dinner gong peals in the distance.
As beautiful socialite Helen Steele (Claudette Colbert, photo) arises from her pillow one morning, she languidly declares that she is bored. Tired of her social set and their trivial activities and tedious gossip about society divorces and award-winning racehorses, Helen yearns for something meaningful in her life. However, Helen doesn’t intend to bring forth this new purpose by caring for the sick and starving masses in India, or helping out charities and orphanages. Instead, she decides that the key to her spiritual uplift is to become an actress; so, she vies for the title role in a scandalous new play entitled The Siren.
Out to prove that she has the requisite sex appeal to play the role, Helen makes a wager that after three days she can make a man fall so helplessly in love with her that he’ll propose marriage. The man in question is fellow house guest Jack Craigen (Edmund Lowe), a mining engineer who had spent the previous five years knocking about amidst “jungles, savages, and nose rings” in the wilds of South America, and who harbors a rather dubious view of modern womanhood.
The strongest elements in The Misleading Lady are the charismatic performances of the two leads. Best remembered for classics such as Cleopatra (1934), Imitation of Life (1934), Midnight (1939), The Palm Beach Story (1942), and for her Oscar-winning star turn in Frank Capra’s comedic masterpiece It Happened One Night (1934), at the time she made The Misleading Lady Claudette Colbert was at the dawn of a long and respectable acting career that spanned over sixty years and encompassed film, theater, and television.
A warm and intelligent actress, Colbert was a versatile performer, equally adept at sophisticated comedy and hard-hitting drama. Known for her “light” approach to acting, she always imbued her characters with wit, elegance, and a clear-eyed practicality. Her throaty, well-modulated voice was merely the icing on a delectable cake. The fact that she always made it look so effortless is indicative of her considerable skills as an actress; her charming, down-to-earth screen presence often elevated even the most mediocre material into something diverting.
Many of those trademark qualities are on display in The Misleading Lady – even if the role at times seems as if it would have been more suited to the likes of the superb Carole Lombard, as some of the comedy plays more towards slapstick. That’s when Colbert seems slightly out of her range. Still, she makes the most of her part, in addition to being shown to great effect in a number of fetching gowns.
Edmund Lowe, whose career spanned about five decades, was likewise a highly enjoyable screen presence. (Unsurprisingly, Lowe and Colbert display a palpable chemistry on-screen.) Darkly handsome and exuding an impeccably urbane manner, Lowe was often cast as a suave, romantic leading man. Yet, his characters often seemed to exhibit something shady lurking beneath the cool veneer – qualities that made them more interesting. Indeed, Lowe was often at his best when cast as opportunists, smooth operators, and charismatic fast-talkers.
In The Misleading Lady, his role is somewhat more conventional, though with just enough dark shading to prevent it from becoming a typical (and dull) romantic lead. In fact, he’s perverse enough to abduct and bind his love interest, while never navigating too far into those waters to ever put off his audience. Likewise, his character can be appropriately sympathetic, convincingly conveying his genuine love and his heartfelt hurt by Helen’s deception.
The supporting cast is pretty negligible, though Paramount’s in-house comedian Stuart Erwin is amusingly over-the-top as an escaped mental patient with a Napoleon complex.
Although director Stuart Walker handles the proceedings with competence, he offers few directorial flourishes. Indeed, Walker does little to elevate the material beyond the ordinary, making almost no use of the film’s saucier, more risque possibilities. Even so, the director keeps The Misleading Lady moving along nicely, while Adelaide Heilbron and Caroline Francke’s adaptation does offer some amusing dialogue. Unfortunately, the overall effect is somewhat uneven, falling short of that elusive, hard-to-define quality known as “screen magic.”
(There were two previous film versions of the story: a 1916 Essanay adaptation starring frequent D.W. Griffith star Henry B. Walthall and the little-remembered Edna Mayo, and a 1920 Metro production starring the studio’s enormously popular contract player Bert Lytell.)
While The Misleading Lady doesn’t offer any cinematic milestones, it remains an entertaining piece of fluff. Films such as this were the backbone of the studio system, and they represent a component sadly missing in today’s film culture. Films that simply are.
© James Bazen
The Misleading Lady (1932). Dir.: Stuart Walker. Scr.: Adelaide Heilbron and Caroline Francke; from Charles W. Goddard and Paul Dickey’s play. Cast: Claudette Colbert, Edmund Lowe, Stuart Erwin, Robert Strange, George Meeker, Selena Royle, Curtis Cooksey, William Gargan, Nina Walker.