Believe it or not, at one point Constance Bennett was the most popular and highest paid actress in Hollywood. For much of the middle 1930s, she excelled in well written comedies driven by a truly distinctive style. This followed a shorter period where she a series of roles as various women with various loose morals, shall we say.
In what one could as a hybrid between these two periods of her hey-day falls 1932’s Lady with a Past. It’s definitely a comedy though it suffers perhaps slightly from not taking itself overly seriously. Here she plays Venice Muir, a young socialite who most unbelievably can’t seem to attract a man for more than a moment or too. Coming off as a rather bookish sort, she launches every conversation with a potential suitor with a summary of the latest book she’s read, which has the expected effect of driving them off in relatively short order.
Seeing others, most notably a woman who went to trial for murdering her husband but was acquitted, garner outrageous amounts of gentlemanly attention, she comes up with a plan. But more on that later.
In a fluke episode, she manages an evening with a drunken Donnie Wainwright (David Manners) who bemuses her. Drunkenly he proposes to her early in the morning prior to departing to catch a ship to Europe. Though not entirely sure if his proposal was legitimate or not, she takes her own trip to Paris to get a change of scenery.
There she meets Guy Bryson (Ben Lyon), a rather poor chap who is so broke she has to pay for his coffee at a small streetside café. As they talk they come to an agreement. He will escort her around town as her gigolo, introducing her to his friends and in the process developing a bit of a backstory for her. In return she’ll of course pay him. The results are overwhelmingly good as she is besieged by a veritable bevy of suitors.
Among them is Rene (Albert Conti), who reluctantly also proposes marriage, though secretly to tap into her finances to reduce his own extreme debts. Shortly after she declines his offer he shoots himself. But before she can shed a tear for Rene her phone rings with Donnie on the other end. She quickly invites him to a party in her suite.
Donnie arrives expecting to find the same Venice he’s always known- a bit of a wallflower desperate for attention. Instead the tables have been completely turned on him as he finds her suite filled with several other men as he’s the one now on the outside looking in. They talk briefly but the conversation goes nowhere.
Concurrently a real scandal begins to brew about Rene’s suicide and blaming it on being spurned by Venice. Shamed she returns to the States with guy, only to learn that he’s married- another loose end which seems unneeded. She returns to her social circle, but is now the belle of the ball, being sought out by all the men and even the women to hear her recount her latest exploits.
Finally, in a rather abrupt ending, she reunites with Donnie and presumably they live happily ever after.
The greatest thing Lady with a Past has going for it is Constance Bennett herself, as without her this one would be a dud in most areas. She’s vivacious and eager and does a surprisingly good performance – much better than most would expect from her. We literally see her transform even to her body language from the quiet and reserved shy girl to the lively and engaging social flower. The audience just must shed their natural disbelief and buy in that in some alternate universe she couldn’t attract a man.
Though probably unintentional, it’s ironic to note that early in the Lady with a Past when Venice is still rather alone she is usually in white, whereas later when she returns from Europe (and the scandal has broken and she’s on top of the world) she’s normally clad in black. Perhaps nothing or perhaps a statement on getting what you wish for.
Outside of her performance, the balance of the cast with the potential exception of Albert Conti in his brief role as Rene, the balance of the cast falls flat. Both Ben Lyon and David Manners rather blur together into a sea of pablum. Neither is overly engaging or even interesting and it’s surprising that even the wallflower version of Venice would be interested in Donnie.
Though the film runs a short 80 minutes, it’s a rather bloated 80 minutes as there really isn’t as much story here as there could have been. We also get a few red herrings thrown in which don’t seem to serve much purpose. First among these is the entire Rene character and his suicide as it seems that by this point Venice doesn’t need the scandal it creates (which wouldn’t be a scandal in any other era). She’s already gotten her bevy of men and has Donnie eating out of her hand. There’s also a thankfully brief dream sequence with her and Guy and lastly the addition of Guy’s marriage and wife to the film seem to add very little.
In spite of the bloat, the final twenty minutes or so feel rushed and thrown together at a moment’s notice, both in short and undeveloped scenes and the cut to black ending.
While not a smashingly great film by any means, Lady with a Past is fun to watch if you’re an fan of Constance Bennett. Outside of those folks, sadly one that perhaps is better off missed.