Sometimes I wonder if a film has become "better" in my estimation upon subsequent viewing, or if it was just that I happened to be more susceptible to it on that particular occasion. Maybe it's a little of both. I just watched the film Riptide (1934) and was fairly blown away by it.
It's a Norma Shearer vehicle with Herbert Marshall and Robert Montgomery manning the other two points of the triangle. Edmund Goulding has the writing and directing credit. (More on that later). I collected this film a while a back when I was working a checklist of pre-coders out of the back of Mick LaSalle's book, "Complicated Women."
Here's the dirt: Shearer and Marshall meet in New York and impulsively get married. He's an English lord, and she's obviously moneyed enough to go to swank parties, i.e. there's no issue about "station" driving the plot. She lets him know before they tie the knot that he won't be "her first," but he honestly says he doesn't care.
Fast forward five years. They're living in England and have a daughter. Everything's rosy, but he has to go to America on business--stag--and they're loathe to be apart.
To console herself, Shearer goes with Marshall's aunt--who used to be rather wild--to some hot-spot on the continent. There, she runs into the Montgomery character, whom she knew in New York. They get drunk together and jump into the pool in their evening clothes. Bob's on a roll, but Norma puts the brakes on in the nick of time and beats it back to her room. He follows, but she won't let him in. He tries to hop across adjacent balconies to get to her and accidentally falls. That gets into the papers.
Back at the manor, Marshall has returned from his trip and is livid. Shearer is completely honest about the situation, but he won't believe her. [Marshall is quite masterful at "wearing the horns," as he did for Garbo in The Painted Veil]. She even invites Montgomery over to corroborate the story--a very nice scene--but it does no good. Eventually, he drives her away with his cold petulance until she winds up in Montgomery's arms again, this time not so innocently.
How does it end up? Well, I wouldn't want to spoil that!
It's probably no accident that the outline of this plot is reminiscent of the groundbreaking Divorcee filmed a few years earlier...or any of several other "women's pictures" dealing with infidelity in the pre-code era. The difference (to me) is that this one is so natural in its execution. The characters aren't symbols; the acting isn't "presentational;" the supporting players behave like people in real life.
I haven't been wowed by everything Goulding's directed, but this picture is squarely in his wheelhouse. The fact that he wrote it as well as directed it must be the reason. Nobody is "selling" the dialogue--it comes off as naturally as if we were peering into these characters' real lives.
Two other striking things: First, after Shearer and Montgomery have gotten together the second time, they're playing backgammon. There is nothing overt in the dialogue to establish that they had been intimate. And yet, the way the scene is played, it's obvious. I'm not sure how they did it, but it's brilliant.
The other thing was that there are male supporting characters who seem gay. They aren't queenie, like you see in some pre-codes, but there's enough in their mannerisms and behavior to suggest it. [I've read about Goulding, so maybe I was looking for it]. What's sweet about it is that these characters are completely attuned to the emotional struggles of the (straight) principals, are warm and supportive. If one were to abstract a thesis about love from the screenplay, it would be that it's all cut from the same cloth. They're gay and it doesn't matter.
We get our kicks from pre-codes for their often salacious or sensational aspects. But the Code didn't just put a damper on the presentation of sex, drugs, violence and deviance. It also stifled the impulse to try to reflect "people-as-they-really-are." This film is a superb example of just that. In some respects, it seemed more modern than many films made today.
"Immorality may be fun, but it isn't fun enough to take the place of one hundred percent virtue and three square meals a day."