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DVD Review: Housewife (1934)

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A pervasively dull, casually sexist drama, Housewife is most notable for its early pairing of Bette Davis and George Brent. Sadly, Davis doesn’t get much to do here as the other woman, but even the enthusiastic top tier pairing of Brent and Ann Dvorak fails to overcome the tedious, logically inconsistent storytelling.

Brent stars as William Reynolds, a man who hasn’t lived up to his potential and is barely getting by as an office manager at an ad agency. His wife, Nan (Dvorak), is, as she puts it “just a housewife,” and the film is content to offhandedly demean her throughout, even though she’s the impetus for all of her husband’s success in the film.

He decides to aim his sights higher at Nan’s urging after a reunion with an old schoolmate, Patricia (Davis), who confesses she used to have a crush on him and thought he would be a much more prosperous figure by now. Nan provides the seed money and the encouragement for William to open his own ad agency, and he improbably hooks one of his former employer’s biggest clients within a year.

With the novel idea — also spurred by Nan — to encourage his client (John Halliday) to peddle a deluxe version of his snake oil face cream at twice the price, William’s agency finds huge success, and it isn’t long before he and Nan have traded their modest home and its leaky faucet for the lap of luxury.

But after William hires Patricia to be his star copywriter, he starts hankering for an upgrade in the romance department too. He proceeds to have an affair with Patricia in the most stupefying way possible — completely out in the open in front of his wife — and Nan’s lack of any discernible anger reduces the character to a feeble, misogynistic shell. The film tries to balance things out by having Halliday’s skin cream magnate profess his love for Nan, but he’s never a realistic romantic option, and it’s a half-assed idea at best.

Eventually William and Nan split up, but the film doesn’t give us any time to feel the pain of loss (not that we would’ve anyway). Think of the most contrived, treacly catalyst for the couple’s reconciliation possible, and you might approach what happens mere minutes after the split. Did I mention they have a young, ultra-precocious child who has a habit of running out in front of moving cars?

Even at a thin 69 minutes, Housewife drags, and its ending scene can’t help but giving the character of Nan one more good-natured kick down a notch to remind her of her womanly place.

The remastered Warner Archive disc presents a solid, stable image with healthy black levels and a minimum of damage. The mono audio suffers from a fair amount of background hiss, but it’s never too overwhelming. The disc is featureless.

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About Dusty Somers

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based editor and writer. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.