There’s an underlying sense that The Other Men’s Women was a primitive picture and yet it has a plucky energy as if it doesn’t know any better. Warner Bros. was at the cutting edge of talking pictures and Vitaphone wasn’t exactly old hat. The medium was still in its relatively latent stages.
Given this backdrop, William Wellman seems to take to the amount of freedom he has with a maximum amount of relish. The camera already feels slightly more versatile. With the shackles gone and a new amount of mobility, he moves his camera all over the place conducting dialogue scenes in any manner of places we would normally take for granted.
But he also slices the conventional 180-degree line to smithereens. It’s off-putting given our filmgoing sensibilities, and yet there’s something equally raw and frenetic about it that gives it a very appealing flavor. His camera is atop trains or out in the garden by the sweet peas. Moving pictures are alive!
Part of this may have been out of necessity because in 1931 alone Wild Bill churned out 6 movies for Warner Bros! That’s an insane amount of output. But this same rapid-fire outpouring of movies included the likes of Public Enemy, Night Nurse, and Safe in Hell, just for starters.
If we were to scour this movie for a conventional throughline, it would start with our protagonist, a cheeky railroad hand (Grant Withers), bright-eyed and generally contented with the life he leads. His best friend in the engine room is Jack (Regis Toomey), and they have an inseparable camaraderie together. In what world is Toomey lifted out of the periphery and promoted to a primary role? Here he is as living proof.
He brings his good friend home to his wife Lily (Mary Astor). She’s playful and warm. There’s a lovely affability filling up the spaces and planted in the gardens with the flowers. Their next-door neighbor is a kindly man with a peg leg, and they have built for themselves a fine slice of tranquility. It’s innocent until it’s not. In the kitchen Withers and Astor alone. And they don’t realize it until it’s too late.
They look and they kiss — almost on accident it seems — but they love each other. It’s irrevocable. There’s no taking it back, and it pains them both. If this is the film’s menage a trois, it’s the most devastating of outcomes. They never meant to hurt anyone. But then nobody ever does.
The two friends wind up slugging it out on their locomotive overturning their friendship and livelihood in one fell swoop. A stake is forever driven between them. But there’s more. Jack’s life is beset with personal tragedy. Bill is ridden with the ensuing guilt. He never wants to see either of them ever again. It’s too much to take, looking them in the face — especially knowing he can never have Lily.
Whereas the amended title looks to capitalize on the more scandalous element, the original title: The Steel Highway might fit the picture equally well. These are before the days of Le Bete Humaine or Human Desire, but there’s something elemental about a man and the railroad. Like the western, there’s a mythos attached — a historical shorthand — evoking something of expansion and progress.
As such it flits back and forth between its two spheres. That of the man’s working world out on the rails where life feels itinerant. There’s a danger but also a freedom and a mystique about it. The home life is sweet and domestic until it’s not.
The picture also boasts some of the best rain sequences I remember in recent memory. They are worth mentioning in how they augment Wellman’s film in its latter stages. It becomes expressionistic not merely through the illusions of light and dark, smoke and shadow, but the sheets of raindrops showering down. It adds yet another contour, another layer of emotional atmosphere to this film’s final act.
Jack sloshes around in the downpour helplessly as Bill hurtles toward his resolved conclusion. The climax is fated and fittingly catastrophic. Then, days later, he’s back in the old haunts, sitting at the same cafe pit stop, with a different waitress behind the counter, only to cross paths with an old friend…They share a smile, a few words. Does it really matter for us to have this? I don’t think so. It’s spelled out on their eyes.
Then, Jack does something unexpected. He hops back on his train and begins sprinting over the top. Where is he going? He’s got to get to the engine room — to bring it to a halt. We never see it, but we know he’s staying put. My thoughts linger on Wellman again with his camera perched in such a place where he captures his hero sprinting off into the distance. Yes, movies are alive thanks to people like him.
What a curious wrinkle it is to have James Cagney and Joan Blondell off-center with supporting assignments. That very same year they would be spotted together as leads but such is the studio system they could pull duties in a 70-minute railroad thriller like this. Cagney showing off his dancing and that swell-guy charisma of his. Blondell’s got that spark and spunk in spades. They’re equally delightful, and this isn’t even their movie. They provide yet another reason to enjoy the fundamental pleasures of Other Men’s Women.