- Film & Year: That Uncertain Feeling (1941)
- Studio: United Artists
- Starring: Merle Oberon – Melvyn Douglas – Burgess Meredith – Eve Arden – Alan Mowbray – Olive Blakeney – Harry Davenport – Sig Ruman – Richard Carle
- Director: Ernst Lubitsch
- Producer: Ernst Lubitsch & Sol Lesser
- Production Notes: Music by Werner R. Heymann (for which he received an Academy Awards nomination for best score in a drama), Cinematography by George Barnes, Screenplay by Donald Ogden Stewart, Costumes by Irene
When classic films attempt to tackle a lighthearted battle of the sexes theme, I typically can’t help myself but cringe throughout at the contextually understandable but (through 2019 glasses) completely condescending and obtuse manner of treatment women end up receiving by both the male characters and the film itself. With that said, That Uncertain Feeling managed to tackle the subject in both a typical and atypical fashion that completely caught me off guard.
It opens with one of those charmingly corny (again, 2019 glasses) title cards announcing how men “have been rightly called the masters of the universe” and can do anything, go anywhere (blah, blah, blah) except one place…and, as I’m mid eye roll, it cuts to the next shot: the ladies lounge. A slightly forced chuckle, but I’m still dubious. Any film already assuming that men are masters of the universe and women are merely one ladies lounge away from making their life on Earth difficult makes me groan a bit from the inside. If you’re like me, just hang in there.
Jill (Merle Oberon) and Larry Baker (Melvyn Douglas) have been married for six years, yet barely know each other and seem chained to an everyday routine lacking in affection or conversation. It has gotten so bad that Jill has developed a nervous case of hiccups, so annoying that she must seek psychiatric help. When her psychiatrist Dr. Vengard (played by Alan Mowbray, who I still find fabulous despite having to spout dialogue like “It’s my duty to explore every avenue…especially Park Avenue.”) suggests that the hiccups could be the result of unhappiness in her marriage, Jill first denies it, then comes to realize the truth in the doctor’s words. Her husband doesn’t appear to take much interest in her, except to poke her in the stomach on occasion and yell “keeks!”, a completely strange habit which she hates, but he doesn’t notice because he doesn’t notice anything that has to do with her. She calls him out on it, asks why he does it, and whether he would even think to do it to another woman. He, completely confused at this chain of questioning, answers that he’s never tried.
“But you do it to me,” she states.
“Well…you’re my wife,”
“And that gives you the right to poke me in the stomach whenever you want to, huh?” she challenges and tells him not to “keeks” her anymore. I think it was this moment that I knew I was back in.
Enter temperamental pianist Alexander Sebastian (Burgess Meredith), a man Jill meets in Dr. Vengard’s waiting room. Alexander, by his own admission, hates “everything and everybody,” yet his artistic, philosophical way of conversing intrigues her and they end up spending the afternoon together talking. Really this is probably the most attractive thing about him for Jill considering she and her husband typically don’t go much deeper than discussing the dinner menu.
While I admire Meredith’s penchant for playing creepy, off-putting characters (a la the Penguin in the Batman TV series and Mr. Mole in Faerie Tale Theatre’s Thumbelina), he has never struck me, for lack of a better word, as hot. However, despite the fact that you’re ultimately supposed to recognize Meredith’s Alexander Sebastian as an impossibly rude coward and freeloading whiner, there are definitive moments where I completely understand why Jill would be attracted to him. Specifically, there’s a moment where Jill and Alexander are alone and she is watching adoringly while he plays the piano. Their eyes lock and he leans towards her then gets up and sweeps her into an embrace which she looks like she would like to succumb to yet instead flees from and disappears out of frame. He follows and we are left to sit and stare at the unoccupied piano for a few seconds before Alexander comes bounding back into the frame with a huge smile on his face and begins to pound on the keys…
This is the first moment that really reminds the viewer that the film was made solidly in the Hays code era of filmmaking where onscreen adultery was just not permitted. However, whether this was the intention or not, allowing them to do whatever they did outside of the frame actually made the scene seem more racy than had they locked lips. Not showing the action allows the mind to take over. What were they doing in that corner? If it wasn’t so bad, why couldn’t they show it? Whatever Alexander Sebastian’s flaws, this is the most passionate moment we have seen so far in the film…and it wasn’t between husband and wife.
The film gets even more racy when Larry, who has caught on to his wife’s affection for Alexander while not realizing the extent of it, surprises her at home when she’s expecting Alexander. Sneaking up behind her, he puts his hands over her eyes and she, thinking it’s Alexander, begins a dialogue with him that confirms their affair. Upon realizing that she’s speaking to her husband instead of her lover, she faints dead away. Larry moves out and begins divorce proceedings, Alexander moves in with Jill, and all 3 struggle to figure out where to go from there and what they actually want…
When I found out the film was produced and directed by Ernst Lubitsch, it began to make more sense. During the pre-code era of the early 1930s, Lubitsch was a prominent director known for urbane comedies where sauciness and dominant females in slinky gowns reigned supreme. During this time he made films like Design For Living, a racy comedy about a woman torn between two lovers so, instead of picking one man, the three decide to all live together and just keep the ball rolling, sort of the sexier grandparent of Three’s Company, if you will. Really, That Uncertain Feeling was as Lubitsch as a film could get for 1941 and it had his mark all over it.
Speaking of slinky gowns, Merle Oberon’s gorgeous and amazing outfits in this film, designed by Irene, cannot be overlooked. There’s not a bad one in the bunch and she looks so great in them that you can’t help but wonder what the heck Larry’s problem is for not paying her even a thimbleful of attention. They, along with the subject matter, also lead me to believe that someone paid off Will Hays to get this film through the censors because nearly every neckline Oberon sports is low-cut and shows the majority of what cleavage she has, including an incredibly sexy, silky nightgown that I could easily imagine Jean Harlow wearing to a dinner party, if it wasn’t meant for the boudoir.
Overall, I truly enjoyed this film, not only for the costumes, quirkiness, and performances by Oberon, Douglas, and Meredith (plus Mowbray and the fabulous Eve Arden), but because it really did push the envelope and didn’t just fall into the pattern of what I expected it to be. At times I had to stop and wonder what the film’s take on who was right and who was wrong actually was. On one hand, Jill comes to the realization that her husband isn’t terribly considerate (he eats a sumptuous meal next to her when he knows she’s dieting so she can look nice for him, he gargles loudly in the morning when he knows she has problems sleeping, etc.), which Dr. Vengard, a character who the film portrays as a reasonable and authoritative figure, tells her is not how he should be treating her. On the other hand, Larry Baker’s secretary (played by Eve Arden in a slightly toned down, but effective, role for her), after being told the Bakers’ situation hypothetically muses what could possibly be wrong with the wife for turning away from such a great husband. The film makes it easy to see why Jill turned to Alexander after Larry’s ambivalence, and we don’t judge her for it, yet after she leaves him Larry turns into a more sympathetic character who develops consideration and care for his wife that he didn’t show at the beginning of the film. Doing this adds validity to Jill’s initial motivation to seek attention elsewhere while also providing a reason to return to her marriage…if she wants to…
Though I wouldn’t put it up there with Wonder Woman, or 9 to 5 when it comes to concepts of female empowerment and equality, That Uncertain Feeling is refreshing in its attempts to understand both parties in a marriage, instead of viewing the situation solely from the man’s point of view.
- Written and adapted for the screen by Donald Ogden Stewart and Walter Reisch, this film was a remake of Lubitsch’s 1925 film Kiss Me Again, starring Clara Bow, Marie Prevost, and Monte Blue, and both were based on the 1800s French play Divorçons by Victorien Sardou and Émile de Najac.
- Melvyn Douglas was also ahead of his time when it came to forward thinking and views on equality. His second wife was Helen Gahagan Douglas, who went on to become the first Democratic woman elected to Congress from California and ran against Richard Nixon in the 1950 Senate race, all the while cheered on by her equally progressive activist husband who fought alongside her for the rights of others.
Image credit of Oberon and Douglas: By film screenshot (United Artists) – http://www.toutlecine.com/images/film/0003/00031793-illusions-perdues.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11072326r