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The Wiser Sex (1932)

Ripe for rediscovery, this pre-Code comedy is surprisingly ahead of its time in its depiction of the female lead played by Claudette Colbert. Even more surprising is the fact that this was already the third American screen version of a 1905 play by hit-maker Clyde Fitch, The Woman in the Case, which focused on a level-headed, self-determined woman who bests the men around her. Like many pre-Code films, The Wiser Sex flouted censorship restrictions, in this case with its depiction of gangland violence and the lives of kept women, but it has historically been overshadowed by more notorious early films like Baby Face and The Story of Temple Drake (both 1933).

Colbert stars as an independent young woman who won’t let her fiancé (Melvyn Douglas) lead her to the altar because he’s too wrapped up in his work as a district attorney. Instead, she takes off on an ocean cruise with another suitor (Ross Alexander). When Douglas’ cousin (Franchot Tone) is murdered by racketeer William “Stage” Boyd, the crook and his moll (Lilyan Tashman) frame Douglas. That brings Colbert home, where she masquerades as a blonde gold digger and, with Alexander’s help, sets out to clear her man.

This was one of the last pictures shot by Paramount at their Astoria studio in New York, where Colbert had made her first films. By 1932 she had relocated to Hollywood, as had another Broadway import, Douglas. But they returned to New York to work on The Wiser Sex with stage actors Tone and Alexander, both in their screen debuts. Alexander had just signed with Paramount, though the studio was so unimpressed with his performance here they let him go, opening the door for Warner Bros. to sign him two years later. Colbert had no such problems. She was on a steady rise at Paramount and would get a major boost later that year in another notable pre-Code release, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross.

d. Berthold Viertel & Victor Viertel, 76 minutes, 35mm

Courtesy of Universal Pictures