What Every Woman Knows
Reviewed by Jonathan Murray

Produced by Gregory La Cava and Albert Lewin; directed by Gregory La Cava; written by Monckton Hoffe, John Meehan, andJames K. McGuinness, with additional dialogue by Marian Ainslee; based on the play by J. M. Barrie; cinematography by Charles Rosher; edited by Blanche Sewell; art direction by Cedric Gibbons; costume design by Adrian; starring Helen Hayes, Brian Aherne, Madge Evans, Lucile Watson, Dudley Digges, Donald Crisp, and David Torrence. DVD, B&W, 89 min., 1934. A Warner Archives release.

An extraordinarily capable political wife who devotes years to self-denying backroom furtherance of her more marketable (but possibly less talented) spouse’s career; a self-avowed progressive standard bearer readily willing to be bankrolled by capitalist interest groups; a macho tub-thumper whose public ambitions represent a symptomatic outcrop of his narcissistic private self-image. Who would have thought that the 1934 film adaptation of a 1908 play had quite so much to say to audiences in the year of the forthcoming U.S. presidential election? Viewed from the vantage point of 2016, Gregory La Cava’s screen version of J. M. Barrie’s What Every Woman Knows somehow contrives to look at once hidebound and hip, quaintly outmoded and acutely observant. 

Helen Hayes in  What Every Woman Knows

Helen Hayes in What Every Woman Knows

That fact may come as a surprise to some. After all, it’s been quite some time since filmmakers or film audiences saw Barrie as even a remotely topical literary figure. During the six decades since Disney adapted the writer’s most famous creation as a feature-length cartoon, the author of Peter Pan has been more readily associated with ideas of Neverland than any real-world issues or concerns. But it wasn’t always thus: no fewer than twenty-one short or feature-length productions of the playwright’s work were made during the silent era alone, while 1934 saw two other Hollywood Barrie projects—The Little Minister (dir. Richard Wallace) and We’re Not Dressing (dir. Norman Taurog)—shot alongside La Cava’s take on What Every Woman Knows. The latter film’s recent no-frills DVD release by Warner Archives offers the chance, therefore, to think again about Barrie. We’ve long been minded to consign his oeuvre to the era of Errol Flynn: maybe it’s time to consider the possibility that it speaks to (and about) that of Gillian Flynn also.  

Brian Aherne and Maddie Wyle in  What Every Woman Knows

Brian Aherne and Maddie Wyle in What Every Woman Knows

What Every Woman Knows pivots around the figure of a female central protagonist who is Wylie by name and wily by nature. Maggie (Helen Hayes) is an unmarried young Scotswoman written off by those around her as a spinster-in-waiting. Her despairing father and brothers thus offer an ambitious and self-important young socialist firebrand, John Shand (Brian Aherne), an unusual buy-now-pay-later arrangement. The prosperous Wylie family business will fund penniless John’s university education, so long as he agrees to marry Maggie (should she consent) five years later. Despite his subsequent election as a Member of the U.K. Parliament, not to mention the fact that he does not love his betrothed, John makes good on his promise, only to then fall in love with glamorous metropolitan socialite Lady Sybil (Madge Evans). Undeterred, Maggie choreographs her husband’s vertiginous political rise (his eminently marketable public image is that of the Man of Principle) and steers him through (and out) of a brief encounter with Sybil. Chastened by the belated realization that “I’m a great man, Maggie, and it’s all your doing,” Shand reunites with his wife, a woman he sees clearly (and thus, values properly) for the first time.  

Brian Aherne and Helen Hayes in  What Every Woman Knows

Brian Aherne and Helen Hayes in What Every Woman Knows

Despite its accidental array of parallels with 2016-style American politics, What Every Woman Knows is—as the plot summary above suggests—ultimately more concerned with gender politics than party equivalents. Or, perhaps more accurately, this film views progressive achievements made within the latter arena as dependent on prior victories cleverly ground out within the former. It’s worth remembering that, for all its genteel White Telephone-style trappings, Barrie’s theatrical source material emanates from a time before equal voting rights for women. Worth remembering, too, is the fact that while director Gregory La Cava helmed only one film titled Smart Woman (1931) during the 1930s, many of his other movies from that decade—Private Worlds (1935), She Married Her Boss (1935), Stage Door (1937)—feature female leads who are just as intelligent and resourceful as What Every Woman Knows’s Maggie Wylie.

Even though one has to pull aside a voluminous dust sheet of fusty Scottish stereotypes (penny-pinching laddies, canny lassies) that frequently weighs proceedings down, it’s eminently possible, therefore, to interpret and enjoy What Every Woman Knows as a warmhearted slice of proto-feminism. Granted, the Edwardian sentimentality of Barrie’s source material always dictates that Helen Hayes’s Maggie is nothing like as appealingly cute and/or crazy a heroine as many of those essayed by Claudette Colbert or Katharine Hepburn (sometimes with La Cava assisting from the director’s chair) throughout the 1930s. But that shouldn’t stop us from finding things to like and laud in the story of a woman who hits upon an ingenious way to live out the words of the celebrated Scottish song (“The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond”) that viewers at one point see and hear her sing. Content to let her unwitting husband swagger along “the high road” of public adulation and apparent power, Maggie reminds us that a more unassuming and less macho “low road” approach often gets people more quickly and smoothly to the places where they really need and want to be.  

 Jonathan Murray teaches film and visual culture at the Edinburgh College of Art.

To purchase, click here.

Copyright © 2016 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XLI, No. 2