A Life for a Life: Wives Under Suspicion (1938)

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***This post is part of Made in 1938 Blogathon, hosted by the In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Pop Culture Reverie blogs. ***

***Some spoilers***

“It’s still a life for a life, as far as I’m concerned.” (Warren William, Wives Under Suspicion)

The year 1938 was an interesting one in America. The nation started to ease out of the Great Depression around the time President Franklin D. Roosevelt began implementing his New Deal initiatives in 1933 and by the end of the decade, financially, things were looking up for many Americans. At the same time as American were starting to get their feet back on the ground, tensions were mounting in Europe with the rise of the Nazi party that would explode into World War II in 1939.

Sociologically, the old Victorian ideals of the separate spheres was slowly making something of a comeback. After the gains made by women in America with the 19th Amendment in 1920 and the flapper generation, things calmed down and perhaps the economic strife along with the rising political tensions in Europe made Americans nostalgic for the “good old days” when women were the comfort and support of hard-working men who battled the big, bad world outside every day. This was especially true for well-to-do middle-class women and the so-called “professional” classes.

Against this backdrop, we have the crime drama Wives Under Suspicion (1938). Although the film involves crime, it’s really more of a drama and a moralistic one at that. At the heart of the film is the unmistakable message: “Men who neglect their good, loyal wives will pay the price.”

The film relies a lot on coincidences and carefully manipulated storylines to illustrate this theme. Warren William (a favorite of Pre-Code Hollywood with his gravely voice and easy charm but whose popularity was beginning to decline by the late 1930’s) plays a district attorney who relishes winning his cases. As Laura of the Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings blog points out, District Attorney Jim Stowell (William) is so enthused about obtaining convictions to send murderers to the electric chair that he keeps track of his courtroom victories on an abacus with skeleton heads!” (par. 2). He declares several times and rather proudly to his secretary (Cecil Cunningham) that “everybody is under suspicion”.

wives under suspicion poster

Interesting to note that the tagline on this movie poster emphasizes the idea of jealousy and murder even though the message of the film is very different.

Photo Credit: Film poster for Wives Under Suspicion, 1938, Universal Pictures: George Ho/ Wikimedia Commons /PD US not renewed

This seems to extend to his wife, though not at first. Lucy (Gail Patrick, in a rare serious role after making her reputation in screwball comedies) is the Angel in the House, the good, patient, understanding wife who keeps her frustration and anger bottled up inside when her husband puts his job over his home life, even promising her a belated honeymoon trip only to cancel out at the last minute when a case that’s clearly more interesting to him draws his attention. That case is the driving force behind the story. A seemingly timid professor, McAllen (Ralph Morgan) confesses to killing his wife after catching her with a lover. While this might seem a fairly standard scenario, Morgan is distraught and blames himself for neglecting her and putting too much time and effort into his career and his studies. His confession describes a touching (if rather contrived in terms of the plotline) incident where he walks in on his wife brushing her hair in front of the mirror and, beholding her loveliness (and most likely the Angel in the House ideal she represents at that moment) realizes how much he loves her and how he’s left her alone so many nights. He leans down to kiss her on the shoulder and notices her flinch, as if disgusted by his affection. That instills suspicions of infidelity that leads MacAllen to follow her, peer into the window, see his wife rushing into her lover’s arms, and shoot her dead.

Stowell’s initial reaction to this story is disbelief and mockery, seeing its use only as a way to encourage the jury to give MacAllen the death penalty. Appeals to him to reduce the charge to manslaughter on the basis of temporary insanity are laughingly denied. But slowly, as the case progresses, Stowell’s life begins to mirror MacAllen’s. He becomes more aware he’s neglecting his wife and Phil, the attractive fiance of his wife’s cousin (William Lundigan) is spending so much time with Lucy that it’s become a source for the gossip columnists. Events lead to the exact same scenario — William beholding his perfect wife brushing her hair in front of a mirror, lamenting on his love for her, kissing her on the shoulder, then observing the flinch after the kiss. Almost mechanically, he follows his wife to Phil’s apartment, and  observes Lucy and Phil talking through the window. He suddenly magically produces a gun from his pocket and points it at his wife. But he catches himself in time and doesn’t pull the trigger.

The message in this film is definitely heavy-handed and there are a lot of orchestrated subplots (including Phil and Lucy’s cousin Elizabeth, played by Constance Moore, getting into a fight because — surprise — Phil has been spending too much time on extracurricular activities surrounding his graduate studies). But it’s also an interesting film in the context of its time for the message it conveys about marriage and wife appreciation and the home and hearth ideal that would become so vital later in the 40’s when America entered the war.

Works Cited

Laura, “Tonight’s Movie: Wives Under Suspicion (1938).” Web blog post. Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings. Blogger, 19 October 2011. Web. 16 January 2019.

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2 thoughts on “A Life for a Life: Wives Under Suspicion (1938)

  1. Warren William and Gail Patrick would make a good on-screen couple, I think, and I’d like to see this one very much. It’s too bad Warren W’s career started to decline after the Pre-Code era – I thought he always had a lot of charisma on film.

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    1. Thank you for the comment! Yes, Patrick and Warren made a good couple onscreen. They both have a kind of elegance to them. I agree that Warren had a lot of charisma (though I can’t say I like that gravely voice much 🙂 ).

      Tam

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