A friend of mine watched the last 20 or so minutes of Evelyn Prentice with me, and only watching that brief snippet made him angry. Try watching it for over an hour! Evelyn Prentice is a soppy melodrama warning husbands that unless they love (and therefore spending every waking minute) with their wives, women left to their own devices will engage in weird non-adultery and murder. This is a film that needs to be grittier, more explicit in whether any crime was committed, and should star Barbara Stanwyck. With Loy in the role, the script is so terrified of the audience losing sympathy you’re left entirely confused on whether she did anything short of saying hello to a man. The script apparently went through a paper shredder or something as large gaps of story are left unexplained and William Powell…is just present.
Evelyn Prentice (Loy) is the neglected wife of high-powered lawyer, John Prentice (Powell). Evelyn finds an outlet for her loneliness in Lawrence Kennard (Harvey Stephens) who decides to use a series of letters written by Evelyn to him as blackmail. In an unseen scuffle, Kennard ends up dead and Evelyn believes she’s a murderer. When another woman is blamed for Kennard’s death, and John decides to defend her, Evelyn is forced to confront her conscious and make the right choice.
The only claim to fame Evelyn Prentice can boast is marking the film début of Rosalind Russell, who here dons a weird English accent to play a possible murderer who John gets acquitted. Russell is only in the film for a while, but long enough that she becomes obsessed with John and starts stalking him, right down to planting a bracelet in his train compartment that ends up being sent to Evelyn. The issue is the weird mise en scène that cuts abruptly to something new without ever explaining whether characters went through with their actions. Case in point is John’s relationship with Russell’s character, Mrs. Harrison. We see Mrs. Harrison kiss John only to cut to another scene; the same happens in the train. I thought that this was going to give the film a “he said, she said” quality, where we’d go back and see how John responded (appropriately one hopes) to Mrs. Harrison’s advances. Nope, in fact Mrs. Harrison disappears entirely after the thirty minute mark, never to be heard from again. Of course, constant live-in companion Amy (Una Merkel) goes to John and begs him to confess to Evelyn, but what does he need to confess to? The only possible allusion to an affair is John saying “I wasn’t going to see her again.” So did they have an affair? And if so, why never bring it up because it makes John look like a total heel.
The script would rather condemn Evelyn for doing absolutely nothing with a man we never learn about! Evelyn is lonely, because her husband is cheating on her (regardless of the answer, John is gone for 90% of the first hour of the movie…with no explanation other than cheating), so she makes a few visits to a stranger’s house and writes some letters; I never say Loy’s character was smart! The only blackmail material Kennard has is that Evelyn’s words could be misinterpreted, but of course we have to give the film some jolt so why not kill the guy? Another example of poor mise en scène is to have the audience hear the shot, and see Evelyn leave. Unfortunately, the script explains everything during a courtroom sequence that makes zero sense. If Evelyn didn’t kill him, did he act dead for the five minutes she was standing there? Why didn’t he get up and attack her again if she completely missed him and he was trying to kill her in the first place? And why the hell is this wrong, but we never mention John’s relationship with Mrs. Harrison?
The only explanation I could give for any of this is the script’s offensive and moralistic message: Men watch your women because when left alone they become cheaters and murderers. I’m not kidding, that’s the blatant message of this movie. Ignore Johns’ equally, if not more, questionable relationship with a woman who’s possibly crazy, we have to condemn a woman who did absolutely nothing short of writing letters and regretting her friendship with Kennard from the first minute. You could argue this is a different time and women had reputations to protect and I would understand; but then why include John’s unexplained relationship with Mrs. Harrison, which prevents you from finding him endearing.
All of this ends up in a courtroom sequence that makes the closing argument in The Divorcee seem half-way logical. Once Evelyn confesses, John is allowed to turn the trial around, defend Evelyn, and actively work to put his own client in prison! And his closing argument revolves around him putting the dead victim on trial; if you find the victim guilty, then the defendant isn’t guilty. What logic is that? And how he is allowed to defend Evelyn? And why isn’t Evelyn immediately arrested and placed on trial? John’s defendant isn’t allowed to have her case dismissed – even though the prosecutor says he wants it done – nor should Evelyn’s case be dismissed simply because the original defendant is not guilty! Screenwriter Lenore J. Coffee (which sounds like an alias but apparently isn’t) possesses no knowledge of the legal system (neither do I and I know none of what happens is legal) and by the end you’re so exhausted from asking questions you have no interest in the plot.
The actors are all seem to be playing things straight, but with the morass of domestic dreariness and legal shenanigans there’s nothing for them to do. Loy and Powell have about twenty-five minutes of screentime where they’re together, and while that’s entertaining you have to ask why they’re paired if the point is to separate them. Loy is a woman who looks just as gorgeous sobbing as she does laughing, and there’s plenty of both in her role. Unfortunately, that’s all that her character is made of, so the routine gets old quick. Una Merkel continues to surprise as that friend who never appears to leave your house (she’s just a family friend who I guess lives there). Merkel provides drama as the go-between for both John and Evelyn. The worst of the trio is Powell who isn’t given anything to do for over an hour. The last half of the movie relies on his abilities to play a lawyer, which he’s good at.
The only ones who should seek out Evelyn Prentice are die-hard fans of Loy and Powell, or if you want a hearty laugh at their expense. The movie is utterly ridiculous and that ludicrousness translates into a near unwatchable mess. Loy and Powell try their damndest to provide some anchor to keep things movie, but in the end this is an incredibly long hour and eighteen minutes.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.