The Battle of the Sexes (1928)
“The War of Loves! Flapper vs. Lounge Lizard. Husband vs. Vampire. Gold-Digger vs. Mother. Sire vs. Siren. See yourself as others see YOU.”
Director: D W Griffith
Cast: Jean Hersholt, Phyllis Haver, Belle Bennett
Synopsis: Gum-chewing frizzy-haired golddigger Marie Skinner cooks up a scheme with her lover Babe Winsor, a jazz hound, to fleece a portly middle-aged real estate tycoon, William Judson.
D. W. Griffith’s career was coming to an inauspicious end when he made this comedy-drama, and we can see in the opening shot of a shapely pair of women’s legs, that he was making a determined effort to cast off the Victorian attitudes that had pervaded so many of his movies both before and after his financial fall from grace following the release of Intolerance in 1917. Those legs belong to Marie (Phyllis Haver), a shameless gold-digger, who finds the copy of Little Women that she’s reading extremely amusing, and who is on the lookout for a Sugar Daddy. It just so happens that one is sitting right next to her in the multi-sex hairdressers she is frequenting, and when the gentleman’s barber happens to let slip about the fortune his customer made on his last business deal, you can practically see the dollar signs in Marie’s eyes.
The portly gentleman has no name, but is simply known as The Father, and is played by Jean Hersholt. As his credits title implies, The Father’s home life is a model of domestic bliss, as we see when he returns home for the party celebration of his wife, The Mother (Belle Bennett). The Mother and The Father have two slightly mad looking children called The Daughter (Sally O’Neil) and The Son (William Bakewell), who are clearly devoted to their ‘Mumsy.’ And The Mother is so happy that, when she’s called upon to make a birthday wish as she blows out the candles on her cake, she wishes that life would go on like this forever. Unfortunately, she doesn’t manage to blow out all the candles — in fact, the entire family has a job doing it — and we can’t help thinking that maybe, just maybe, that might spell trouble for them in the future.
Of course, it certainly does, Especially when Marie’s lover Babe Winsor (Don Alvorado), a slimy, lounge lizard type with a pencil moustache and a taste for expensive clothes, installs her in the apartment down the corridor from The Father and his family with the instruction to worm her way into his affections and sell him bonds at an exaggerated price. Naturally, it’s not long before the sexy Marie has The Father repeatedly dabbing perspiration from his brow with her improvised swimming styles, and before you know it he’s neglecting his family and spending all his evenings in Marie’s company.
For all Griffith’s attempts to reflect the hedonistic lifestyle of the roaring twenties in The Battle of the Sexes (which was actually an updated remake of his own 1914 movie of the same name), the Victorian values of family life are still prevalent, and we’re never left in any doubt that The Father will ultimately return to The Mother, with his tired tail between his legs after recovering from his ‘sick spell.’ Today, The Mother would give that tail a good kick and sue the cheating bastard for half his fortune before finding herself a toy boy like Babe, but Victorian values naturally demanded that she instantly forgive him and welcome him back into the family home. Inevitably, the tepid comedy of the first half of the picture eventually gives way to a melodrama that drags a little at times, but there are some good things to take from The Battle of the Sexes. The warmth and strength of the relationship between mother and daughter is particularly well handled, and Sally O’Neil shines in the role of The Daughter. Griffith also makes a good job of the domestic altercations that arise once The Father’s infidelity comes to light. There’s no doubting that Griffith’s halcyon days were far behind him, but he was still able to inject some quality into even the most ordinary of material.
(Reviewed 21st October 2013)