It is increasingly rare these days to come across a star-powered American movie of the 1930s that hasn’t already been reviewed by at least one person submitting a review to the Internet Movie Database. I did not set out to dig up such an unexamined rarity, but was rather surprised—and pleased—to have unearthed one by dusting off The Misleading Lady, a comedy starring my favorite leading lady, Ms. Claudette Colbert.
Now, as those who have indulged me in sharing my passions and foibles may already be too keenly aware, I enjoy gathering and gazing at the likenesses of this sophisticated comedienne on posters, magazine covers, and, yes, paper dolls. As an undergraduate, I wrote a speech about her, which I sent to her home in Barbados—and received her autograph. Later, she became the subject of an honors paper titled “Ladies in Loco-Motion.” And later still, thoughts of her got me started on what turned into my doctoral study on radio drama (Etherized Victorians), which has its origin in my joyous discovery that Colbert not infrequently performed on the air.
Come Christmas time, I go so far as to insist on dangling cardboard replicas of the good woman from our tree—but that’s about as fanatical as I get. Still, there is nothing more gratifying than the real thing: to watch or hear Colbert act. Having missed the opportunity to see her perform on the Broadway or London stage, I find great consolation in the fact that she had starring roles in about sixty motion pictures.
While in New York City last, I packed a few more videos in my trunk; but there remained—and still remain—gaps in my knowledge of Colbert’s cinematic achievements (and occasional misfires). So, how wonderful was it to find under aforementioned piece of dislodged pine a number of films I had only read about until then: Secrets of a Secretary, The Man from Yesterday, The Phantom President, Four Frightened People, and The Misleading Lady. Having been ill (and ill-tempered) of late, I did not want to squander these flickering gems by heaping them onto my thick head; so I kept myself tolerably amused watching films like The Saint Strikes Back (a sly caper challenging one of my more simplistic conclusions about Hollywood law and order). Yesterday it was time at last to screen one of these five films, and the Lady took the lead.
The Misleading Lady is no classic, to be sure; few of the pre-code films are. Their construction and moral ambiguities render many of them incongruous or downright irritating. We expect such digressions from a contemporary independent film, but are still surprised to encounter it in an old—and therefore presumably stodgy—production of Hollywood’s studio era.
As my IMDb review, once approved, will tell you, The Misleading Lady is not without daring and rather disconcerting scenes involving a bored socialite being trapped in her own scheme to land a man. She doesn’t want the guy, mind you (not at first, at least); but he might just be her ticket to a starring role in a stage play. Once he realizes that he’s been had, he sets out to restore his pride and win the dame in the process. Too bad Colbert doesn’t get to wield the gun more often, but is being terrorized and tamed instead as the farce veers into something more akin to lurid melodrama.
There is a radio angle, of course. Clark Gable played the role of the macho dupe in a 1935 Lux Radio Theatre production of The Misleading Lady. Transcriptions of this broadcast (not starring Colbert, Gable’s partner in It Happened One Night) are unfortunately no longer extant—but I’ve always got this Lady to return to . . .