Classic Film Review – That Certain Woman (1937)



Mary Donnell has bad luck with men. She begins That Certain Woman as the widow of a slain bootlegger. She married at the age of 15 thinking that she could change him. Years later she has now turned her life around. Mary keeps a low profile as the secretary to an attorney, despite newspaper attempts to sniff out her whereabouts for a “where are they now” story.
Her older married boss is just getting ready to confess his feelings for his faithful secretary. Unfortunately, he discovers that Mary is in love with irresponsible playboy heir Jack Merrick Jr. Jack talks Mary into eloping and with her boss’ blessing, she agrees. Immediately after the marriage the couple is confronted by Jack’s strict, heartless father who objects to Mary as a daughter-in-law thanks to her less then pristine background. Mary is an honorable woman whose past has been tainted by her dead husband’s behavior. But Jack Sr. manages to annul the marriage, because Junior has never had the backbone to oppose his father. However, he can’t annul her pregnancy. As years pass, the senior Merrick’s ruthless meddling continues to play out, bringing heartbreak to everyone.

I have watched my fair share of Bette Davis films and although she is not my go-to actress, she certainly deserves all the praise she received for her acting skills. For some reason, she really snagged my interest in this film. As the film begins she plays Mary Donnell as a quiet, loving young woman. One with an air of innocence and vulnerability about her in spite of her past. Davis’ usual onscreen intensity is muted. Yet it slowly builds as the film progresses and she displays Mary’s sacrificial love wrapped around a steel spine. For all of Davis’ innate skill, I often have a hard time relating to her stark confidence and assertive onscreen nature. I often find her a bit abrasive for my taste. But this is not the case with That Certain Woman. Her role as a mother is one of my favorite maternal portrayals in any of her films. She is so tender, playful and practical with her young son.
Davis is joined by another film legend, Henry Fonda, who plays the spineless Jack Merrick Jr. At first glance he seems a bit like a stereotype. As we watch his interactions with his harsh father, it’s easy to realize why he fears taking a stand against him for any reason that doesn’t require it. His father is one of the coldest, cruelest parent’s I’ve seen onscreen.The absence of Jack Jr.’s mother means that he rarely experienced any love or encouragement in his life. Fonda often played opposite strong leading ladies such as Davis, Barbara Stanwyck and Claudette Colbert, so he is right at home as a man who is used to being the weaker character in a romantic pairing.

I could sympathize with Merrick Jr. because of his weakness. Still, I found myself rooting for Mary to end up with her boss, despite their difference in age and his marital status. His care and concern for her is evident even becoming sacrificial to a certain extent. He is clearly the better man for her. Unfortunately Mary seems to fall in love with weaker men thanks to a fix-it complex.

Mary with her boss/wannabe lover.
Overall, this was a Bette Davis film I really enjoyed although the last third of it devolved into a melodramatic soap opera. I liked seeing the growth of Mary’s character and strength. Having watched That Certain Woman very soon after seeing Golden Arrow another Davis film (a comedy) which I really enjoyed, just may be shifting my preference for her films. Although Dark Victory  will probably always be my favorite Davis film.
That Certain Woman is available on DVD and Amazon streaming services.
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