The best scene in Three Women is the very first one. That’s not to say that what follows it falls short of it—just that it establishes facts and truths that enrich everything after it. It is a scene about choice. And that choice concerns grapefruit.
Mabel Wilton (Pauline Frederick) is a wealthy widow in her early 40s. She’s what you’d call a handsome woman—elegant, poised, still in possession of the beauty that has made her popular for years. But she’s wary of her decline. We see her nudge the sliders of a scale, concerned with the numbers it offers; we see her linger before a mirror. She sits in her lush apartment, alone, while her servant brings her a plate of grapefruit wedges.
A finely crafted metal scale; a gilded mirror; a pricey abode with no guests… and diet food on a silver platter. Mabel lives comfortably alright, but she can no longer ignore the inevitable. Aging, for her, has become blunt fact. Without her youthful beauty she fears she’ll have nothing—except for the money, and Mabel’s self-worth requires her to believe herself attractive without it.
I felt for Mabel, who is not the film’s main character, but perhaps its most sympathetic. She did not have to be sympathetic, but this first scene allows us to see her that way, and allows us to have a degree of sympathy and understanding for everyone else, too. Its exquisite detail—a product of director Ernst Lubitsch’s eye and Frederick’s sensitive performance—sets a standard the rest of the film must live up to, and for the most part, does.
Time isn’t Mabel’s only enemy. Edmund Lamont (Lew Cody) is a womanizing cad; a man with expensive tastes who funds them with other peoples’ money. He owes a considerable sum to Harvey Craig (Willard Louis) and cannot pay it off. Craig, a venture-capitalist of sorts, sees a chance to make his money back by matching Edmund with Mabel. A cynical cupid in a three-piece suit, he sets up the pair—providing most of the film’s early laughs.
Three Women is very funny, in fact; as you’d expect a Lubitsch film to be. But the stakes are too high for it to remain so. It’s not just Mabel’s fortunes she stands to lose, but the remainder of her dignity. And ultimately even more that that—as we learn when we meet Mabel’s daughter, Jeanne, played by May McAvoy, the star of the picture. Jeanne is at college. A good kid, she longs to spend more time with her mother, who keeps her distance because, we suspect, the girl reminds her of years gone by.
Jeanne did not inherit her mother’s temperament, but she did inherit her looks—and will one day inherit her wealth. All this makes her an inviting target for the shameless Lamont, growing darker with every frame, who manipulates both women just long enough to have a secure position once his ruse is exposed.
Three Women was the opening film at Cinefest 33’s day-long set of screenings at the Palace Theatre, in Syracuse, New York. It set a high standard for the films that followed it—one none of them met. What set Three Women apart was Lubitsch’s insistence that his characters act in ways that reflected who they were, not simply what they were. Lamont, for example, is more than a gold-digger; he’s an egotist who, like Mable, is past his prime. He has as much need to prove his own appeal as she does hers. Jeanne, likewise, is no doe-eyed innocent—she’s trapped by Lamont because she needs to be coveted by someone older than her. That is also why shy med-student Fred (Pierre Gendron), the one who truly loves her, cannot get her attention.
Three Women establishes, in its opening minutes, the corrosive power of desperation. Faced with fates they fear, but can no longer ignore, Mabel, Jeanne, and even Edmund clutch at their nearest sources of salvation—and for each of them, it’s a bad choice, made too quickly. For us, of course, the choices are ideal. Because they give us things to ponder: about human nature, about the inevitable, and about what makes us truly love ourselves. This is a fine film, and I wish it were easier to find.
I saw Three Women at Cinefest 33 in Syracuse, NY; March 16, 2013.