Common Law (1931)

Genres - Drama  |   Sub-Genres - Melodrama  |   Run Time - 72 min.  |   Countries - United States   |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Synopsis by Bruce Eder

Ellen Neal (Constance Bennett) is a "nice" girl -- just turned 18 -- who's been picked up in a raid on a speakeasy where she just started working. She pleads guilty to vagrancy, but gets a lecture and warning from the judge to steer clear of places like that, and to try and find honest work. She tries to do precisely that and is hired a year later as a maid in the household of the Fullertons, a wealthy family with roots going back to the English aristocracy. She's very aware of the opportunity she's been given, and tries to lead an honorable life, despite the lecherous inclinations of the household's major domo (Charles McNaughton) and the less obnoxious but equally fervent impulses of their college-age son, Hugh (Lew Ayres), and his friends. Ellen soon finds, however, that for all of their pretensions to greatness, the Fullertons and their friends enjoy exactly the same leisure activities -- including drinking illegal liquor (this is in the middle of the Prohibition era), bought from the same gangsters, dancing the same dances, and singing the same songs that the customers did in the speakeasy where she worked; and that at least one of the close family friends, Bud Coakley (Matty Kemp), was a customer at that same place and remembers her. He tells Hugh what he thinks he knows about Ellen's "past" and soon Hugh is putting moves on her, which she resists anew. When he realizes the kind of woman she really is, Hugh ultimately comes to genuinely love her, and those attentions she is willing to accept and return in kind. He returns to college in September -- before Ellen discovers that she is pregnant -- and when she writes to tell him, he doesn't answer. Ellen leaves her job and returns to live with her mother (Beryl Mercer), and she has the baby, a boy. Hugh never does reply to her letters, and she is forced to hire an attorney, Yates (Tully Marshall). The Fullerton family, led by the blustery patriarch Richard (Purnell Pratt), wants this case settled quietly, out of court, and so instructs his lawyer, Judge Filson (Hale Hamilton). Filson expects to encounter a cheap gold digger, but when he meets Ellen, he's pleasantly surprised and comes to believe her story about the baby's paternity. Meanwhile, it turns out that Hugh would like to do the right thing by Ellen, but his best impulses have been diverted by his father's advice (always focused on preserving the family's reputation) and Bud, who still thinks of Ellen as the girl from the speakeasy. Complicating matters even further is that Ellen doesn't even want money and never did -- all she wanted is the acknowledgement from Hugh about who she was to him and who the baby's father is. When she's confronted by her "past," it looks as though she may never get a chance to press her case, until her attorney uncovers a fact that gets Bud and Hugh hauled into court. It still looks like the Fullertons will get their way, with a trumped-up session prejudiced in favor of them, when suddenly some truths come out that turn the reputations of all concerned completely on their heads.



feminism, host, maid, rags-to-riches, speakeasy