Florence Vidor is apparently kind of an unknown quantity in film history; she’s mainly remembered for her marriage to respected director King Vidor. Vidor had been instrumental in his wife’s rise to fame, but in 1924 the two of them divorced and each carried on alone. One of Vidor’s post-King movies was 1926’s You Never Know Women, a to-the-point tale of Russian vaudevillians and tony playboys. It might seem random, but Russian-themed stories were big in Hollywood in those days, and this one pulled out all the stops.
The film begins at a construction site in the evening, where the crew are busily hammering and pouring concrete because of course they are. A pretty woman named Vera (Florence Vidor) walks past just as a rope hoisting a steel beam breaks, and the guy smoothing the concrete pushes her out of the way. Vera faints and her umbrella is broken, but she’s fine otherwise.
A rich guy in evening dress, Eugene Foster (Lowell Sherman) hops out of his limo and tells the assembled crowd, including the cement guy who did the actual rescue, declaring, “I can help her better than you!”
He asks Vera, who’s come round by then, if she needs a ride, but Vera refuses, saying she’s got to be somewhere. She hustles off to the theater, where she’s part of a Russian vaudeville troup. After breathlessly explaining why she’s late to the rest of the company, Vera slips into her costume and the show commences. It’s a crazy-fun mix of dancers, acrobatics, and a guy named Toberchik (El Brendel) who teeters around on a stack of barrels while his bespectacled duck looks on. Vera is one of the stars of the show, and among other fancy tricks, she dons fairy wings and flies around the theater, much to the delight of the audience.
The other star attraction of the show is Ivan (Clive Brook). He’s all over the place, doing a little bit of everything, but his big showpiece is his Houdini routine. Really. He gets chained up, put in a box with airholes, and dropped into a tank full of water. If he’s not free in three minutes, one of his fellow performers is standing by with a sledgehammer waiting to break the tank and let him out. Vera always waits in the wings watching him nervously. No matter how many times she sees Ivan perform the stunt, it always unnerves her.
On this particular night, Eugene has ensconced himself in the audience, and while he’s kind of a snob about the show, he does slip backstage before the finale to ask Vera to dinner afterwards. She’s all fluttery and wants to accept, but then Ivan comes over, clearly jealous. Eugene extends his invitation to the entire company, but Ivan imperiously refuses, telling him that their troup doesn’t accept any invitations before striding away. Vera then rushes to change for the finale.
Vera’s troup is like a family, and in the evenings when they’re not performing, they all hang out in the common room of their apartment. Everyone is having fun and relaxing–some are playing cards, others munching on snacks, and all are having coffee with sugar cubes on the side. Even the duck gets to down some hot java. Vera sits on a chaise lounge reading poetry when Ivan brings her some coffee, and she reads out some of the lines to him. There’s obvious chemistry between them, and Vera asks Ivan if love happens suddenly.
Ivan answers that it does sometimes, but before either of them can say anything else, the troupe’s manager (Sidney Bracey) pops round with Eugene in tow. Everyone has to be nice to Eugene, he says, because Eugene has booked the show to perform at a dinner party he’s having on Saturday. Vera is giddy. Ivan is not. Still, there’s ten thousand dollars in it for them, which is nothing to sneeze at.
The night of the party goes swimmingly at first. Then Eugene brings one of his party guests (played by a younger and uncredited Eugene Pallette) backstage to meet a lady in the company he fancies. The lady’s boyfriend isn’t too pleased about it, and during the next number he’s distracted by said party guest kissing his girlfriend’s hand. The platform he’s been holding up with his legs comes down, with Vera tumbling after. She’s knocked unconscious, but before anyone can help her, Eugene leaps in, again declaring, “I can help her better than you!” Eugene carries Vera out to a balcony, where he lays a few kisses on her. Ivan follows them and mournfully glowers.
Eugene persists in hanging around the theater while the troupe rehearses a new show and Ivan’s new illusion, which involves Vera and a trick mirror. This will become important later, but I’m not going to spoil anything.
Inevitably, Eugene asks Vera to marry him. Vera thinks she’s going to accept, but she doesn’t want to leave the troup, who stick together through thick and thin. Something will have to give, of course.
Seemingly out of the blue, Ivan cooks up a beefier version of his Houdini trick, only this time he’s going to be dropped in the harbor by the docks. To an enraptured crowd, he’s lowered into the water, and the audience waits with bated breath. Vera wonders if she’s made a mistake in accepting Eugene’s proposal and faints when she doesn’t see Ivan resurface right away. Where it all ends up is a well-earned blindside.
You Never Know Women clocks in at just over an hour long, and it moves fast. There are no subplots or extraneous schtick. Any padding is provided by the vaudeville sequences, which director William Wellman filmed fantastically. When the performers are onstage, the camera moves in long, mostly smooth tracking shots with very few cuts, causing the viewer to go from being an audience member to part of the act. It’s gorgeous and fun to see. Now, granted, the love triangle is an eternal plot, but when it’s done as well as this one.
The movie opened to favorable reviews–the August 7, 1926 issue of Motion Picture World called it “unusually excellent,” and thought it refreshing that Vidor was playing a role that wasn’t high society for a change. Sadly, her film career would end three years after the release of You Never Know Women. She made one talkie, Chinatown Nights, and hated the experience so much that she left behind film acting forever. She retired to Pacific Palisades, raised her family, and died there in 1977 at the age of eighty-two.
Okeydokey, all, my entry for the Luso World Blogathon is coming up tomorrow. Thanks for reading…