A long descending tracking shot takes us into the world of the theater. It is the final number of the last performance of a none too successful play. We are shown one beauty after another and can barely separate them. Our rules of continuity make us believe that once the camera stops rolling we'll catch a glimpse of our star. The camera finally settles on Mae Clark as she yawns her way through this last act. A few seconds later we are in a dressing room, and our heroine takes off her costume and spends the rest of the short scene discussing her new suitor, possible job opportunities all while in her underwear. At this moment you don't have to look at the copyright date, you can pinpoint this film within about a three year time span. This is that wonderful time in Hollywood when the movies learned to talk before censors decided to dictate what they could say.
Two years have passed and Myra (Clarke) has not found stage work since. Her minx fur which was brand new in the previous scene now looks like a well worn scarf. The company she keeps is not among the best, as she is joined on the street by a slightly older widow. The two live in a shady part of town and they have to pay the rent by the oldest profession in the world. The time is WWI and there are nearly constant air raids in London. Along one of these raids Myra meets a 19 year old soldier just back for leave named Roy (Kent Douglass). They meet after Mora stops to help an old lady pick up her dropped potatoes, and he readily obliges to lend a hand, meanwhile in typical Whale fashion the old lady being helped could care less for their assistance. She thinks of him as another young soldier she can take back, talk sweetly to and get to pay the long past due rent. However something changes. She gets him to give her the rent money plus a little something extra and apparently has no intention of asking for anything in return, but she refuses. This is her first time balking at an offer and the beginning of a change in her character. He on the other hand thinks his money offended her and leaves already in love and pitying this poor out of work chorus girl.
Of course this boy, a fellow American in London happens to come from a rather well off family and joined the infantry in a moment of overzealous drunkenness. He tricks her into spending some time with his family in the country, where she finds some of the most caring and understanding people she ever met. The generosity is too much for her and she flees. She even confesses her profession to her would be mother-in-law and she still professes she's a great girl. Rather than shame this young man who by this point she can't help but love because no one had ever been kinder, she retreats back to London. Her conscience is bothering her however and she refuses one particular trick. Yet as one would expect Roy won't leave until he finds out the truth.
The film is melodramatic, but oh so great. The film often gets overlooked (as many films did) by its 1940 star studded remake with Vivian Leigh and Laurence Olivier. Yet that film was made when this subject was hot water. Whale's film gets a chance to be much racier and gets away with a lot more. His sense of humor is always present as he makes sure that all of his old actors are very distinct personalities including the step father who's "10 years to old to be in uniform" who happens to be near deaf and the two faced land lady who bears a striking resemblance to Una O'Connor. As a melodrama not a horror film one wouldn't think the lighting scheme would be so vital but with constant blackouts and seedy parts of London, Whale is able to carry on his tradition of tall shadows. The film's climax is at once heartwarming and heartbreaking. I can't quite explain it but within a moment your emotions are wrung dry. I haven't encountered another Whale film that hits quite this hard and by far the best work I've seen of Clarke who should have at least been nominated for an Oscar. The film might be a curiosity to viewers as one of Bette Davis' earliest pictures, she plays Roy's sister.