Frank Tuttle, the man who made a star of Alan Ladd with the twisted film noir This Gun for Hire (1942), began as a comedy specialist, churning out three or more films a year as vehicles for Eddie Cantor, Edgar Bergen and his knee-pal Charlie McCarthy, Burns & Allen et cetera. Pleasure Cruise (1933) is a pre-Code farce centered on improbably couple Roland Young (Ruggles of Red Gap, Topper) and Genevieve Tobin.
Young plays a penniless author working as house-husband to the gainfully employed Tobin, while seething with jealousy at the thought of the young blades romancing her in the office. In one of many unusual stylistic touches, we see her portrait come to life and watch as she mingles with the staff, none of whom looks to be under sixty, and they're not exactly silver foxes. The stage is set for a film mocking male paranoia and jealousy and questioning notions of fidelity, virtue, and honesty.
Young is his usual self, all tight-lipped hemming, hawing and mumbling, a huffing apology of earnest and ridiculous British masculinity. Tobin is charming and vivacious: she worked steadily through the thirties and was always watchable but never made the front rank of stars. A gallery of dependable supporting players parade by: Herbert Mundin, Robert Greig, Minna Gombell. It's a comforting warm bath of film grain and long-departed, familiar faces.
The farce gets underway when Young's jealous needling causes Tobin to take a luxury cruise without him (complete with footage from the spectacular Transatlantic spliced in to raise the production values). Since she's told him, in a fit of anger at his jealousy, that she's never been with another man and is curious about it, he tags along, getting a job as the ship's barber to keep an eye on her.
Cue various ridiculous disguises, as Young manages to thwart any potential shipboard romances, while fending off amorous advances from, of all people, Una O'Connor. The actress, famed for her gallery of grotesques in the films of James Whale, Ernst Lubitsch, and Billy Wilder, for once plays it posh, which is oddly disconcerting. And for once, her casting seems a bit cruel, since her usual roles never made a point of her being sexually undesirable: it just never came up.
The film gets downright weird when Young decides to take the place of Tobin's most determined suitor, on the occasion of the ship's costume ball. After creeping around disguised as Neptune, Young barricades the seducer in his cabin and douses himself in the man's scent ("Stolen Love") before visiting Tobin's darkened bedroom... This is, of course, wildly problematic: she thinks she's committing adultery when in fact she is, I guess, being raped. In a kind of way. Of course, the movie doesn't encourage us to interrogate the morality too much: in a 1930s movie, this rather unusual kind of sex is OK, because at least it's in wedlock.
There's no way back from this, but the film actually does really well, uh, considering: there's edge-of-the-seat suspense the next day when the would-be-lover meets Tobin the morning after and they talk at spectacular cross-purposes: he thinks he inadvertently stood her up, she thinks he made mad, passionate love to her. "I thought you might be a little bit disappointed," he says. "Oh, but I wasn't, Richard, not at all." "I was. Horribly."
Young's plan is going smoothly. (Old military saying: When your plan of attack is working perfectly, you have just walked into a trap.) He thinks he's caught his wife in the act—with him—so he has the satisfaction of having her infidelity confirmed without her actually going with anyone else. This seems to tie in with my suspicion that jealous men want to have their suspicions proved correct: it's the only thing that will relive the terrible tension, even if it destroys their relationships.
But then Tobin discovers what's really happened: now she can turn the tables, pretend she knew it was him all along, and if she can't quite prove that she's been faithful in her own imagination (none of us can), she can make all his scheming seem very silly.
Despite that impossible, disturbing and unrecoverable moment, the movie is mostly surprisingly sophisticated, unconventional and modern in its attitudes. With just a hint of Eyes Wide Shut.