I have always been intrigued by stories of self-sacrifice and characters who doom themselves by doing the so-called “right thing.” When watching movies, I find myself rooting for characters to follow their hearts, regardless of the consequences. Things that I would never approve of in the real world, I champion in fiction. Outcast Lady (1934) is one of those films in which I find myself yelling at the screen, “Just tell him the truth! You can be in love; you can be happy!” But alas, I suppose it would have made a much shorter and less-interesting film. Outcast Lady, directed by Robert Z. Leonard, is the story of a woman who loses everything that matters to her in the world in order to do what she feels is necessary to protect the honor of her late husband and the idolized man her brother holds so dear.
The movie is based on a controversial play called The Green Hat (1924) by Michael Arlen, which was previously filmed in 1928 under the name A Woman of Affairs, starring Greta Garbo and John Gilbert and directed by Clarence Brown. Woman retains much more of the sensational material from the play. But as Outcast Lady was filmed after stricter enforcement of the Production Code began in 1934, the script was severely watered down. In place of the racier themes of the earlier film, screenwriters Zoe Akins and Monckton Hoffe heightened the sentimental elements of the plot to tearjerking levels.
Childhood sweethearts Iris March (the beautiful Constance Bennett) and Napier Harpenden (Herbert Marshall) find themselves utterly in love and plan to marry; however, their plans for romance are dashed by Napier’s father, who disapproves of Iris and her family (Iris’s brother Gerald is a raging alcoholic and gambler). Napier tells Iris that he must travel to India to fulfill his father’s wishes of a great career for his son, and promises to return to marry her one day. Iris waits several years for his return, but eventually begins to believe that he will never return for her. Instead, she marries Gerald’s best friend, Boy Fenwick (Ralph Forbes), another of their childhood playmates. Gerald (Hugh Williams) idolizes Boy, believing him to be almost saint-like. Gerald’s love and worship of Boy is evident, and he begs his sister on her wedding day to be a good wife: “You’re Boy’s wife now, and if you ever forget it, I hope he beats you. Now do be good.” He knows that his sister is still in love with her childhood sweetheart, Napier, but he hopes that she and Boy can have a happy marriage regardless.
Iris is indeed a dutiful and devoted wife (at least, for their one day of matrimony). On the first night of their marriage, she reads a note given to her by a stranger, explaining that her new husband had been imprisoned for an unspoken, horrible crime. Iris attempts to console Boy; at first, she tells him that she completely dismisses the allegation. However, Boy admits the truth in the allegation.
Boy: “I’ve seen you in my mind a thousand times when you found this out. I’ve seen you take it just like this; of course, I hoped you would. But now …”
Iris: “Don’t worry. I’ll never speak of it again … I won’t even think of it.”
Although his wife is completely forgiving and understanding, Boy cannot handle the fact that she now knows his dark secret. He locks the door to the hotel room and leaps from the window. When confronted about his death, Iris refuses to allow the men who found the note to reveal it to the public: “The truth must not be known…When he saw the horror that must have come into my face, I suppose he tried to atone by it… I won’t have them made public. He has atoned; he’s dead. What good will it do the world to know why he died. Please, if you want to help me, say nothing. Nothing!” Iris sacrifices her own reputation and chance of happiness in life in order to protect her late husband’s good name, as well as to spare her brother from the realization that his dear friend was not as perfect as he believed.
The doctor who finds her husband’s body explains to family friend Hilary (Robert Loraine): “Mrs. Fenwick doesn’t realize that if the public thinks her husband committed suicide on his wedding night, her own reputation may be blackened.” Nevertheless, Iris refuses to make public the knowledge of her husband’s motive for suicide. Everyone blames Iris for his death. Her name is dragged through newspapers; her own friends and family condemn her. Her drunken and enraged brother confronts her with his accusations: “Boy is dead because Iris wasn’t good enough for him. I’ve always known it, and in the end, he knew it too, and it killed him. Why shouldn’t she be blamed?” He vows never to forgive his sister for causing the death of his friend.
For his part, Napier, too, has difficulty accepting Iris’ supposed part in Boy’s death:
Iris: “Boy died deliberately because he found he made a mistake in marrying me.”
Napier: “You don’t know what you’re doing: what you’re making people think … But Iris, this can’t be true that Boy killed himself because of something you’d done. Say it isn’t!”
Iris: “What difference does it make?”
Napier: “It means that if it is true, I couldn’t forgive you either.”
Iris: “There’s no question of forgiveness at a time like this. One simply loves or doesn’t love.”
Napier: “I’ve loved you more than you’ll ever know. I can forgive you for wrecking my life, but not your own.”
As a result of Boy’s mysterious death, Iris is outcast by her friends and family. Boy was thought to be a most honorable man; the idea that Iris could have done something so horrific that Boy would kill himself makes her a social pariah. She travels far, but the rumors of her husband’s mysterious death follow her everywhere. She stays away for many years, and Napier, believing her responsible for Boy’s death, eventually becomes engaged to another woman. Because she refuses to tell the truth about Boy’s dark past, Iris’s chance of happiness in life is ruined. Thus, she chooses the happiness of her brother over her own.
Hilary: “Iris, why did you insist on ruining yourself by lying?”
Iris: “I wanted Gerald to keep his love for his dead friend. It’s my gift to his future.”
After several years of travel, Iris receives a letter from Hilary, warning her of Gerald’s ill health. Despite her intentions of saving her brother from destitution, he drinks himself to death in his hatred toward her. Hilary implores her to confess the truth to Gerald: “Iris, your gallantry hasn’t saved Joe. Don’t you think he needs your love and care more than his belief in Boy Fenwick? Let me tell him why Boy died. You know he’d never tell anyone else.” Iris agrees, but Gerald refuses to see her when she comes to care for him, and she is not able to tell him goodbye before he dies. He does, however, tell Hilary to send his love to his sister, and to tell her his hatred has washed away.
Iris’s gallantry, which has ruined not only her own life, but potentially the lives of her brother and Napier, proves to be ineffective in the end. This tragic film is tailor-made for those who enjoy unrequited love and enough suicides to make Shakespeare jealous.