A Wicked Woman (1934) was Robert Taylor’s first feature film for MGM. Previously he had played a small part in Will Rogers’ Handy Andy (1934) for Twentieth-Century Fox. This was followed by the lead in an MGM short, Buried Loot.
In A Wicked Woman Mr. Taylor plays Bill Renton, the local cad. He is overly made up as was the fashion at the time and his hair is slicked flat against his skull. He has only three scenes in the film, all of them with Jean Parker. First he is trying to arrange an assignation with Ms. Parker against her mother’s wishes. Second, he and she wake up in Mr. Taylor’s car and realize it is four a.m. She tries to sneak in the house and is caught by her mother.
Third, Ms.Parker has left home and gone to be with Mr. Taylor. He, unfortunately, was only looking for fun, not a relationship. A fight starts between Mr. Taylor and Ms. Parker’s brother (William Henry). The brother gets the worst of it and Mr. Taylor exits.
A Wicked Woman hit the screens in 1934. It is a melodrama with a solid core of morality. Nono Trice (Mady Christians) is a young woman living in extreme poverty with her moonshiner husband. On the run from the sheriff, the husband is going to dump Nono and take the eldest boy with him. She can’t allow this and ends up shooting the drunken husband and dumping his body in the bayou. The next day she gives birth to her fourth child, a boy with a deformed leg.
The young mother leaves town with the children and begins to turn herself into a different woman through education. She is an extremely strict disciplinarian–so harsh that a modern viewer would disapprove. She changes her name to Naomi Stroud and eventually becomes a high end dressmaker.
When the children grow up, Naomi cannot let go of them, trying to hold them in childhood for their own protection. They, naturally, rebel– discovering alcohol, dancing and dating. Naomi herself acquires a boyfriend in the person of a local newspaper editor (Charles Bickford). The youngest girl (Jean Peters) is dating a young, sleek and villainous Robert Taylor. Taylor is a louse who ends up injuring Curt (William Henry), the oldest boy. Naomi bargains with God (for the second time) that if Curt lives she will go back and turn herself in for murder.
Naomi’s defense is that she was protecting her children but she produces no children in court and is about to be convicted. At the last moment her whole family arrives, with her boyfriend, and she goes free and marries the boyfriend. The cast also includes Betty Furness as the older daughter and Sterling Holloway as her boyfriend.
So why is this more than a soap opera? Because Naomi is self-sacrificing (perhaps a bit much so) but she is determined to better herself and bring her children up to be responsible citizens. In our current era of anything goes, this message probably seems laughable to many viewers. Education, honesty, propriety and courage may seem out of date, but they are not.
Note: At this point MGM did not know what to do with Robert Taylor. No one anticipated that he would eventually earn the studio well over $150,000,000.