It’s less than 10 minutes into Riptide, and already Norma Shearer is decked out in insect-woman garb, adjusting the fit of the skimpy costume and complaining that part of it must surely be missing. Mary, the easygoing city girl Shearer plays, never makes it to the masquerade ball scheduled out on Long Island. Instead, she falls easily in lust with a lonely New York swell named Lord Philip Rexford (Herbert Marshall), equally ridiculous in an unrecognizable bug costume that fits him like a suit of chain mail might, if chain mail came with bug eyes a pair of antennae. As meet cutes go, it’s a terrific pre-Code absurdity — the movie hasn’t even begun yet, and already the leading lady is half undressed.
My suspicions that this romantic melodrama would prove to be delightfully self-aware from start to finish were slowly, somewhat cruelly confounded over the course of its running time. For the most part, the film is expertly assembled, boasting smart and snippy dialogue (though director Edmund Goulding is credited as a strict auteur, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur were apparently uncredited screenwriters, which explains a lot), broadly entertaining performances (especially by a fidgety, hyperactive Robert Montgomery), and a wry, sexually charged sense of humor. But as the story descends into a series of reversals built around the question of Lady Mary’s fidelity (or not) to Lord Philip, and his belief (or not) in her protestations of innocence, the film gets wrapped up ever-tighter around one very small idea — the notion that a marriage requires much honesty and patience in order to work.
That’s true enough in any era. But there’s a lot of nuance to this scenario that Riptide simply jettisons in favor of reaching its tidy, expedient conclusion. What, after all, does it profit poor Mary if she recovers her marriage but loses her soul? It’s a question this film seems to engage briefly, then never consider again. Instead, the film becomes so serious and singleminded over the question of Philip’s forgiveness that, by its final reel, it’s a bore, and dispiriting to boot.