That Certain Woman is anything but a standard romance story or even a typical romance that must fight against scandal. Unfortunately, the sheer complexity of this Bette Davis–Henry Fonda story really drags the movie down as it becomes increasingly heavy with plot elements and its lack of realistic motives.
Davis as Mary Donnell, formerly Mrs. Al Haines, gangster, has turner her life around since her husband’s death and works as a secretary to a big shot lawyer with whom she is considerably simpatico. Fonda is Jack Merrick who has been seeing Mary for three years and has just returned from Europe desperate to marry, displaying a supreme passion for the woman. Mary requires Jack to swear off his wealthy father’s support and get a job if she is to agree to the union. Mary’s boss, Lloyd Rogers (Ian Hunter), also a friend of Jack’s, insists on their immediate marriage –Jack’s father be damned– even sharing Mary’s sordid past with her hubby-to-be.
On the wedding night, however, Jack’s father, played by Donald Crisp, hunts the couple down and expresses outrage that his son has allowed this low-down woman to ensnare him. Seeing that Merrick Sr. is putting up a better fight than her spouse, Mary leaves the hotel and returns to her old flat she shares with roommate Amy (Mary Phillips) and waits for her beau to show up. A year and nine months later, Mary and her son Jackie are still waiting when the mother learns Jack has married another woman in France. Almost immediately thereafter Mary, while at work, discovers that couple is hospitalized after an automobile accident. Lloyd sends his secretary away to rest and deal with the grief and the next we see her it is three years later and she is living in a lavish flat funded by her boss.
By this point Mary is warming up to Lloyd’s now obvious feelings for her, but she knows he will never fill the void reserved for Jack. When a very ill Lloyd wanders to her apartment and ultimately dies on her sofa, the newspapers are all over the story of a mobster’s wife and her love nest. Reporters also question and imply that Lloyd is the father of young Jackie. Jack now reappears in Mary’s life and is curious about the boy, taking longer than expected to realize it is his son. Jack’s wife was paralyzed in the car accident and is wheelchair-bound, but learning of the son, he is determined to leave her and return to his true love. SPOILER That wife even comes to see Mary and beg she take her husband away for the boy’s sake, but hearing how much this woman loves her husband, Mary refuses. Even worse, she ultimately sends Jackie away to live with that couple just before taking off for Europe. Years later, in Monte Carlo, she learns Jack’s wife has died and he is now on the hunt for her, happy ending for all. END SPOILER
That Certain Woman contains so much back and forth in Mary’s relationships that it is hard for one to decide what he wants for the woman. From the start, Lloyd seemed like a wonderful suitor for the gal, despite his unhappy marriage. Although eventually the man gets to the point where he has told his wife he wants a divorce and plans to take Mary for himself, Mary refuses to do that to his spouse. She is constantly caught in a position of “the other woman” and despite a cushy lifestyle is never able to establish herself legitimately in the eyes of the press or public. Lloyd may have been funding that home and all in it, but it does not appear Mary was actually conducting an affair with him. By the time we get our happy ending, she has gotten such a run around from Jack that it seems like her baggage is sure to weigh down her life no matter with whom she ends up. Nevermind that despite fighting to keep her son at one point she willingly gives him up, which seems utterly unrealistic.
The never-ending saga of Mary and Jack’s romance could be doable as stories such as “Wuthering Heights” and “Pride and Prejudice” have proven, but for some reason Lloyd was too appealing and the bond between our protagonists too weak. That is not to say, however, that the acting was not superb. Fonda was really more believable at first as being the one wildly in love, but Davis brings up the rear with her proving of that same fact.
Fonda is the youngest I have ever seen him in That Certain Woman. His dark hair frames a perfectly youthful face but his performance belies his relative newness to the big screen. He made this flick during his third year in Hollywood; although, he made at least three films during each of those first years, so he already had more than half a dozen under his belt. He was well matched against the excessively talented Davis –who made this her 33rd film– and they made a nice couple on screen.