Director André de Toth is mostly associated with hairy-chested genres like westerns and war movies. The Other Love, which is based on a short story by All Quiet on the Western Front author Erich Maria Remarque, is a rare example of de Toth making a “women’s picture,” and it’s not a bad one. It’s also not a great one, so if you’re expecting Dark Victory (1939) or Now, Voyager (1942), don’t bother. But if you’re a fan of well-acted weepers, The Other Love is worth seeking out.
Karen Duncan (Barbara Stanwyck) is a world-renowned concert pianist who is gravely ill. She arrives at Mount Vierge, a sanitarium in the Swiss Alps, unaware of the seriousness of her condition. On her first night in the sanitarium her physician, Dr. Anthony Stanton (David Niven), insists she have dinner with him. He tells the nurse to have the kitchen prepare the “Grade A stimulation diet” and have it sent to Room 17.
Someone sends Karen a white orchid corsage before her “date” with Dr. Stanton, but it wasn’t he. It turns out there is a standing order to have white orchids delivered nightly to Room 17. The order came from a man who died months earlier, and was for a woman who died the day before Karen arrived, but Dr. Stanton insists this is just a rumor, and that they were both cured and moved away. Karen doesn’t believe him.
The second day, Karen has to quit smoking. The patients in Mount Vierge all seem to be on rest cures, which means convalescing outdoors on chaise longues while wrapped snugly in blankets. Karen befriends another patient, Celestine Miller (Joan Lorring), who claims she’s only there to make her philandering husband jealous, but is in fact quite ill, even though she doesn’t know it.
Karen bristles under Dr. Stanton’s inflexibility. When he stops her from playing the piano after she gets too worked up while performing a piece, she shouts, “Is everything forbidden here?” Yes, he tells her. Everything except hope. But a month of bed rest? Being treated like a child? Yes, he tells her. Until she’s well.
Despite being forbidden from practicing her art, smoking cigarettes, and drinking alcohol, Karen is apparently allowed to drive a horse and carriage all by herself on twisting mountain roads, which is how she meets the handsome and exciting auto racer Paul Clermont (Richard Conte). When he and his buddy Pete (Jimmy Horne) come tearing around a corner in their roadster, Karen’s horse rears up, and Paul comes to her aid after deliberately driving his car into a tree to avoid her.
Paul is in the Alps for an upcoming road race, and he and Karen are instantly attracted to each other, but Dr. Stanton refuses to let her go into the village again after learning of her affaire de cœur with Paul. Why must he take every bit of joy from her? “Too much excitement for one day,” the doctor says, simply.
Dr. Stanton tells her that she must never get overexcited. That she must be an automaton. “You haven’t got a free will anymore,” he tells her. She wants to live! He loves her! She doesn’t believe him! “Believe what you want,” he says. “But you’ve got to get well for your music! The world deserves your music!”
Karen runs away to the village for brandy and a cigarette with Paul. She gets into his car with him and reveals that she is Karen Duncan. Yes, THE Karen Duncan. “If Chopin could see me now,” he quips, and they go away to the Hotel Monaco together.
For most of the film the nature of Karen’s illness is as mysterious to the audience as it is to her. Once out of the crisp, dry air of the mountains, however, it quickly becomes clear that she’s consumptive, and she breaks down in coughing fits in the heavy air and rain of the low altitudes where Paul and she relax and play as only two well-dressed Hollywood actors in a mid-century film can play.
One way to see Karen’s disease in The Other Love is as part of a symbolic representation of the two men in her life. To follow Dr. Stanton’s dictates means a life of convalescence, but also one of security and contentment. To run around the world with Paul means a life of excitement and glamor, but also one of early death and frequent danger (represented quite literally by an amorous croupier, played by Gilbert “Cisco Kid” Roland, who tries to rape Karen in a doorway when she’s drunk and ill).
On the other hand, Dr. Stanton’s treatment of Karen hearkens back so strongly to the medical profession’s patronizing and deceitful treatment of women in less enlightened times that their “romance” is often more creepy than it is romantic. His refusal to reveal to her the seriousness of her illness — a subject he discusses freely with Karen’s mentor, Professor Linnaker (Richard Hale) — seems more like condescension than compassion.
The Other Love may be a “women’s picture,” but it’s certainly not a feminist one. (The Yellow Wallpaper this story is not.) But it’s a well-acted, well-directed, and beautifully staged film, so I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to fans of any of the principal actors, or fans of André de Toth who want to see what he could do behind the camera without Joel McCrea blowing someone away with a shotgun in front of it.