Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Stubs – Vivacious Lady

VIVACIOUS LADY (1938) Starring: Ginger Rogers, James Stewart, James Ellison, Beulah Bondi, Charles Coburn, Frances Mercer. Directed by George Stevens. Screenplay by P.J. Wolfson, Ernest Pagano. Story by I.A.R. Wylie Produced by George Stevens. Run Time: 90. Black and White. U.S. Screwball Comedy, Romantic Comedy.

While I am a big fan of the Turner Classic Movies channel, I don’t always love some of their block programming. In fact, they are somewhat predictable with some of it. Every February we’re saddled with 30 days of Oscar, in which TCM shows films nominated for Academy Awards. And every August, they have Summer Under the Stars, in which every day of the month is dedicated to a single actor or actress. This is sometimes a hit and miss month for me. It all depends on who they are featuring and the movies they’ve scheduled. In some cases, an entire day with some actors can almost cure you of liking them. Such is not the case of with Ginger Rogers, one day this August was dedicated to her films, and I was able to see some that I had not had a chance to see before.

Best known for the films she made with Fred Astaire for RKO from 1933 to 1939, Ginger Rogers was more than Astaire’s dance partner. She was a gifted comedienne and actress and won an Academy Award for her performance in Kitty Foyle (1940). One of the benefits of spending a day with Ginger Rogers’s films is that you get to see her do more than dance.

One such film I was able to see for the first time was Vivacious Lady, a film she made with James Stewart. Rogers plays Francey Brent, a nightclub singer and dancer and the love interest of Keith Morgan (James Ellison), a professor at Old Sharon University. Keith’s cousin and fellow professor at Old Sharon, Peter Morgan (James Stewart) is sent to New York to bring him home. But once Peter finds Keith (with the help of a waiter played by Jack Carson), he also finds Francey. And it is love at first sight between the two.

After spending the night talking and eating corn on the cob, the two decide to get married. Their honeymoon night is spent on the train back to Old Sharon. While they intend to consummate the marriage on the ride, they are thwarted by the fact the compartment is double booked and already occupied by an older couple. And Keith is in no condition to give up his compartment either.

Waiting for them at the station the next morning are Peter Sr. (Charles Coburn) and Peter’s fiancée Helen (Frances Mercer). Because Peter is afraid to tell his parents about Francey it is decided that Keith will escort her off the train. Peter Sr., an overbearing man, is also the President of Old Sharon. Peter Sr., Keith tells Francey, is even behind Peter’s relationship with Helen.

Keith is almost too willing to help Peter and Francey, taking Francey back to his apartment while Peter gets up the nerve to tell his parents. When Peter Sr. and Helen see Francey with Keith, they both assume that she’s just another of his flings. Back home, Peter tries to talk to his father about Francey, but when he does, his father shuts him down and his mother Martha (Beulah Bondi) takes to bed. It is well known that she suffers from a weak heart.

There is a school prom that night and Peter tells Keith to bring Francey, but in order to get her in, they have to pass her off as a new student at the school. But Helen shows up and whisks Peter away to dance. In the woman’s lounge, Francey meets Martha for the first time and there seems to be an instant liking between them. But Martha thinks Keith cuts in and Peter escapes with Francey out onto a patio off the dance floor. Determined this is the right time and place, Peter leaves Francey and goes to get his parents. But Francey isn’t alone for long. Helen comes out to confront her.

After some witty banter, Helen slaps Francey, who naturally slaps back. Before Peter can round up his parents, Helen and Francey have each other in wrestling holds. But things get worse and before she’s through, Francey misses Helen and punches Peter Sr. in the mouth.

Francey moves out of Keith’s apartment into a woman’s only apartment house near campus. Franklin Pangborn plays the manager, whose job is to keep men from making it upstairs after 6 pm.

Peter finally does tell his father, blurting out the news just before Peter Sr. is about to make a speech. And because of his mother’s heart problems, Peter agrees to his father’s demand not to tell her. But Martha finds out when she goes to visit Francey on her own. Thinking she already knows, Francey calls Martha mom for the first time. But Martha didn’t know and when Francey is concerned she might have caused a heart flare up, Martha makes her own confession.

Her heart problems are just a device she uses to keep her husband in line. Keith arrives to take Francey to school and after learning the secret is out, he coaxes Francey into dancing. Martha joins in and the three are having a grand time dancing around the room when Peter Sr. arrives. He is not happy about the marriage and tells Francey that if she doesn’t leave, he will fire Peter from the university. Francey agrees to leave and Keith returns to the university to tell Peter what has happened. But Martha has thirty years of rage built up inside her. Tired of having to compromise herself for the good of Old Sharon, she decides to leave Peter Sr.

Francey tells Peter that she will leave unless he can change his father’s mind before the train leaves for New York. To disgrace his father, Peter gets drunk and then teaches his next class while drunk and with inspectors in attendance. Peter tells off his father and then resigns, but passes out before he can make it to the train.

After losing his wife and son, Peter Sr. comes around and taking Peter goes after the train. Meanwhile, Francey is about to sit down for a good cry when she realizes Martha is in the next compartment. The two try to cheer up the other when the train comes to a sudden stop. Peter Sr., in order to get the train to stop has parked his car on the rails. Peter Sr. swallows his pride to win his wife back and Peter and Francey finally get to have their honeymoon. Both marriages saved, the movie ends.

There is an old saying, and one I’m sure I’ve already quoted in this blog, that they don’t make them like they used to. Vivacious Lady is one example of this. While the plot would be a hard sell today, it fits with the time it was made. Marriage was an important and expected step in everyone’s life, not so today. The movie belongs back in a time when the movies tried to promote a certain way of life as outlined by the Motion Picture Production Code. I’m not saying studios were doing anything out of the kindness of their hearts or because of some sense of civic duty. They were forced to make movies using certain language and to deal with situations in a certain way.

While that might seem like a terrible bind to put yourself in, it did force movies and their audiences to put two and two together, rather than straight out show you the number four. The more clever the moviemakers, the better they handled the restrictions.

But the main reason for watching the movie in 1938, as well as today, is the performance of Ginger Rogers. While this is not a breakthrough performance by any means, it is solid. This is one film in a long career and it is interesting to see her in films where she is not dancing. She has good comedic timing as well as being cute as heck.

Rogers got into show biz when she was still a teenager. Her mother, Lela, had become a theater critic for the Fort Worth Record and Ginger would often attend the shows with her. One night when Eddie Foy came to Fort Worth, they needed a stand-in and Ginger was hired. She subsequently entered and won a Charleston dance contest which took her on tour for six months. At seventeen, she married Jack Pepper and the two of them had a short lived marriage and vaudeville act, called Ginger and Pepper.

After a few months the marriage broke up and Rogers continued to tour. When it got to New York City, she stayed to try to get work on Broadway. Shortly after her debut in something called Top Speed, she was hired as the lead in George and Ira Gershwin’s new musical, Girl Crazy. Now this must have been quite a show. In addition to making a star out of Rogers, it also made one out of the legendary Ethel Merman. Fred Astaire, an old friend of George’s, was brought in to help with the dancing and the pit orchestra included the likes of Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Gene Krupa and Tommy Dorsey, all big names in Swing music.

After success in Girl Crazy, Rogers was signed by Paramount Pictures. After a few unmemorable films, she got out of her contract and moved to Hollywood, where she worked at Warner Bros., Monogram and Fox. Her breakthrough role as “Anytime Annie” came in 1933 in the movie musical about putting on a musical, 42nd Street. She had a more prominent role in Gold Diggers of 1933 and was paired for the first time with Fred Astaire that same year in RKO’s Flying Down to Rio.

In addition to the films with Fred, Rogers was a major star for RKO throughout the 1930’s and 40’s. appearing in such films as Rafter Romance (1933), Stage Door (1937), Bachelor Mother (1939), Roxie Hart (1942), The Major and the Minor (1942) (Billy Wilder’s debut as a director), The Barkleys of Broadway (1949) which reunited her with Fred Astaire. Her career slowed significantly in the 50’s. Her most significant film of that decade was Monkey Business (1952), a screwball comedy directed by Howard Hawks and co-starring Cary Grant, Charles Coburn and a still up and coming Marilyn Monroe. Rogers’s last film was the low budget Harlow (1965) starring Carol Lynley.

Rogers would continue to act on Broadway and television. She appeared as Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly! on Broadway in 1965 and as Mame in 1969. Her last television appearance would be in an episode of Hotel in 1987. Rogers would die from a heart attack in Rancho Mirage in 1995, at the age of 83.

While not a stand out in her career, Vivacious Lady is still a showcase of her talent. It also showcased her influence at RKO. In 1938, Jimmy Stewart was not yet a star, but Rogers, who had briefly dated Stewart a few years earlier, fought to get him the role. Prior to this, his biggest role had been as David Graham in 1936’s After The Thin Man. Stewart would go on to a huge career both before and after World War II. What is interesting about Stewart’s performance is that he seems to be a natural in a leading man role. In Vivacious Lady, we get to see a young Stewart who already seems to be a master of his craft.

While many remember director George Stevens for dramas like A Place In the Sun (1951), Giant (1956); the western Shane (1953) or the biblical epic The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that he was able to direct this genre of film. While not his best remembered or even his best film, Vivacious Lady is a very well made, fast-paced comedy.

Stevens, after all, got his start directing comedies at the Hal Roach Studios in 1930. In 1932 and 33, Stevens worked at Universal, but it was at RKO that his career took off. There he directed such films as Alice Adams (1935) with Katherine Hepburn, Annie Oakley (1935) with Barbara Stanwyck and Swing Time (1936) with Fred and Ginger; moving easily from comedies, to biographical films to musicals along the way. In 1939, Stevens would direct Gunga Din, an adventure film with Cary Grant and Victor McLaglen. In the 40’s he would direct Penny Serenade (1941), The Talk of the Town (1942), The More The Merrier (1943) for Columbia and the Hepburn-Tracy rom-com Woman of the Year (1942) for MGM. Stevens’ last film would be The Only Game In Town (1970) with Elizabeth Taylor and Warren Beatty. Stevens would win Best Director twice for A Place In The Sun and Giant.

When Vivacious Lady was made, studios like RKO were making as many as 50 films in a year, in order to keep new films in their theater chains. What we may consider a classic movie today was only one of several new releases that week vying for the attention of the movie-going public. Sometimes, these films are forgettable filler and other times, when everything comes together, you have a solid piece of entertainment that allows you to escape the troubles of the day. Such is the case with Vivacious Lady.

Vivacious Lady is available at the Warner Archive Collection:

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