Sunday, February 21, 2016

Ginger Rogers: 'Kitty Foyle'

As I finally wind up my Ginger Rogers odyssey (really, should it take two years to review five films? I am a slow-poke), I finally take a look at “Kitty Foyle,” the film that won Rogers the Oscar as Best Actress.

To really appreciate her performance, it was worth looking at the films that came before it – the last of the Astaire/Rogers vehicles in the 1930s, “The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle”; the comedy “Bachelor Mother”; “Fifth Avenue Girl”; the drama “Primrose Path”; and “Lucky Partners.” Each one represents her developing talent and screen presence. She clearly had a flair for comedy, but she could handle drama well and learned not to overplay her scenes. Rogers said RKO didn’t know what to do with her and described herself as a dancing/leading lady/comedienne.

Producer David Hempstead sent her a copy of the best-seller “Kitty Foyle,” recently purchased by RKO. Hempstead knew Rogers was frustrated by not being considered for more serious roles. Rogers initially didn’t read the book past the explicit love scenes, expecting that the Production Code office wouldn’t approve a script. But Hempstead told her to wait for it to be rewritten into a script, which Dalton Trumbo was doing (later with additional dialogue by Donald Ogden Stewart). She did just that and loved the script.

Although she had a vacation scheduled after the completion of “Lucky Partners,” that film took longer than anticipated, so she went right to work on “Kitty Foyle.” She loved the cast, which included director Sam Wood’s daughter, Katharine Stevens, as one of Kitty’s roommates.

“Kitty Foyle” is an odd film in itself. It opens with an unrelated history of women, from being the loving wife through marching for the vote to working, from being adored by men to being rudely treated as equals. It’s played for humor, and while “Kitty Foyle’s” subtitle is “The Natural History of a Woman,” this sequence is followed by a group of working women getting on an elevator and talking about finding men. I’m not sure if this shows progress or not. It’s an odd juxtaposition, and the film really is less about the “working woman” as much as it’s about a determined, self-aware female who story-wise is trapped in a romantic triangle.

The movie also sticks its big toe into the pool of class and societal distinctions, but in the end it doesn’t say much about this beyond the usual observations about the upper class being unbending bores and the lower class having pluck and common sense.

Still, with all of the above griping, I like “Kitty Foyle” a lot, and that’s because of Rogers. She is so appealing in the title role that she draws the audience into the story. And she really shines during the final half hour. 

The film opens with a teenage Kitty breathlessly watching the wealthy arrive to the annual Assembly Ball in Philadelphia, much to the consternation of her Irish father, Tom (Ernest Cossart). He reminds her of her place, yet Kitty dreams about the ball, not so much envying the rich as much as seeing herself in a beautiful dress dancing all night long.

As she gets older, Kitty goes to secretarial school and begins working for Wyn Strafford (Dennis Morgan), a handsome young socialite who wants to make it on his own as an editor. He notices Kitty, and she definitely notices him, and the two fall for each other. However, when his publication folds, she goes to New York. There she meets a doctor, Mark Eisen (James Craig), who helps the poor. While he likes Kitty, she can’t get Wyn off of her mind.

Wyn returns to New York and soon romances her there. However, from the beginning, she clashes with his stodgy family and their societal rules. 

Although Craig has the movie’s most groan-worthy line, something about wishing he had specialized in heart trouble in order to cure Kitty’s romantic blues, Rogers makes it all work. Watch her eyes as she falls deeply in love with Wyn on their night out in New York City, a combination of bliss and yearning for it not to end, knowing that it most likely will. Watch her hold her ground with Wyn’s family, maintaining her composure while giving them a piece of her mind and exposing them for their condescending manners. Watch her fiery determination as she moves forward with a plan (I don’t want to spoil it for you) that most women at that time would not choose.

Her performance is a fine one, and when you compare it to the films that came before it, you can see how all of her experience came together in “Kitty Foyle.” She received her only Oscar nomination for this role, and on the big night, which was the first time that the names of the winners were kept a secret from everyone after the previous year’s leak about “Gone With the Wind” to the press, Rogers won.

This five-movie run after “The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle” established Rogers as a leading lady and bonafide star, which she would be throughout the rest of her career. I thank all of you who stuck with my two-year odyssey looking at this critical juncture in Ginger Rogers’ career.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Ginger Rogers: 'Lucky Partners'

RKO was already discussing “Kitty Foyle” with Ginger Rogers when she began working on “Lucky Partners” with Ronald Coleman. 

“Lucky Partners” is one of those frustrating movies that starts with 10 minutes of charm and promise but gets caught up in a farfetched plot point that seems even more unbelievable as the story progresses. The appeal of its leading players cannot help the story as it builds toward a copy-cat finale. 

Rogers plays Jean, a woman who works for her aunt’s bookstore. While delivering some books, she passes on the sidewalk a stranger, David (Coleman), who wishes her good luck. She is startled by this, and as the two continue walking in opposite directions, they turn to check each other out. Surprisingly enough, Jean does encounter good luck during her delivery, and as she tells her aunt (Spring Byington), Jean notices David across the street and has a brainstorm. Based upon her luck, she proposes a partnership with David in which they split the cost of a sweepstakes ticket, with the winnings also split between them. Jean explains the money would help her and her fiancé Freddie (Jack Carson) so they can get married and start their lives together. 

David agrees but only if he can spend his winnings taking her on a platonic “honeymoon” before she gets married as an “experiment.” Aghast, Jean runs to get Freddie, who eventually agrees with David, thinking he will never win. 
This very strange plot twist doesn’t work, because we know nothing about David. He is a mystery man, and the story hints he’s running away from something. But this is one of those films that mistakes the star for the character. Because Ronald Coleman is playing David, he must be OK and therefore it makes sense Jean would agree to such nonsense. Frankly, though, it’s just mortifying that Jean would run off with this unknown man on an experimental honeymoon (which, frankly, I’m still not sure of the reason behind the so-called experiment). So much time and talk is made of this strange arrangement that no real conversations exist between David and Jean, which makes the romance that begins to blossom even more unbelievable. 

The ending is a courtroom scene, just like “You Can’t Take It With You,” complete with Harry Davenport as the judge. And I still don’t get all the commotion around David’s disappearance. It’s a shame, too, after such a promising beginning. And it wastes the talents of all involved – Coleman, playing an underwritten part; the always likable Carson, who isn’t stretched here; and Rogers, who is so appealing (and an even darker brunette than in “Primose Path”). But even she looks a little lost at the end. 

Rogers admitted to a secret crush on Coleman and was delighted to work with him. The two got along well, and she said everyone enjoyed working on the film. It’s too bad the result just doesn’t work.  

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Ginger Rogers: 'Primrose Path'

Continuing my very slow look at the five films Ginger Rogers made after striking out on her own following her ninth pairing with Fred Astaire, “Primrose Path” is an intriguing movie for charting the growing maturity of Ginger Rogers as an actress.

Following the lighter “Bachelor Mother” and “Fifth Avenue Girl,” “Primrose Path” gives Rogers a more substantial role and she succeeds in the part, even if the movie isn’t quite up to her performance.

“Primrose Path” is adapted from a book and play (which Rogers called “trashy” in her autobiography) and directed by Gregory La Cava, who had previously directed Rogers in “Stage Door.” Rogers plays Ellie May, who lives on the wrong side of the tracks with her alcoholic father Homer (Miles Mander) and flamboyant mother Mamie (Marjorie Rambeau). While the script never calls Mamie a prostitute, it’s clear that she is and it’s her income that keeps the family fed.

Ellie May idolizes her father, who went to college and studied “The Greeks.” His career as a writer clearly is going nowhere as he spends most of his time in a drunken stupor. Grandma (Queenie Vassar) and her acid tongue remind all of his condition, while Ellie May’s younger sister Honeybell (Joan Carroll) seems to have inherited her grandma’s wicked ways.

In fact, Homer advises his daughter early on, “Run away, dear. What will happen to you here in this horrible environment?”

After this speech, Ellie May decides her father needs some clam soup to help ease the discomfort in his stomach, eaten away after years of drink. She heads to the beach and accepts a ride with kindly Gramp (Henry Travers). He believes the pigtailed Ellie May to be younger than she is. She explains that her immature look keeps men from hitting on her.

Gramp owns a gas station/diner, where Ed (Joel McCrea) works. Ed helps Ellie May dig up clams and takes her home on his motorcycle. For the first time, Ellie May finds herself attracted to a man and dresses up to visit him at the local bar later that evening. However, she lies about herself and claims she’s run away because her family doesn’t want her to be involved with a lower-class man like Ed. 

It’s this lie that fuels the rest of “Primrose Path.” I wish I knew more of the original play to see how it was changed for film. I do know that the original material focused more on the mother and grandmother, while the screen adaptation changed the location from Boston to California and shifted the story to Ellie May. It’s a frustrating film because there are some wonderful moments that unfortunately are interspersed with others that jar the viewer out of the film’s spell.

Take the sequence along the beach when Ellie May and Ed are digging for clams. They really are at the beach and not on a soundstage. There’s no soundtrack in most of the film, which gives scenes like this a much more realistic feel. McCrea and Rogers clearly have chemistry together, and this first encounter between them has Ed fooled by Ellie’s younger dress and believes her to be younger. She’s clearly smitten by him and awkwardly tries to get away, particularly when she decides to swipe his wallet for the money.

The scene is followed by a long trip home on his motorcycle, with her in the sidecar. He’s trying to get a rise out of her and they swerve all over the road in comedic fashion. The rear projection shots then change from a long stretch along the highway to a neighborhood back to the long stretch along the highway. This sudden shift in tone and inconsistent rear projection clashes with the realistic beach scene before it.

Such juxtapositions happen throughout the movie. Another sequence comes when Ellie May invites Ed to dinner at her parents’ house. Now, isn’t it clear to everyone that this is a bad idea, considering Ellie May has yet to come clean about her family? And yet their arrival at the house is followed by an eager Ellie May introducing everyone to Ed. This is a silly plot maneuver that makes viewers question Ellie May’s intelligence. And the whole scene unfolds predictably, which carries through to the end of the movie.

This is also a script that liberally sprinkles “aint’s” and improper English usage to denote that these people are from a lower class. I supposed today it would be four-letter words, but in “Primrose Path” it’s ladled on a little too thick.

Thank goodness for the cast, starting with Rogers. She actually dyed her hair brunette for the role, knowing this was not a glamorous part, and wore as little makeup as possible. Rogers has always been a likable presence on screen, and it’s nice to see her hold her on in the many combative moments with her family. Rambeau grabbed a supporting actress Oscar nomination for her fine work here. McCrea, always appealing, creates a good romantic partner for Rogers. Only Vassar seems rooted in an acting style that came about a decade earlier when movies converted from silent to sound. With one hand on her hip, she overacts as she spits out her venom.

What “Primrose Path” did for Rogers was give her yet another leading role that allowed her to display versatility as an actress. When you watch her films from this period, you can see it all building toward a long career as a leading lady.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Ginger Rogers: 'Fifth Avenue Girl'

So, where was I? LOL Once again I find myself apologizing for my long absence. Between the new house, not selling the old house yet, work and other obligations, I had taken a very long hiatus. But I just can’t bring myself to pull the plug on my blog, so it’s one more try – or should I say one more strike and I’m out!  

Did I really start a series on Ginger Rogers two years ago? That doesn’t seem possible, but apparently I did. However, I do need to finish it, which I guess is my own brand of obsessive behavior. So, two years ago, I decided to follow up my series on Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers by looking at the five films that Rogers made after the release of “The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle,” what was thought to be the last film the duo made together. Eager to make it on her own, Rogers started off with a hit, “Bachelor Mother.” 

Today I’m looking at “Fifth Avenue Girl,” her next movie, and an interesting blending of social commentary, comedy and romance. Wealthy industrialist Timothy Borden (Walter Connelly) is frustrated by the problems of both work and home. On his birthday, which only his assistant remembers, he comes home to find his wife off with her lover, his daughter off cavorting at school and his son off playing polo. Taking a walk in Central Park, he meets Mary Grey (Rogers), unemployed yet seemingly untroubled by that fact. Borden invites her to dinner at a swanky club, and the next day everyone assumes that Mary is his lover. His aghast family watches as Mary moves into their swanky Fifth Avenue home, unaware that he has hired her to be his companion in hopes of shocking them into accepting some sort of responsibility for their own lives. 

In tone, “Fifth Avenue Girl” feels like a distant cousin to “Holiday,” stripped down in presentation with no soundtrack. The social commentary hits – fairly gently – from all sides, with “personal responsibility” the key lesson for everyone. While the plot doesn’t really surprise, it’s still engaging. In fact, I watched this two years ago when I was first working on this series, and my reaction was simply OK. However, on a second viewing, I enjoyed it far more. Perhaps it’s the straightforward nature of the story, or the fact that it has a keen eye and ear for the struggles of these late-Depression characters. 

It also helps that the two stars are so appealing. While Mary Grey functions simply as a catalyst for change in the Borden family, the story really revolves around Mr. Borden, and he really is the main character. Connelly is so likeable in this role, making us feel for this good man who has lost control of his family as he simply searches for a bit of happiness. It’s too bad that Connelly would die of a stroke a year later. 

The role of Mary Grey doesn’t ask Rogers to do much except bring her own charm and comedic sensibilities to the movie, which she does well. She may be the star, but Rogers shares the wealth with the rest of the cast. (And it’s always a plus to see Franklin Pangborn in anything, here as the Borden family butler.) Rogers was also happy to work again with director Gregory La Cava, who had directed her in “Stage Door,” the first movie that proved Rogers could make it without Astaire. 

While “Fifth Avenue Girl” may not be a major movie, it’s an enjoyable one, and even in a role that doesn’t ask much of her, Rogers clearly had a smart and engaging screen presence that would be used more effectively in future films.