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.