‘Finishing School’: A Female Narrative in 1934

Whenever I talk about classic movies, I tend to hear from women that they’re not interested because there are no female-told, female-driven stories. And it’s true, that after sound came in, women were no longer prominent behind the camera. Female writers and directors were scarce. Only a small handful were really successful and even then, many of them were remain uncredited on films they wrote or directed.

Finishing School, made in 1934, is astoundingly a female-driven, female-written, and female co-directed studio film. There are only two prominent male parts and they’re supporting roles!

The pre-code film follows Virginia (Frances Dee), a teenager untainted by all the bad things teenagers get involved with, starts at a finishing school for girls called Crocket Hall. There, she meets Pony (Ginger Rogers) and quickly begins to do all the bad-girl things, drinking, smoking, lying, and *gasp* having premarital sex. On a girl’s outing to New York city, Virginia meets Mac (Bruce Cabot), a hospital intern who moonlights at a hotel to make ends meet. But, of course, her wealthy parents couldn’t possibly approve and the school, which pretends to be helping young women is more like a prison, keeping the girls they deem insubordinate hostage.

Here are just a few reasons why you need to add Finishing School to your watchlist!

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I love the lettering – I know that’s beside the point

You get to see an early, pre-partnership with Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers

Ginger was just 23 in Finishing School and hadn’t quite perfected what would become her signature schtick. But the sass we all love and expect from Ginger was there and it’s fascinating to see her when she was that young and green.

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Her pal! Can you believe Ginger wasn’t the star??

Frances Dee Shines as Virginia!

Frances Dee may not be a familiar name to you. It certainly wasn’t to me before this film. She was extremely popular during the early 1930’s, but now she’s best known for having been Joel McCrea’s wife. She was also 23 at the time she made this and is very appealing. It’s fun to watch her journey from sweet and sheltered to tough and assertive.

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I love that she’s called “the girl.” LOL.

Billie Burke and John Halliday are cliche, but hilarious as Virginia’s uber wealthy parents.

Finishing School’s tropes are by no means new and many modern moviegoers will watch this film and recognize the cliches, especially when it comes to Bille Burke and John Halliday. Burke played the absentee rich mother who disapproves in Virginia’s choice of beau – he’s just a lowly waiter/doctor-in-training.

Meanwhile, Halliday plays the sympathetic father who actually listens to his daughter and maybe thinks his wife is crazy and kind of annoying.

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SNOBBISH, BUT STYLISH
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LOOK AT THOSE SYMPATHETIC FATHER EYES. AND THE MUSTACHE, OF COURSE

And, of course, Virginia’s confident beau, Mac, played by Bruce Cabot. Best known for his role in the original King Kong, Cabot is all but forgotten at this point. He has great charisma in this film and it makes you wonder why he didn’t became a popular romantic lead.

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Love the bow tie. Why his hair is slicked back though eludes me.

Finishing School was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency

The fact that this film was set for release in May 1934 is important as the code was not actually enforced until June 1934. Thus, this film with its condemnation of the rich, its depiction of drinking and smoking (aka un-ladylike behavior), and it’s thinly veiled almost abortion would not have passed the censors if it had been released one month later.

The pre-code films are always interesting for this reason. They got away with a lot more and it’s sort of seemed like a tiny form of rebellion. Film was still (and still is) a young medium and the rules were still being written. It’s kind of comforting to know that these issues that still plague our society today, people cared about then. It’s just that after June 1934, they were no longer allowed to make a film about it.

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Pony telling Virginia how to deal with boys.

It’s a female-driven, female-written and female-directed miracle

Okay, perhaps I’m being bombastic but I think, that in 1934 it’s pretty incredible that a woman wrote and directed a film ABOUT WOMEN. What a concept. The sadness is this is Wanda Tuchock’s only directing credit apart from a TV credit in the 50s. She contributed to many films over the years including Little Women, Frances Marion’s The Champ, and Little Orphan Annie.

Although Tuchock continued to write after the pre-code era, it’s clear that her opportunities diminished after that as they did for many women behind the camera. Finishing School is by no means a perfect film, but in an industry currently going through a feminist revolution, it’s important to remember the all-but-forgotten women who paved the way.

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Wanda Tuchock, Circa 1930s
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The wit!

The film is available through the WB archive collection.

Gifs and photos property of Warner Bros.

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Why ‘Somewhere in Time’ is a severely underrated period romance

It’s difficult for me to remember exactly when I first saw Somewhere in Time. Funnily enough, it was made the year after another time travel favorite of mine, Nicholas Meyer’s Time After Time. However, this one is very different. It’s an old school romance with an intriguing premise that you can’t help but get swept up in (or, at least, I can’t!).

If you’re unfamiliar, Somewhere in Time follows Richard Collier (Christopher Reeve), a playwright suffering from writer’s block. He decides to get out of town for a bit, visiting his old college town and staying at a historic hotel. He sees a photo of an actress, Elise McKenna (Jane Seymour) in the hotel’s hall of history and falls in love with the girl. Only one problem: she’s dead. His obsession turns dramatic. He talks to an old professor, asking if it’s possible to travel through time. He essentially tricks his mind into believing he is back in 1912 (Don’t think too hard about the time travel logistics. It makes no sense obvi). Once back in time, he begins his steamy affair with Elise, much to the dismay of her manager, William Fawcett Robinson (Christopher Plummer). Will it be Robinson who tears them apart or time?? You have to watch the movie to find out!

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I’m OBSESSED with the early 20th century fashion. I WANT A FAN!

Here are just a few reasons Somewhere in Time is SEVERELY underrated:

The Cast

Christopher Reeve was HOT (both physically and in the industry), having already starred in his most popular role of Superman! He turned down several movies around this time, looking for something specific. There’s something about his sincerity that makes this character and this film work. Is it the plot convoluted and nuts? Um, yes. But, for some reason, you look into Mr. Reeve’s eyes and you’re like, Okay, sure. He’s sweet and romantic and very swoon worthy!

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He’s a bit self-assured. I think the message is, time traveling gives you confidence…

Jane Seymour was in her late twenties at the time she made this and was (and still is) absolutely drop dead gorgeous! Seriously, though, she belongs on the cover of romance novels which is probably one reason why she got the part. Additionally, she has the acting chops to back it up – she is tough, but also naive and vulnerable and you fall in love with her (just as Richard does) instantly!

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In the early 20th century, taking your down = SEDUCTION. 

Christopher Plummer is also wonderful as Elise’s manager. He was, of course, known at the time for his role as Baron von Trapp in The Sound of Music. He’s deliciously wicked as the Mr. Robinson, but you sense that there’s more to him than that, a compliment to his nuanced performance!

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What is he really thinking? 

The Score, the score, the SCOREEE!

I’m sorry, did I say the score one too many times? Well, if you had heard even one minute of John Barry’s score, I think you’d probably be screaming too. It’s difficult for me to parcel out how much of my love for this film is related to the score. I believe it elevates every aspect of the film. Apparently, or at least according to the TCM article, Jane Seymour was the one responsible for getting John Barry on board. I can’t imagine this film without this music. They belong to one another. Seriously, just give it a listen:

The Story/Script

Alright, so I know it’s far fetched. And yes, I know it’s cheesy, but for some reason, it really does work. Trust me. Writer Richard Matheson, who wrote both the novel and the screenplay got the idea when he came across photos of a young actress from the early 20th century, Maude Adams. Her biggest claim to fame: she was the first actress to play Peter Pan.

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Quite beautiful, no?

What I love about Matheson’s time travel concept is that it’s all about the mind. It’s a form of hypnosis, not a machine. As a kid, I remember REALLY buying into it. I was like, Sure, you can time travel just by shoving everything modern into a closet and dressing in old timey clothes!

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As a child, this scene both scared me to death and intrigued me beyond belief.

The romance is that Romeo and Juliet, love-at-first-sight type of deal. But, again, somehow, through the performances, you buy it and you root for them!

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A BIT dramatic…but I LOVE IT! ❤ ❤ ❤

The Gorgeous Early 20th Century Costumes

For real, I think I am one of those girls seduced by costume dramas and the thing is, the costumes in this are so pretty, you can’t NOT be obsessed with them!

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So refined and gorgeous. THAT HAT THOUGH!

The beautiful cinematography!

There are many ways to illustrate that the time period has changed. What cinematographer Isidore Mankovsky did was use a sepia-toned filter for all the the 1912 scenes. Mind you, modern audiences apparently didn’t take too well to that. But, I think it was a wonderful choice, almost like being in a picture, in a dream!

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GORGEOUS!!

The Major Flaw: THE WATCH

Alright, so full disclosure, this film does have one major flaw. In the beginning of the film, Christopher Reeve is given a watch by old Elise in the 1970’s. He takes it with him back in time, and (spoiler alert!) leaves it there with Elise. So, the big question is, where does the watch start? Like, seriously, where the fuck did this pocketwatch come from? That seems to be one thing we’ll never know!

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This watch is magical I guess?

It’s a sweeping, underrated, moody period romance! 

Despite its convoluted premise, Somewhere in Time is a severely underrated gem. It was actually a flop when it was originally released and then found its cult audience through repeated cable viewings. Now, there’s actually an annual event at the Grand Hotel honoring the film and you can bet that’s on my list of things to do (once I become a millionaire of course! LOL).

Is it utterly ludicrous? Yes. But, I think that’s where its magic comes from. It epitomizes what I believe all storytelling should set out to do: capture the imagination.

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LOL this scene. 

Vintage trailer below:

Photos and gifs property of Universal Pictures.

 

The Relevance of Judy Holliday and ‘It Should Happen to You’

It’s fortuitous that just last week I was introduced to this 1954 film. Many people turned to A Face in the Crowd, the 1957 drama starring Andy Griffith in the face of Trump’s inauguration. The film I want to discuss today was made a few years earlier and is considerably less dark, but deals with similar subject matter. It questions what fame is and why society values it, all while Judy Holliday cracks us up.

It Should Happen to You follows Gladys Glover (Judy Holliday), a young woman who’s close to broke and living in the big apple. On a walk, she meets a young photographer, Pete Sheppard (Jack Lemmon) and they start a’courtin’. Later, on her walk, she notices an empty billboard and decides to take what little funds she has to rent it. What, you may ask, does she advertise? Herself, of course! Enter a mega advertising firm and Evan Adams III (Peter Lawford), who will do anything to get the billboard away from her, including leasing several other billboards to Gladys. Pretty soon, Gladys’s name is everywhere and people think, Well, she must be someone if she has her name on a billboard. Her fame soon rises and she secures endorsementsall while Pete just wants to marry her. But, of course, Gladys is oblivious. Obvi, drama ensues because OF COURSE IT DOES.

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THAT LAWFORD THO.

Here are just a few reasons why It Should Happen to You is still relevant:

IMHO, the Casting!

For real, guys. Casting counts for so much, but especially in this film. I’d seen a few of Judy Holliday’s other films, like Born Yesterday and Bells are Ringing!, but I don’t think I really appreciated her until I saw her in this. While she can easily be discounted as a ditzy blonde in the vain of Marilyn Monroe, Holliday was really special. For one, she looked like a real person, which especially in this day and age, I appreciate. Our present movie stars all look like models and as such, there’s sometimes a difficulty in really relating to them.

She had real talent too, in singing and dancing. She was, after all, a broadway star. In this film though, I felt like she really had a chance to shine as an actress. The film is first and foremost a comedy, but she switches from comedy to drama easily, and makes the heavier moments lighter with her ditzy, hilarious charm.

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I wish people still wore hats. I think I have FOMO about the 50’s…

Jack Lemmon was just 29 in this film and it marked his film debut. And let me just say, he was dreamy even then…maybe I should say, especially then! His Lemmon schtick wasn’t completely set in stone yet. You can tell he’s still figuring it out…but he is so appealing, so effortlessly funny, you can’t but fall in love with him. It would be six years till he starred in one of my favorite films of all time, The Apartment.

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I love that eyebrow lift! ❤ ❤ ❤

Although Holliday had just given birth to her son a few months before shooting the film, it’s well known that she and Peter Lawford had an affair on the film. Their love scenes certainly do have a certain chemistry, but I have to say, I’ll aways be team Lemmon!

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Easy on the eyes though, no?

The Script Tho…

Garson Kanin penned the script and looking at his filmography, it almost looks like he was Miss Holliday’s personal screenwriter. He also wrote the screenplay for The Marrying Kind and Born Yesterday. He was also big in the Tracy-Hepburn films. Suffice it to say, he knew how to write a great screwball comedy.

The subject matter for this story wasn’t based on anything or anyone specific, but focuses on something even more relevant today than it was then: celebrity. We all grow up, putting people who are in the public eye on a pedestal. They’re famous, so they must be special, right? That’s what Gladys thinks too. Her yearning for fame has less to do with what fame actually is and more with a longing to be special, to belong. She learns in her journey that fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

In the TCM article for the film, Jeff Stafford, quotes the director of this film, George Cukor as saying:

“The idea of becoming a great celebrity without being able to do anything is a very important notion,” Cukor stated in an interview with author Gavin Lambert. “Publicity can really do it, too. Today it makes Presidents. It’s really the name of the game.”

It’s difficult to read that statement and realize that that has never been more true. Jack Lemmon’s character routinely tells Gladys that fame is nothing if the real person behind it stands for nothing. I’ll just let that sit with you for a moment. *Cough* Trump *Cough*

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We’ve all had that dream…though hopefully we’ve grown out of it.

The Director

I mean, George Cukor is just a legend. He directed too many classics to name, but my favorites are My Fair Lady, Gone with the Wind (where he was one of many directors) and The Philadelphia Story. He knew a thing or two about romance and comedy…

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Case in point: THIS SCENE.

The gowns ❤ ❤ ❤

Jean Louis was a PROLIFIC costume designer and his gowns in this film are the epitome of 1950’s style! Incidentally, costume design was the only category the film received an Oscar nomination for.

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I NEED this outfit. 

The SNAP of the Dialogue

As a writer, I obvi appreciate wit and this one delivers the wit tenfold. Judy Holliday delivers them zingers well!

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GOLD. 

It’s hilarious, romantic, and most importantly, thought provoking!

Celebrity is a huge currency in our society, especially now that the internet has given rise to social media influencers. Last week, the U.S. inaugurated a president who’s famous because of his money. He hasn’t done anything worthy of our recognition. He’s rude and uncouth. His qualifications to be president are zilch.

In a way, we as a society, gave ourselves Trump because we view celebrities as special and worthy of our attention. We give celebrity status to people who shouldn’t have it. This film may not be profound, but it’s a nice reminder that fame for the sake of fame, to quote Jack Lemmon’s character, Pete, means nothing.

Vintage trailer below:

Gifs and photos property of Columbia Pictures/Sony.

 

An Introduction to Deanna Durbin AKA Judy Garland’s preteen singing nemesis

Maybe about a year ago, I was introduced to Deanna Durbin. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, that’s understandable. She’s pretty well forgotten. However, in her day, she was one of the highest paid actresses and her popularity actually saved Universal from bankruptcy.

When she was discovered at thirteen, her name was Edna and she was in competition with a young Judy Garland at MGM. They were both great singers and were thought to be answers to the Shirley Temple problem. They made a short subject film together called Every Sunday where they were put side by side and tested. I think they’re both great, but that’s just me!

According to legend, MGM Studio head Louis B. Mayer watched the film and nixed “the fat one.” He apparently meant Garland, but Durbin was the one who lost her contract. Shortly after, she was picked up by Universal and made a string of light musical comedies. The major difference between Durbin and Garland’s career was that Garland was allowed to transition to adult roles while Durbin was kept in juvenile territory.

Still, I was amazed by Durbin’s quiet beauty, her comedic chops and her astoundingly beautiful operatic voice. Though she retired from film at the age of 27, she left a mark on moviegoers and deserves to be remembered.

With that in mind, here are her best performances and films IMHO:

Three Smart Girls (1936)

This film was Durbin’s feature film debut. She was just 15 years old. Directed by Henry Koster and written by Adele Comandini, the film follows three sisters, one of which is played by Durbin who scheme to reunite their divorced parents so their father won’t marry a gold-digger. Sound familiar? Three Smart Girls was remade in the 60’s…a little film called The Parent Trap.

With co-stars Ray Milland, Charles Winniger, and Barbara Read, Three Smart Girls is a fun lighthearted musical and it gave Durbin her first chance to shine.

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Girls will be girls…haha

First Love (1939)

Any Cinderella fans out there will get a kick out of First Love. In this modern re-telling, Durbin plays Constance Harding, an orphan who finishes up school and goes to live with her wealthy uncle (Eugene Pallette) and his family. She even has an evil step-sister to boot, played by Helen Parrish.

The film is often noted for having Deanna’s first on-screen kiss, her beau being played by a twenty year old Robert Stack. Though certainly flawed, this film is one of her best. It’s fun and sweet and has some wonderful songs!

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What a FIRST KISS! #HerDressThough

It’s A Date (1940)

In this one, made just after First Love, Durbin plays Pamela Drake, a young, aspiring actress with a famous actress mother, played by Kay Francis. She gets offered the lead role in a new play only to realize that her mother is competing for the same role. On a boat, she meets John Arlen (Walter Pidgeon), a much older man who she believes is vying for her affection. Pamela soon realizes she may be competing with her mother romantically as well as professionally.

Story-wise, parts of this just don’t work for me, but despite its flaws, it has some wonderful scenes of screwball comedy antics and a great finish where Durbin sings Ave Maria.

It Started With Eve (1941)

This film has a great premise. It follows Anne Terry (Durbin), a hat check girl who is asked to pose as a man’s (Robert Cumming) fiancee because his father (Charles Laughton) is dying. Only problem is after Durbin meets Cumming’s father. He doesn’t die. No great moment to tell your loved one, “Uh, sorry. Just kidding, not my real fiancee. Just thought you were dying, so, uh…” There’s no way for that not to be awkward.

This was the first of Durbin’s films that I saw and it is thought by many to be her best. It is my personal favorite. I feel like it accomplishes telling a coherent story while including the screwball comedy antics and Durbin’s lovely voice! Her chemistry with Robert Cummings doesn’t hurt either!

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I kinda wish hats were still a thing. Just me?

Christmas Holiday (1944)

It’s hard to encapsulate this one. It’s unlike any of her other films. Though her co-star is the lovely musical Gene Kelly and the title sounds like a Hallmark/Lifetime Christmas special, Christmas Holiday is a fairly bleak film noir. Durbin was 23 when she made this film and finally gained script approval, a right she used to graduate to more adult roles.

Christmas Holiday follows Jackie Lamont (Durbin), a singing prostitute (they never say it outright, but that’s what she is) who meets a young lieutenant (Dean Harens). They find solace in one another, telling their tales of how they got to be where they are. Jackie recounts finding out her husband, Robert Manette (Gene Kelly) murdered a girl and explains that even so, she still loves him. It is truly Gene Kelly as you’ve never seen him before. He’s a far cry from Don Lockwood in Singin’ in the Rain.

Though it’s a truly strange film, Durbin proves that she has more than just an amazing voice. And the cinematography is on point!

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The black and white is GORGEOUS!

She was gorgeous, a singing prodigy, and a fantastic actress!

It’s so easy to play the “if/then” game, but I truly believe if Durbin’s talents had really been recognized and utilized, she could’ve become a star on the same level as Judy Garland. But she was different than Garland in many ways – she seemed to have a good head on her shoulders and chose a happy, quiet life over the chaos and absurdity that is Hollywood.

The magic of movies is that we can still appreciate her despite the fact that she stopped acting at 27 and passed away in 2013. I discovered her only recently and for those who, like me, enjoy films of the musical and screwball comedy persuasion, get ready for your new obsession!

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A New Year Ensemble to be proud of. Anyone know where I can get those hair star pins? P&T!

Happy watching!

Gifs and photos property of Universal Pictures.