‘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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Let me introduce you to Nick Charles…

Okay. Let’s talk William Powell. Actor. Drinker. God.

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I first became introduced to The Thin Man series when I was in my early teens. I saw a movie called Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. Yeah, the movie was not great, but I did happen to read an article where the authors of the book were talking about their inspiration and they mentioned that their leads were named for the married couple in The Thin Man series. So, of course, I ran to my dad and asked the inevitable question, “Ever heard of The Thin Man?” My dad looked at me as if I’d grown another head. Yes, he replied.

Thus began my William Powell obsession. He was older when he started gaining fame, in his 40s and he had one of those villain mustaches – even though he wasn’t known for playing villains. I was 13 at the time, so I mean, TOTALLY NORMAL that I’d become obsessed with him. The Thin Man became a gateway drug for me to more screwball comedies with William Powell – Libeled Lady and My Man Godfrey are my favorites.

To set the stage for this film, The Thin Man was made in 1934, at the height of the great depression. There was a definite trend at this time for extravagance in cinema. People didn’t want to see themselves, poor and working to make ends meet. They wanted light, happy entertainment. The Thin Man definitely delivered on that count, featuring Myrna Loy and William Powell as a happily married couple. Powell plays Nick Charles, a retired detective while Myrna plays his wife, Norah Charles, an wealthy socialite looking for excitement. Nick is lured back into detective work and spends most of the series trying to keep Norah out of it, much to her chagrin.

I love this movie for so many reasons. But, really what it comes down to is the chemistry between William Powell and Myrna Loy. Both characters are witty, sarcastic and let’s face it, downright alcoholics. Seriously, if they had been real people, they would have died from liver failure at 40. But, for the purposes of the movie, make a martini (in my case, soda with a splash of alcohol), sit back, and enjoy the, (in my opinion) best married couple to ever grace the silver screen.

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Vintage trailer below.

P.S. – The movie’s available for 2.99 on youtube. Just saying…