‘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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The Flaws and Charms of ‘Bachelor Mother’ and its remake ‘Bundle of Joy’

In Hollywood nowadays, remakes are more common than superhero movies and that’s saying something. But, of course, they made remakes even in the good ol’ days and the films I want to discuss are a prime example. Those films are the 1939 screwball comedy, Bachelor Mother, and its 1956 musical remake, Bundle of Joy.

During December, TCM showed all the great holiday movies and these two were included. I had already seen Bachelor Mother a few years ago when I went through my whole Ginger Rogers obsession. Bundle of Joy, on the other hand, was a new discovery. When I started watching it, I didn’t realize it was a straight-up remake with singing.

If you’re unfamiliar, both Bachelor Mother and Bundle of Joy follow Polly Parrish, (Ginger Rogers and Debbie Reynolds, respectively), a department store clerk. On Christmas, she gets fired. While looking for a job, she sees a baby on the doorstep and after picking it up for a moment, is mistaken as its mother. No matter what she does, she can’t seem to convince anyone that it’s not her baby. Then David Merlin (David Niven and Eddie Fisher, respectively), the heir to the department store, gets involved and their screwball romance begins.

So, in honor of Debbie Reynolds and because I can’t get enough of Ginger Rogers, I thought it’d be fun to compare and contrast the two films, both their flaws and their charms:

Casting, Casting, Casting

Polly Parrish

In the original film, Ginger Rogers played the Polly Parrish role. Rogers was apparently unsure when signing on to the film, afraid that the film lacked a “dramatic honesty.” After being assured that was not the case, she took the leap and the film grew on her.

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Her hat! Anyone else obsessed?

Debbie Reynolds was just 24 years old when she took on the part and she was both married and months pregnant. Still, that didn’t stop her from giving the part her all. Her appeal is what makes the remake worthwhile.

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So true! ALWAYS ENCHANTING!

The Young Mr. Merlin

David Niven played the young David Merlin in the 1939 film while Debbie’s beau and famous crooner, Eddie Fisher, took on the part in the remake. For Niven, the film marked his first romantic leading role and he is fantastic in it! His sophisticated British sensibility makes for fun when he’s a bumbling, foolish man in love.

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OH, David Niven. ❤ ❤ ❤

On the other hand, Eddie Fisher is quite unremarkable in the remake. Beyond being a handsome guy and having a great voice, his acting leaves a little something to be desired.

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lol, they couldn’t say much for his acting though…

Additionally, Charles Coburn, who I discussed in my article about The More the Merrier, plays the senior Mr. Merlin and as usual, steals the show!

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You tell ’em, Charles!

The Scripts/Music

So, Bachelor Mother was penned by Robert Krasna, but was actually adapted from a story by Felix Jackson. Although the concept is quite ludicrous, the quippy dialogue is what brings the film to life! You’re willing to go along with it because the characters feel true and you’re too busy laughing to think about how nonsensical it is, not to mention, a bit misogynistic (I mean, c’mon, it’s okay that she keeps the baby because she’s now got a man! Hmph!).

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Ginger’s expressions are also HILARIOUS.

On the other hand, even though Bundle of Joy did have a script penned by Robert Carson and Arthur Sheekman, I wonder that they even went through the effort. Robert Krasna is also given a writing credit, which makes sense, considering it’s the EXACT SAME SCRIPT. I’m not kidding. Beyond adding new musical numbers, this remake did nothing to change the way the story unfolds. The dialogue is verbatim.

But, some of the songs are not bad and this one may be its best.

The Direction

Garson Kanin, who had a hand in great screwball comedies like The More the Merrier and Adam’s Rib, directed Bachelor Mother. Perhaps because of those films, he understood the sensibility better. The film flows and is first and most importantly, an entertaining ride.

Norman Taurug, who directed Bundle of Joy, also had an impressive resume with Mad About Music, which was a Deanna Durbin film, and Girl Crazy. Perhaps the real reason the remake is lesser than the original is because it was conceived as a star-vehicle. Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds had just married and Reynolds gave birth to Carrie around the time of the film’s release. It provided a way to sell the film, but not much seemed to go into creating something original and unique, which Bachelor Mother certainly was.

The Final Report

No question, Bachelor Mother is by far superior. It was made in 1939, which is objectively one of the greatest years in film. Ginger and David carry the film with ease and you go on their journey, buying into it and feeling happy to be there!

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#SWOON

Bundle of Joy, while certainly extremely flawed, is still worth watching, if only to see Debbie Reynolds at 24, singing and dancing and living with grace, poise, and grit. The songs don’t always make sense, but they’re entertaining too.

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There are moments when you’re like, “Aw they’re so cute together.” Then, you remember that two years later Eddie dumped Debbie for Elizabeth Taylor and you’re just MAD.

Vintage Trailers Below:

 

Bachelor Mother and Bundle of Joy Gifs property of RKO Pictures.

The Genius of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”

Okay, so I know I’ve made this blog almost exclusively about movies, but I feel compelled to talk about one of the most original, creative, and fun shows on television currently. As you know if you’ve read my previous posts, I’m a huge fan of old school musicals.

In the past few years, there’s been a slew of shows with singing, most notably Fox’s Glee and NBC’s Smash. However, there’s something different about The CW’s Crazy-Ex Girlfriend. Rachel Bloom’s totally original and creative show doesn’t surround a world with a built in reason for musicality. Glee was about a high school acapella group and Smash took us behind the scenes the making of a broadway show. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has no reason, like the best old school musicals.

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When the show began back in October, many critics believed it couldn’t sustain itself over the course of several episodes – Rachel had said there would be at least two original songs in each episode. Funnily enough, it sustained itself and then some. With Aline Brosh-McKenna (the screenwriter behind The Devil Wears Prada), the show has commented on something real and relatable – the delusions we all have surrounding romance and how a person can “complete” us.

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Rachel’s Rebecca Bunch moves across the country to follow an old high school camp boyfriend she runs into in NYC. She thinks it’s a sign that they’re supposed to be together. The fact that he already has a girlfriend – just a small obstacle. Never mind that Greg, the hunky bartender, likes her despite the fact that he knows she’s in love with Josh. Side note: Greg is played by Santino Fontana – aka Prince Charming in Broadway’s original cast of Roger and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. 

The songs in the show are different because many times, they’re ironic and dark. They’re also extremely catchy. This carries over from the music videos Rachel created before Crazy Ex-Girlfriend – which, incidentally are how she got noticed in the first place. One of her best ones is “Fuck Me Ray Bradbury.”

One of my favorite moments in the show is in episode four, when Rebecca is being courted by Greg. Greg sings to Rebecca, “Settle for Me,” a song reminiscent of all the old Hollywood musicals I love – most notably Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The black and white was a nice touch.

The show does all kinds of music. The opposite of an ode to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, “A Boy Band Made Up of Four Joshes” stars the object of Rebecca’s affection, Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III) singing like NSYNC or The Backstreet Boys. It’s a song any girl born in the 90s will understand.

“You’re a Stupid Bitch” might just be the most poignant song Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has tackled. Rebecca sings it right after she gets caught in a lie by Josh and she feels horrible about herself.

Greg (Santino Fontana) has become one of my favorite characters.This song is everything. Greg’s ode is so, so relatable. Watch “I Could If I Wanted To” and tell me you don’t agree.

Later in the season, Rebecca starts dating Greg, which led to one of the best numbers the show has had: “Oh my god, I think I like you!” I literally can’t stop listening.

One of the things that has separated Crazy Ex-Girlfriend from other television, especially from other CW shows, is that every character looks like a real person. No one is a stick thin, perfect looking model. The cast is diverse, talented and relatable. It all comes back to Rachel Bloom who despite playing a character who makes a lot of bad choices, is intensely likable.

Bloom worked extremely hard to get where she is and her Golden Globes award speech reveals her to be humble and appreciative of the opportunities she’s been given.

Her original pilot of the show which was made for Showtime was not picked up. Brosh-McKenna and Bloom thought it was over, but The CW swooped in and gave the show a home, embracing all its quirkiness. It’s truly an accident that something this original and different got made and I just hope it continues to get renewed. Bloom is an inspiration to me because she knew what she wanted to make and she didn’t conform. The show is all her – we need more original voices like hers!

The CW is starting to rebrand itself. So, don’t be put off by the fact that it’s on the same network responsible for things like The Vampire Diaries and 90210. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is THAT GOOD and if you give it a chance, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

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