‘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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Damn the Torpedoes!

If you read my blog, you’ll know that last weekend, I attended the TCM Film Festival in Hollywood, California. While I saw a good many films this year, there were a few bright standouts. One of them I had seen years ago, but didn’t really remember. I had such a good time watching it, I knew I was gonna have to write about it. That film is 1943’s The More the Merrier.

The More the Merrier was one of director George Stevens’ last comedies. When the war started, Stevens joined the U.S. Army Signal Corps and headed a film crew, shooting footage of D-Day as well as concentration camps. Consequently, after seeing the horrors of the holocaust, Stevens was only interested in making dramatic films. After the war, he made such classics as A Place in the Sun, Shane, and The Diary of Anne Frank.

While it makes sense that Stevens would have little interest in comedies after the war, it’s easy to see in watching The More the Merrier that he had great talent in that arena. The More the Merrier follows Connie Milligan (Jean Arthur) who, in trying to be a good samaritan, decides to rent out half her apartment given the Washington D.C. housing shortage. Benjamin Dingle (Charles Coburn), an older gentleman, talks her into renting to him even though she initially wanted a female roommate. Dingle decides Milligan needs a man. Dingle rents half his room to Joe Carter (Joel McCrea) in the hopes that sparks will fly. But, Milligan has a fiance….DRAMA. CONFLICT. COMEDY, ETC.

This film does so many things right, but the main reason it succeeds is  because of the actors. Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea, and Charles Coburn are superb, their comic timing exact.

Jean Arthur doesn’t get talked about enough. She paved the way for so many female comedians. She was beautiful in a simple way. She was smart. She had heart. She gave countless Oscar worthy performances and was Frank Capra’s favorite leading lady. It’s also worth noting that Arthur was in her early forties when she starred in this film and that her age didn’t matter…at all! Oh, how the industry has changed…

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Coburn almost outshines the whole group as Benjamin Dingle. He’s bumbling and conniving, but at heart, a very sweet old man. Coburn had great success as a character actor, having noteworthy roles in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Bachelor Mother. But, he ended up taking home the Oscar in 1943 for Best Supporting Actor in The More the Merrier. And believe me, it was well deserved!

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Joel McCrea…I don’t even know how to express my feelings about. He had such a natural charm. He was just automatically likable. Cari Beauchamp introduced the film at the festival Saturday morning, saying, “It’s never too early for Joel McCrea.” I heartily agree!

The scene on the porch stoop is said to be one of the best love scenes in American cinema. Like many films of that era, it’s all suggestion. The sensuality and eroticism are all implied, but never directly dealt with. If you can watch this scene without having the hots for Joel McCrea, well, I’ll be honest, I don’t understand you. Just look at that face…

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This film could have easily been a stage play. Most of the action takes place inside the apartment and the dialogue is, like most screwball comedies, fast and superbly quippy. The laughs are countless and even 73 years later, it’s a joy to watch.

Just a warning: After watching this film, you will, one, want to make “Damn the torpedoes!” your new catch phrase and two, be filled with sadness that Joel McCrea is not a possible suitor…or maybe that’s just me. 😍

Trailer (sort of – more just an elongated clip) below:

I leave you with this gif. If it doesn’t convince you to watch this film, I don’t know what will…

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