‘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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Carole Lombard and the Vitality of “Nothing Sacred”

This past week, I got a summer cold; one of those sneezing, wheezing head-achy colds where you basically can’t do anything except watch movies. Though I do not enjoy being sick, I do enjoy any excuse to binge watch movies. I don’t know about you but when I’m sick, I go for comfort food, both in terms of actual food (Hail Matzos Ball Soup!) and in terms of the movies I watch. Screwball comedies are the best medicine.

One such screwball comedy I revisited was 1937’s Nothing Sacred starring Frederic March and the luminous and truly hilarious Carole Lombard. If you’re unfamiliar, the film features Frederic March as Wally Cook, a reporter who’s just lost credibility on a story and thus, been designated to writing obituaries. In an attempt to win back his editor, Oliver Stone (Walter Connolly), Cook travels to Warsaw, Virginia to track down Hazel Flagg (Carole Lombard), a girl who’s dying of radium poisoning. Only one problem; just before they meet, Flagg is given a clean bill of health, but wanting a free trip out of Warsaw, keeps up the charade. As always, DRAMA ENSUES.

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500 emotions by Carole Lombard

Here are some reasons you should put Nothing Sacred on your summer watchlist!

The Cast

I’ve discussed Frederic March once before on this blog when I wrote about I Married a Witch!, another screwball favorite. Unlike that film, in which he and his co-star, Veronica Lake despised one another, the experience of filming Nothing Sacred was apparently filled with pranks and lots of laughter. March and Lombard got along very well, something that’s apparent in watching them together.

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Always so serious…

Lombard was in her late twenties and was at the top of her game. She had already made Twentieth Century and My Man Godfrey, two other wonderful screwball comedies you should all watch. Like when I was introduced to Judy Holliday, I couldn’t stop thinking of Lucille Ball when watching Lombard. She was so expressive and zany and just free. You can’t help but fall in love with her excitement, whether it’s justified or not.

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This is me when someone takes my picture.

As with many screwball comedies, the film had an impressive supporting cast of character actors which included Charles Winniger, Walter Connolly, and one strange, but very funny scene featuring Margaret Hamilton, aka the Wicked Witch of the West.

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Shaving cream everywhere!

The Script

Ben Hecht was hired by David O. Selznick to write a comedy vehicle for Lombard, but as was his style, Ben made it a bit darker than Selznick wanted and his version didn’t include a happy ending. Additionally, Hecht meant for the doctor part to go to his friend, John Barrymore, but by that time, Barrymore was a known alcoholic and Selznick wouldn’t allow it. Hecht ended up walking off the picture and the script was handed over to new writers who would punch up the dialogue and deliver a “happy ending.”

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Her “suicide note.” Love that she’s gonna face the end like an elephant.

Despite what went on behind the scenes, the script is a great balance of screwball antics and smart satire. It seems Hecht was covering the same ground as It Should Happen to You, the Judy Holliday film I discussed a while back. Both films comment on celebrity; how we define the criteria for celebrities and also, how we, as a society react to them. New York City obsesses over Hazel Flagg’s tragedy. It makes them feel better about themselves to be paying tribute to a dying girl.

At first, Hazel enjoys the attention and the benefits of her newfound celebrity, but soon, her conscience weighs on her, especially because she knows that when she comes out as a fake, her beloved reporter will be blamed. March yells at his editor at one point, accusing him of not really caring about Miss Flagg at all, only the headlines her death will bring. When March finds out that Hazel’s been lying about her ailment, he’s elated because he’s in love with her, but everyone else is actually angry that a girl who was supposed to die isn’t going to die after all. Kinda messed up, isn’t it?

The Romance

Okay, you all know I’m a sucker for anything romantic, even if it’s not technically the point of the movie. This film is no exception. Carole Lombard has great chemistry with Frederic March and now I’m going to show you a series of gifs which prove just that.

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How cute are they? 

Their Famous Fight

So, not to give everything away but towards the end of the film, Lombard and March have a physical fight…which is IMHO hilarious. I, of course, do not condone this kind of fighting, but it’s more Marx bros. slapstick than straight-up abuse. Lombard grew up with boys and knew how to box, so she was excited when she got the chance to throw punches. Apparently, the day after they shot the scene, Lombard had to take a day off to deal with her bruises. I mean, it looks to me like she actually got punched!

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According to an article in The Guardian, March did try to seduce Lombard off-set and Carole dealt with it much like one of her characters might. She called March to her dressing room and lifted her skirt to reveal that she was wearing a large dildo. Suffice it to say, March didn’t bother her again.

Because it’s a great showcase of Lombard’s talent and it’s just plain entertaining!

Carole Lombard died in a plane crash at the age of 33. Like Judy Holliday, Lombard’s talent was enormous and her life was also cut tragically short. But, because of film, we can still watch Lombard and experience her zany charm forever. This was apparently one of her favorites of her films and it’s one of my favorites as well, next to the genius that is My Man Godfrey of course.

Usually, I post a link to the trailer but this film is in the public domain, so if you have the time, simply press play on the link below.

‘Say Anything’ will make you smile no matter what your relationship status

Okay, so Valentine’s Day is upon us and even though I’m a happily single gal, I’ll take any excuse to talk about my favorite romances. And Say Anything is one of my all-time favorites! I love showing this film to anyone who hasn’t seen it, because, *spoiler alert*, it’s impossible not to love.

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SETTING UNREALISTIC EXPECTATIONS SINCE 1989

If you’re unfamiliar, Say Anything, written and directed by Cameron Crowe, follows Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack), a high school graduate atypically comfortable with the uncertainty of his own future. He doesn’t know what he wants to be necessarily and he’s okay with that. On the other hand, valedictorian Diane Court (Ione Skye) thinks she knows exactly what she wants. Everyone tells Lloyd that he could never make it with Diane, but he believes. He asks her out and they fall deeply for each other. Opposites really do attract. But, as with all teen romances, there are complications. DRAAAAMA ENSUES.

Here are a few reasons why you’ll fall deeply in love with Say Anything:

The Cast

I know I always say this, but the cast in this film is incredible. John Cusack had spent the 80’s playing teenagers, so it’s no surprise that by the time this film came along, Cusack wasn’t exactly ecstatic. However, once he read Crowe’s script, he was in…and what a difference his presence makes. He IS Lloyd Dobler. His charm carries the film.

“He [Lloyd Dobler] isn’t a tunnel-versioned urban teen preoccupied with sex, school, and his job. I realized I would never be 20 again so I might as well cap off that phase of my career on a positive note. I’m glad I took the part.” – John Cusack

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And he can sort of play the guitar…<3

Ione Skye is equally important, but unlike Cusack, she was fairly new to acting at the time. This may be a weird thing to point out, but I appreciated that Skye was not perfect. She was obviously gorgeous, but she had a kind of lisp and I don’t know, she just seemed like a real person. She was genuine and natural and you could understand why Lloyd liked her.

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Girl, I FEEL YOU.

Lili Taylor is also fantastic as Lloyd’s friend, Corey. You might know her from Six Feet Under or American Crime or something else entirely. She’s a big character actress. But, to me, she will always be this character. Her saga with Joe is relatable AF.

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YAS QUEEN.

Paul Mahoney cannot be undervalued either. Another great character actor, his portrayal of James Court, Diane’s father, is layered. In a lot of ways, he’s a bad guy. But, you can’t quite hate him. He loves Diane and in his mind, all the immoral things he’s done, have been for her.

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Just trying to be a good dad…

Bonus: Joan Cusack is wonderful AS ALWAYS. She plays the sister to Lloyd, quite a stretch for her. Ha.

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Her hair is so 80’s.

The Script

Cameron Crowe had written the script for another teen movie eight years earlier: Fast Times at Ridgemont High which Clueless‘ Amy Heckerling directed. Though both scripts are well written, tonally they are very different. Strangely, I feel sort of disconnected from that film. I didn’t see myself in it. Say Anything felt more true to my high school experiences. The characters weren’t stereotypes. They were people.

Diane is ambitious and kind. She thinks the world of her father and ultimately, finds that he doesn’t live up to that. We all get to that point, some earlier than others, where we’re forced to see our parents as people. Her father is far from perfect, but he does love her and that’s worth something.

Lloyd is happy within himself. Once he falls in love with Diane, he finds his post-high school purpose. As a society, we tend to judge people who get into serious relationships too early. We say, they’re too young to know what they really want. And perhaps that’s true. Maybe Diane and Lloyd’s love affair doesn’t last, but this is a movie and I want a happy ending, damnit!

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So sweet!

Crowe based the film on his own heartbreak and it shows. The romance as well as its complications feels genuine. Diane and Lloyd fall hard for one another and it’s sweet and awkward and heartbreaking.

Also, the pen thing. Epic.”I gave her my heart and she gave me a pen.”

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I mean, EPIC, amiright?

The Direction

Believe it or not, Lawrence Kasdan was originally going to direct the film. Prolific producer James L. Brooks had met Crowe when he was researching Broadcast News and hired him to write a script about a girl who finds out her father is a criminal. Once the script was complete, Kasdan told Crowe, “You are that main character. You should direct it” (Interview, Cameron Crowe).

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This relationship always makes me smile.

This was Crowe’s directorial debut and he’s been very candid about the fact that he was learning on the job. I think the first film a director makes is always fascinating because it’s the most pure. They’re really trying, they’re excited. They don’t know what the “right” way to do something is. This was certainly true with Reality Bites and Ben Stiller as well as with Time after Time and Nicholas Meyer.

The Music

Crowe started as music reporter for Rolling Stone, so I think it’s safe to say, the music he chose was important. Beyond the seminal boom box scene which blasted Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes”, the soundtrack for the film also had hits by Depeche Mode, Cheap Trick and Nancy Wilson. The 80’s, man. You’ve gotta love it.

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Honestly, aren’t we all?

The Romance

Again, just, YES. The romance is everything. I have a running joke. I’ve never been on a plane and I keep telling my friends, I’m just waiting for my Lloyd Dobler. When they actually understand the reference (which happens maybe 50 percent of the time), I make them laugh.

But, back to the romance. Just look at these gifs and feel ALL THE FEELS.

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The first time you talk to your crush…the awkwardness!
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PICTURE FUCKING PERFECTION.
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This is her “I’m so messed up” look
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I always watched this scene and was like, “Maybe he should shower first.” Just a thought!
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You just described every great success story. ❤ ❤ ❤

It’s a seminal, heartfelt, old-school, yet modern romance!

Seminal is the key word. If you haven’t seen it, you need to ASAP. Your life will just be better for it. Plus, if you’re single on Valentine’s Day, IMHO, this is a good way to spend your time because it gives us all hope that there is a Lloyd Dobler out there for each and every one of us, or a Diane Court!

Plus, the Peter Gabriel song is just really good.

Vintage trailer below:

Photos and Gifs property of 20th Century Fox Films.

 

 

Why Gillian Armstrong’s ‘Little Women’ Adaptation Reigns Supreme

As a child of the 90’s, there are certain biases I have. When I was in elementary school, I became obsessed with Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. As such, I watched every adaptation of the book, of which there have been many, seven to be exact. The earliest was made in 1933 and the latest was made in 1994.

Gillian Armstrong’s Little Women was always my favorite. Why, you may well ask? Well, for a number of reasons. Winona Ryder (nuff said). Christian Bale before he was Christian Bale. Claire Danes. Kirsten Dunst. It’s just the greatest, nostalgia and feminism all wrapped up in one big 90’s package.

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The eternal question: Are you a Marmee or an Amy?

If you’re not familiar, Little Women follows the March family: Jo March, the headstrong writer (Winona Ryder), Meg March, the quiet beauty (Trini Alvarado), Beth March, the awkward, sweet one (Claire Danes) and Amy March, the precocious, slightly vapid one (Kirsten Dunst). It’s the story of their coming of age in the time after the Civil War. Be aware: coming of age drama ensues.

Here are a few reasons you need to watch Little Women ASAP:

The Cast

As I’ve discussed before, Winona Ryder is my 90’s spirit animal. She really is such a powerhouse actress and she’s never given a bad performance. As Jo, Ryder really shines. She so easily fits into this world and this character. This was Ryder in her early 20’s prime. She made Reality Bites this same year.

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This was her giving eyes to a young Christian Bale…

Trini Alvarado is also great as Meg. The role of Meg is semi-similar to Jane in Pride and Prejudice. She’s sweet and a bit bland. But, she’s a contrast to the colorful main character. Trini hasn’t done much as of late, but I really enjoyed her in this.

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How gorgeous is she??

Like Ryder, I’m a MAJOR fan of Claire Danes. This film was made the same year she made the one, seminal season of the best teen show ever made (yes, I know. BIG STATEMENT), My So-Called Life. At the time, Claire was just fourteen years old. Funnily enough, she actually beat out Alicia Silverstone for the part of Beth. She also competed against Silverstone for the role of Angela in My So-Called Life.

Lovely and heartbreaking, she plays Beth with poise and vulnerability. I can’t not cry watching her in this.

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I’M NOT CRYING. YOU’RE CRYING. #RealTalk

Ah, and then there’s little Kirsten Dunst. Watching her in this really makes you remember how old you are. She was twelve years old during the filming of this and she’s absolutely wonderful. She’s precocious and sweet and has SO much personality.

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Look at those little ringlets!!

The Christian Bale of the Batman series is not my favorite. But, THIS Christian Bale I can get on board with. He was just twenty when he was in this and there was something very unpolished about him. He had a pronounced lisp in this film that’s just plain adorable.

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Just the HAIR. That is all.

In my research, I found that Olivia Hussey (aka Juliet) expressed interest in playing Marmee. Producers believed she looked too much like Trini Alvarado and so, Susan Sarandon ended up getting the part. And I have to say, all do respect to Olivia Hussey, but Sarandon was meant to play this part. She was everything the character needed to be. Feminist, sweet, tough…Sarandon!

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Aw, the March family…

Gabriel Byrne is also great as the Friedrich, the man who eventually steals Jo’s heart.

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SO CUTE, even though he’s like twenty years older than her…

Oh, and yes, that is Eric Stoltz from Some Kind of Wonderful playing Meg’s love interest, John Brooke.

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I think the beard is what gets me the most. It’s just….eh.

The Script

Robin Swicord penned the adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel and somehow, did so while giving the film a modern feel. It’s in the past and we feel that, but it’s also accessible, timeless. Swicord also wrote Matilda and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

What’s so wonderful about Alcott’s story is that she paints complex women. They are not one thing, they are many. And that’s specifically true with Jo who feels like a modern woman. The women are not there just for the “male” story. This is their story!

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#GirlPower

The Direction

Gillian Armstrong has mostly directed documentaries and I feel that some of her directorial choices mirror that. The film has a “fly on the wall” perspective at times. We feel like we’re apart of the March girl’s lives.

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Beth!!! 😦

Its themes are ON POINT. 

I learned so much from Little Women as a young girl. It deals with loss and love and friendship and independence. But, what I mostly took away was a line that Marmee says to Jo and Meg:

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Time erodes all such beauty. You tell ’em Marmee!

It’s the only adaptation helmed by an all-female creative team!

This film is from the female perspective. It’s adapted from a book by a woman by a woman. It’s directed by a woman. It’s produced by a woman. This doesn’t negate the value in previous adaptations, but there is something to be said about women telling stories about women. During the studio era, many “women’s films” were directed and written by men. Again, not saying that makes them bad, but it does make them different.

Women still have a hard time getting green-lit as directors.

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This film celebrates women in all aspects!

It’s inspiring, genuine and all kinds of nostalgic.

This is one of my favorite films to watch during the holiday season. It captures so much about growing up and has some wonderful performances. I’m pretty sure I wanted to be a writer because of Jo March (lol, I know I’m not the only one).

If you’ve never seen it, put it on your list. A true modern classic.

 

Pictures and Gifs property of Columbia Pictures.

Girls Gif property of HBO.