‘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 Film that won Olivia De Havilland her first Academy Award

A few weeks back, I saw a new film in theaters which is surprising considering this has been such a bad year for movies. That film was called A Light Between Oceans. The film was not bad nor was it very good. But, it did make me think about a movie I saw a while back called To Each His Own, mostly because the plot was, like, ninety percent the same.

I’ve spoken about Olivia De Havilland twice before on this blog when I wrote about Gone With the Wind and The Heiress, which makes me laugh because I’ve only recently started watching the bulk of her films. I came across To Each His Own when TCM was honoring De Havilland for her 100th birthday. It’s not remembered as a standout classic film, but more just remembered as the film which won Olivia her first Oscar.

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Wasn’t she gorgeous? #FASHIONGOALS // Courtesy of Culturalist.com

I, however, really enjoyed it. If you’re not familiar, To Each His Own is a small character drama about a middle-aged woman named Jody Norris (De Havilland), who’s looking back on her youth when she lived in a small town and had a baby out of wedlock. Because the town is so small, she concocts a plan to keep the baby without anyone knowing it’s hers.

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The foolproof plan…#UMMM

However, the plan goes awry. The baby is adopted by a friend of hers (whose own baby just died). Jody plans to tell them everything and take her baby back, but her father stops her, telling her she’d ruin her baby’s life (really meaning his reputation). Later, after her father passes, she tries to get her baby back and does but the child doesn’t want her. He wants his “real parents.” Dejected, she sends the child back to live with the adoptive parents. DRAMMMMMMA.

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Some baby MAMA drama. #ImSoFunny

Here are just a few reasons you should check out To Each His Own:

The Cast

Obviously, this was the role than won Olivia De Havilland her first Oscar and her performance is certainly worthy. Not only does she convincingly play her character as a middle-aged woman and a young ingenue, but she also gives us the big emotional moments in a quiet, understated, authentic way. Director Mitchell Leisen was so convinced De Havilland would win an Oscar for her performance that at the end of shooting, he gave her a charm bracelet with a mini Oscar on it.

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If Oscars could be won for BEST HAIR…

Broadway actor John Lund had his theatrical debut with this film. He played Captain Bart Cosgrove, Olivia’s love interest, and also played their son whom she meets in her middle age. He’s quite remarkable because even though you can tell it’s the same actor playing both roles, his mannerisms are completely different.

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He’s singing to her here by the way…

The Direction

The script was by Olivia’s own admission, a “conventional soap opera (TCM Article).” She believed the only person who could make it more than that would be Director Mitchell Leisen, whom she had been directed by in the film which won her her first Oscar nom, Hold Back the Dawn. He was unenthusiastic about directing this particular film, but Olivia insisted and so, he worked to improve the script as much as possible and went all in.

As production went on, he apparently did become more enthusiastic and Olivia credits Leisen’s direction with her Oscar win. In reading about the film, what stands out about his direction is how detail-oriented he was. Whether it was about something out of place for the time period or a slight tweak to Olivia’s performance, he was a perfectionist. He didn’t want to be a hired hand; he was more than that.

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An example of the small moments Leisen captured…

The Story

This is really what it’s all about. Now, it’s true that this story has some soap-operatic elements. However, what I love is that the film is rich in character development and emotional moments. It’s not an original story – there are several variations on this concept including two of my favorite films, The Torch Singer and Bachelor Mother. 

Much of this film surrounds the drama between Jody and the family that is raising her child. It’s a contentious situation. The other family is not willing to give him up and Jody eventually blackmails them into getting him back only to come to the realization that her son doesn’t want to be with her.

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Her eyes are crazy THOUGH…#Amiright?

This is a theme which is shown again in the film I mentioned at the beginning of this article, The Light Between Oceans. That film is dramatically much darker, but it does also cover the heartbreak that occurs when the parent is reunited with their child, only to be ultimately rejected.

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Having to watch your child grow up without you…

To me, this story is really pondering the question, “What makes someone a parent?” Is it simply the biological component or is it being there for the child, as a parent would be? Obviously, in ideal situations it’s both. But, many aren’t that lucky. As a child, having a present adult in your life who loves you and cares about your well-being means more than what it biologically means to be a parent.

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HEART BREAKING…

That’s really what makes the tale so heartbreaking. In both films, it’s not the biological parent’s fault that their child grew up with another family. But, that doesn’t change the reality that the child doesn’t see their biological parent as their “real” one.

It’s a sincere and moving melodrama

In the hands of less talented people, this film could have been a sappy, annoying soap opera. But because of Leisen and De Havilland’s brilliant performance, the material is lifted into being a emotional and earnest story about the love between a mother and her child. I don’t want to ruin the film’s ending, but I will say it’s a beautiful one. Any mothers out there will probably tear up. Who am I kidding? I’m not a mother and I teared up. All of you will be tearing up…or maybe I’ll say, you should be.

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Olivia De Havilland is EVERYTHING. 

Below is a link to the full movie, on Youtube. Enjoy the feels. 😭

Main Photo and Gifs – Copyright of Paramount Pictures