‘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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Pushing the pre-code envelope: “Torch Singer”

As anyone who’s read my movie musings knows, I love Claudette Colbert as evidenced by my posts on It Happened One Night and Midnight. There’s another favorite of mine (heck, I love most of her films) called Torch Singer. This one has become a particular favorite of mine partially because it was my introduction to pre-code cinema.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term pre-code, it describes the period between roughly 1930-1934 when censorship was not enforced in Hollywood. As such, the storylines, characters, and innuendo they got away with seem outrageous considering the rules which did end up being enforced from 1934-1968.

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lol her underwear is pants, guys!

Some of those rules included not allowing couples to be shown in the same bed, at the same time, banned curse words, as well as not making any sort of immoral behavior look attractive or beautiful. Now, obviously filmmakers found a way to get around those rules to a certain extent, but there is something fascinating about films made during the pre-code era.

If you’re unfamiliar, Torch Singer, made in 1933, follows Sally Trent (Claudette Colbert), a woman who finds herself in a difficult situation when she becomes pregnant. She has the child and even raises her for a time, before realizing she’s just not making enough money. Ultimately, she gives up the baby for adoption. Meanwhile, the father of the child, Mike (David Manners) leaves the country, not having known about the baby in the first place. Sally changes her name to Mimi Benton and becomes a successful torch singer, drinking and partying in excess. Mimi then gets hired as the host of a radio talk show for kids and soon realizes she can use the show as a means for finding her daughter and as always…DRAMA ENSUESSSS.

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Welcome to pre-code cinema, guys!

Here are just a few reasons you need to check out Torch Singer!

The Cast

This movie, to me, is all about Claudette Colbert. It’s a fairly short film and she carries it. She finds a way to have you like her character, despite some of the bad choices she makes. This was still a year off from It Happened One Night, and obviously much more “out there,” but it’s still our same Claudette, sassy as ever!

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I can’t help but look at this gif and be like, what is that guy doing? #NeedsSomeDancingLessons?

David Manners, who was famous for his roles in horror films like Dracula and The Mummy, plays Sally/Mimi’s love interest, Mike. I’d like to say he plays a big part and you feel so much when they’re reunited, but honestly, he’s okay. It’s Claudette’s movie.

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He’s trying to be sassy, but he can’t pull it off. #RealTalk

The Script

Here we get to the fun that is pre-code. The lines are hilarious and pushing boundaries. The screenplay based on the story “Mike” by Grace Perkins, was adapted by two women, Lenore J. Coffee and Lynn Starling. As such, there’s a sensitivity to the script that I think sets it apart from other “women’s pictures” which were written by men. The story itself was tabboo just in showing an unwed woman becoming pregnant in the first place, not to mention the real doubts she has as to what kind of mother she will be. It definitely feels like it’s from a female point of view.

Additionally, I love that the star of this film is not the romance, but the reuniting of a mother and her child. That is where the emotional weight lies in this film, not with her ex-lover, but with her daughter. For a film that’s only a little over an hour, Torch Singer and Colbert’s performance has a lot to it.

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I’M
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NOT
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CRYINNNNG.

The Lines:

Okay, there’s just too many good ones not to share a few:

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or:

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and this one where Mike tells Mimi she’s become hard:

 

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The Singing

I’m also a musical fanatic as most people who know me know and as such, I get a kick out of seeing Claudette sing her torch songs with her raspy, yet still beautiful, voice.

It’s a sweet, feminist melodrama and a great introduction to pre-code cinema!

Written by two women, starring a woman, and about a woman’s struggles, this film is definitely a #FeministClassic and it’s great way into pre-code cinema, where women really got their chance to shine, in shades of grey as all different kinds of people. There’s no trailer for the film unfortunately, but take my advice, go out and buy the Pre-Code Hollywood Collection set from Universal. It’s one-hundred percent worth it and I promise, you’ll be a pre-code convert after devouring those films!

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A mother’s advice. Maybe a bit soon for a seven year-old, but whatever…

Gifs and photos property of Paramount Pictures.