TCM Fest 2014: Ginger Rogers, Warren William, and Pre-Code Pleasures

23 Apr

I (hope I) am far from alone in considering Ginger Rogers one of the greatest screen actors of all time. There’s her range of talent, certainly. She could be funny or touching (or both). She could dance, and she could sing. She avoided playing the same character over and over, yet retained something of a consistent star persona. One could guess a bit at one gets from a Ginger Rogers picture, but even that seemed to change year to year, a diverse range of expression quite well represented by three films that played at this year’s Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival – 5th Avenue Girl, Bachelor Mother, and Hat Check Girl.

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The prospect of starting off the festival with two Ginger Rogers films was too good to pass up, and both 5th Avenue Girl and Bachelor Mother proved well worth their while. For those of us who came to love her through her Pre-Code musicals, these later films are often a real revelation. In both films, she plays the absolute moral center, at once intensely put-upon yet able to bear it all. Gregory La Cava’s 5th Avenue Girl (1939) sees her play a near-penniless working girl who happens to meet a wealthy industrialist (played by Walter Connolly), who himself happens to be a bit lonely on his birthday. Fortunately for Rogers, he’s not after the kind of company she initially suspects, and soon enough, they’re off to dine and dance. The evening goes so well, he hires her to make his uncaring family jealous by just merely spending time with him.

The family – a wife, a daughter, and a son – are spectacularly self-centered, clearly aware that they can get away with just about anything, even right in front of one another. The daughter (a very witty Kathryn Adams) constantly remarks on her mother’s age and promiscuity, masking her own rather tender affections for the family’s outspokenly Communist chauffeur, which is where the film really gets interesting, politically speaking. The Depression proved to be big business for Hollywood, churning out picture after picture about down-on-their-luck-but-extremely-clever types colliding with the upper classes, usually for those one-percenters to end up looking a little more foolish as a result. This picture seems to start in that direction, only for the rich to end up a great deal more sympathetic than they once appeared, and the Communist a good deal less heroic. We’re really on our way to war now, when grit, determination, and “common sense” thinking will be thoroughly portrayed as more valuable solutions to poverty than economic designs. Contrast that with the early 1930s, when collective bargaining, cooperative living, intellectualism, and, yes, even outright Communism were often celebrated in popular cinema. In 5th Avenue Girl, when Walter Connolly cries out that he’s “not a capitalist, but a victim of capitalism,” we’re meant to take him seriously.

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In his introduction to Garson Kanin’s Bachelor Mother (1939), comedian Greg Proops admiringly recognized the ease with which films of the 1930s villainized capitalists (“they all dressed like they belonged in Monopoly”), and this film more readily slides into that mold. Rogers, just fired from her seasonal job at a department store, comes upon a baby left on the steps of an orphanage. Worried that it will roll down, and, you know, die or something, she steadies it, but wouldn’t you know it that’s right when the nurse comes out to see what all the crying’s about. Having heard every tale in the book, the orphanage isn’t so inclined to believe Rogers’s protests that the child isn’t hers, a claim she admirably does not renounce even when the orphanage arranges for her position with the department store to be reinstated so that she may keep “her baby.” 75 years later, men and schoolmarms everywhere are still loathe to believe what young women have to say about their own sexual experiences, so I guess you can at least comfort yourself with the knowledge that, along with society’s stagnation, some films have remained resultantly timeless.

David Niven plays her suitor, the representative of the aforementioned upper class, and quite a dim occupant thereof. He’s not a heartless capitalist, he just has quite a narrow conception as to the realities any other social strata would face, and the film is happy to mock him for that time and time again. Niven plays this angle to tremendous effect, always expecting doors to be opened for him, but offering only the most emasculated protest when they do not. Round that off with Charles Coburn as Niven’s father, who comes to believe his son to be the father of the baby in question, and we’ve got a very winning headlining trio on our hands. But it’s absolutely the Ginger Rogers show, and there’s a reason this film launched her career as a leading lady in a big way. See, there was a time in which audiences were actually sympathetic towards female protagonists, and Rogers has a particular way of acknowledging the tremendous burden she’s carrying without making a big show of it. She’s not some pure heroine, though – she makes mistakes any young mother would, amplified by the degree to which she was unprepared to face the challenge.

1932 --- Ginger Rogers with Monroe Owsley --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Part of this lightness of approach, perhaps, came from her beginnings in musical and, before that, breezy society comedies like 1932’s Hat Check Girl, also shown during TCM Fest. There, she plays a supporting role to Sally Eilers, who plays a young woman who has to support her mother and brother at the titular job. This being a Pre-Code film, a great deal of time is spent lingering on the girls’ chests and legs (“I should be in the Follies,” Rogers remarks, to which Eilers accurately responds, “you must not be looking at your face”), which, you know, is all right with me, even when it teeters past the exploitative once Eilers’s meet-cute scene involves her clothes being stolen. After all, she enacts revenge by stealing his and walking out. The story’s a rather typical one, of a girl who will only take so many risks until she’s forced to take more, and Rogers acts as at once the devil on her shoulder and a business adviser; after all, it’d be a lot easier to support the family if she’d just give in and sell some liquor on the side. As with many Pre-Codes, the stakes are pretty slim until someone gets unexpectedly murdered, but the rise in tension is not to last – there is an audience to service, after all – and before long we’re back on our merry way, fully of frivolity, romance, and plenty of sex.

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Another similarly-minded film is 1933’s Employees’ Entrance, which, like Bachelor Mother and Hat Check Girl, is about the effects of management on those in lower service positions. Loretta Young plays an up-and-coming model in a vast department store, managed by one of the titans of 1930s cinema, Warren William. William made his name in the early 1930s playing a series of ruthless businessmen, gangsters, lawyers, and other men in suits who wield tremendous power, none perhaps more cutthroat than Kurt Anderson, manager of the Monroe department store, who knows exactly how valuable he is after years of booming business. And while one might say, “well, his tactics are unusual, but he gets results,” his tactics do include regularly firing anyone who doesn’t agree with him and dramatically raising his salary amidst mass layoffs. His type is an easy target in the throes of the Great Depression, but the film doesn’t stop merely at him being a ruthless capitalist – he instructs his right-hand man to never marry, declares that an old man who committed suicide (after he fired him!) should have done so years ago, throws a small dog in a trash can, and outright rapes Loretta Young as forced “gratitude” for him securing her position in the first place. In the halls of great cinematic villains, they hardly come more compelling, and William’s angular madness is a perfect fit for director Roy Del Ruth’s typical brand of sharp-as-a-tack comedy and maniacal drama.

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This common association that William carries makes it very odd to see him in John M. Stahl’s 1934 film, Imitation of Life. Better known for being remade into Douglas Sirk’s 1959 masterpiece, this Claudette Colbert melodrama is quite a force of nature all its own, though its more overt focus of the white characters, at the expense of the black ones, does sting a little bit in comparison. Still, for 1934, this is pretty radical stuff, regularly highlighting the lower status and limited opportunities of Delilah (Louise Beavers), Colbert’s housekeeper and the entire cause of their mutual success in business. William, meanwhile, plays Colbert’s love interest, a man so grounded and fundamentally good that I didn’t know any other way to accept William in the role than to continuously suspect him of some grave sin. Throw in a few scenes, though, of him sparring with the greatest scene partner a lead actor could ask for, Ned Sparks, and a bit of the old touch remains.

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There is one last Pre-Code film to talk about here, and it is a doozy – King Vidor’s tremendous, sadly overlooked and, like Hat Check Girl, otherwise unavailable 1933 film, The Stranger’s Return. Every year, TCM manages to pull something out of the depths of classic film that I have genuinely never heard of, and which wins me over to a startling degree. So it is with The Stranger’s Return, in which city girl Louise (Miriam Hopkins) visits her grandfather’s farm, partially out of necessity – it is the Depression, and, having recently left her husband, she’s broke – and partially out of a sudden desire to reconnect with her roots. I’ve seen this happen again and again in my own family; we’ll all become consumed with just trying to get by day-to-day for several years in early adulthood, and, once that has resolved itself one way or another, start looking inwards and backwards for…what? Some sort of answer to it all? Shared history? Common experience? A last grasp at a foundation we feel has suddenly disappeared?

She is greeted with understanding and compassion on the part of her grandfather (Lionel Barrymore), and suspicion on the part of her scandal-hungry aunts (Beulah Bondi and Aileen Carlyle). After all, the city is already a sin-filled hellhole from the perspective of those in the country (or at least, those in the country in movies), and on top of having the gall to live in such a place, she separated from her husband? Heavens. Naturally, both parties are as kind as a Sunday afternoon to one another, but once Hopkins starts spending time with Guy (Franchot Tone), the hunky, college-educated, married neighbor, attitudes become somewhat less civil.

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This is not the type of story usually treated with a great deal of sensitivity, then or now – battle lines become very clearly drawn, and, by the end, our protagonist ends up with damn near everything he or she wanted. But even though Louise comes through with tremendous empathy and a greater understanding of her place in the world, one would be hard-pressed to call the ending a happy one. There are just some things that remain out of reach, some fantasies that cannot be fulfilled, and some roads that, once travelled, become very difficult to navigate all over again. An air of resignation hangs over so much of the film. Guy got married far too young, and though his wife is compassionate and understanding, she’s cannot be everything he wants from life. Louise’s grandfather hasn’t traveled more than a dozen miles off the farm since fighting in the Civil War. Louise herself takes on the duties of the farm with tremendous aplomb, but, even in being played by Hopkins (who could play an impulse better than just about anyone), is clearly better suited to a life in the city that, for reasons that are never entirely revealed, she just couldn’t quite make happen. Vidor’s tone is not so simple as to say that country life is “purer” than that in the city, but he quietly acknowledges that our eventual fates are determined too much by chance, circumstance, providence, and gut decisions to even begin to suppose that one place is inherently more virtuous than any other, let alone that such arbitrary distinctions could ever dictate our final resting place.

It runs less than ninety minutes and displays a maturity rare to so many belabored films nearly twice its length, and it is absolutely the major discovery of the festival. Every time I start thinking about it again, its depth of feeling and clarity of expression feel all the more acute, its worldview so sensitive and empathetic, and its embrace of human frailty and flaw so uncommonly affecting.

All of the above films were, quite welcomely, shown on very fine 35mm prints (Hat Check Girl courtesy of a new restoration).

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