Vivacious Lady, 1938, RKO Studios. Starring James Stewart, Ginger Rogers. Directed by George Stevens. B&W, 90 minutes.
While on his way to retrieve his ne’er-do-well cousin from fast living, Peter Morgan Jr. (James Stewart) meets nightclub performer Francey (Ginger Rogers). After spending the night together exploring the city that never sleeps, the two are married. Now Peter finds himself facing the dilemma of how to explain his worldly wife to his conservative parents (Charles Coburn, Beulah Bondi).
There are a few roadblocks to this explanation. The elder Mr. Morgan (Charles Coburn) believes Francey is another low-class girlfriend of the errant cousin, Keith (James Ellison), and Peter already has a fiancée, Helen (Frances Mercer). Upon arrival in the Morgan’s home town of Old Sharon, the five meet at the railroad station, and Francey ends up going home with Keith until Peter can break the news.
That proves to take longer than expected, with some revelations about various family members and one barrier after another to overcome.
Rogers showed her classic “cheek” in this film as a saucy and impertinent woman with an independent spirit. Francey is a woman who speaks for herself, and is bright and classy to boot. It’s the kind of character Rogers came to be best known for playing, and for good reason. She did it well.
The somewhat preposterous nature of the premise of the film is given credibility by the presence of Stewart and his apparent absolute belief in all that is going on around him. This sincerity was a large part of what marked him as an actor, and was used to great advantage by a number of directors over the years. After directing Stewart in Vivacious Lady, Stevens said, “to overcome disbelief is the most difficult thing to do in films. And Jimmy, with this extraordinary earnestness that he has, just walks in and extinguishes disbelief.”
Jack Carson, who had a small role in the film, credits Vivacious Lady as the film that launched his career. He and Ginger Rogers became good friends, and she reportedly appreciated his work ethic as well as his work on screen. As a result of that confidence, she recommended him for numerous parts over the next few years, boosting his career even further. It hurt his marriage, however, as his wife erroneously believed Jack and Ginger were involved, and filed for divorce.
Vivacious Lady was nominated for two Academy Awards, Best Cinematography and Best Sound, Recording. It won neither, but was one of the most popular films of the year, well-received by audiences and critics alike. In fact, the critic for Variety wrote, “Vivacious Lady is entertainment of the highest order and broadest appeal.” Those are two roads that don’t always cross.
This is a fun film, with the kind of detail in the story line that keeps it fresh. It moves at a good pace, with fine performances, a decent script and just the right level of conflict for its lightweight nature.