Wife vs. Secretary

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Wife vs. Secretary, 1936, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, Jean Harlow. Directed by Clarence Brown. B&W, 87 minutes.

It’s the Stanhope’s third anniversary, and husband Jake (Clark Gable), known to his colleagues as Van, has given his loving wife Linda (Myrna Loy) a diamond bracelet. Jake has just returned from vacation, and everyone in his life, it seems, is glad to see him again.

It’s quite clear the saucy Linda is the happiest, especially after a night of romance with her loving husband.

Other women in his life are glad to see him as well, including his secretary, Helen (Jean Harlow), who goes by Whitey. The two seemingly have a chaste, professional relationship, and Whitey has a serious boyfriend, Dave, (James Stewart), who works hard to keep her happy. Despite the clear lack of any danger signals, Linda’s mother Mimi (May Robson) sees trouble — and the experience and instincts of age may be working in her favor.

When Jake is faced with a sensitive business dealing, he’s forced to keep everyone except Whitey in the dark about his plans. The stage is set for one misunderstanding after another, and of course, that’s exactly what happens.

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Clark Gable, Myrna Loy

Myrna Loy had a great deal of affection for her female co-star, Jean Harlow, who was looking to change her image. “She wanted to darken her hair a shade, in hopes of toning down that brash image. It worked. She’s really wonderful in that picture and her popularity wasn’t diminished one bit. We did kind of a reversal in that picture. Jean stayed very proper, while I had one foot in bed throughout.”

Loy also spoke to Clark Gable’s sex symbol status. “Clark suffered so much from the macho thing that love scenes were difficult. He kept very reserved, afraid to be sensitive for fear it would counteract his image.”

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Jean Harlow, James Stewart

The New York Times critic generally praised the film, with some hand-slapping about placing Loy against Harlow in a battle for a man, saying Loy “enters the ring with glazed eyes, a crutch and one hand strapped behind her back—metaphorically of course.” As brazenly sexy as Harlow was, that imagery may not hold up today, when Loy’s appeal is perhaps more fully appreciated. Overall, the Times critic wrote,”the film has been richly produced, directed competently by Clarence Brown and is well played—within the handicaps of their roles—by Miss Harlow, Miss Loy and by Mr. Gable.”

This pre-code film showcases some of the top talent of the day in a pleasant comedy filled with innuendo and yes, a predictable ending, but one that’s entertaining in the path to that end. The value is in the cast and their strength on the screen, as well as a decent script and solid direction.

 

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Theodora Goes Wild

Melvyn Douglas, Irene Dunne in Theodora Goes Wild

Theodora Goes Wild, 1936, Columbia Pictures. Starring Irene Dunne, Melvyn Douglas. Directed by Richard Boleslawski. B&W, 94 minutes.

Raised by maiden aunts in a small New England town, Theodora Lynn (Irene Dunne) is, by all appearances, a proper, modest young woman, leading the virtuous life expected of her. Unknown to the residents of Lynnfield (the town named for her family) and for that matter, the rest of the world, Theodora is writing explicit romantic novels under the pseudonym Caroline Adams.

While visiting her publisher, Arthur Stevenson (Thurston Hall), her secret is revealed to his wife, Ethel (Nana Bryant), as well as Michael Grant (Melvyn Douglas), the artist who created the risqué picture that graces the cover of her book. Against Theodora’s better judgment, the four go out to dinner that evening, where the nervous young woman drinks far too much and ends up alone with a clearly amorous Michael in his apartment.

Irene Dunne in Theodora Goes Wild
Irene Dunne

She flees back to Lynnfield, but Michael has learned where she lives — as well as her secret — and follows her home. With some light blackmail, he ends up serving as the gardener for the Lynn family — and falling in love with Theodora. The prim author of racy novels has found the man she only imagined existed, and she, too, has lost her heart to love.

But Michael has secrets of his own, and ends up with more than he bargained for with his prank, forcing him to end any hope of a future with his new-found love. Theodora, it turns out, has a “wild” side, and she brings that out to get him back.

This film had a number of plot elements that had been smoothed over to meet Code standards, such as a clearly unwed mother (whom we’re told has a husband, but the rest of the story belies that fact) and Theodora’s move into Michael’s apartment.

Irene Dunne stars in Theodora Goes Wild
Irene Dunne

A wild Theodora is mild by today’s standards, but a lot of fun. This was the first comedy role for Irene Dunne, and she proved her comedic skills were sharp and innate. It was a career-defining role for Melvyn Douglas as well, who went on to refine the edgy, sardonic character he created with Michael Grant.

The movie was nominated for two Academy Awards: Best Actress for Dunne, as well as Best Film Editing.

Irene Dunne, Melvyn Douglas in Theodora Goes Wild
Irene Dunne, Melvyn Douglas

Years later in an interview, Dunne recalled initially being reluctant to make the movie, but warming up to it because “the front office was behind it, which made the whole thing a lot of fun.” She also said that for many of her friends, it was a favorite of her roles, because they felt it was the one that was “most like me.”

This is a much-overlooked but delightful romantic comedy, with an original take on a standard story line and a walk to the edge of what movie makers could and could not explicitly say in films of that day. It draws you in from the start and never slows down to the exuberant end.

 

The Ex-Mrs. Bradford

William Powell, Jean Arthur The Ex-Mrs. Bradford

The Ex-Mrs. Bradford, 1936, RKO Radio Pictures. Starring Jean Arthur, William Powell. Directed by Stephen Roberts. B&W, 81 minutes.

Paula Bradford (Jean Arthur) and Dr. Lawrence “Brad” Bradford (William Powell) are divorced, yet enjoy a cordial relationship — perhaps enjoyed a bit more by Paula than Brad. The ex-Mrs. Bradford believes the two should re-marry, and to that end, she’s moved back into his roomy apartment.

But that isn’t the only conflict in their relationship. Paula is convinced the recent death of a jockey, who mysteriously fell off his horse during a race, is murder. Brad sees no reason to think this, until someone close to the situation confirms it is, indeed, suspicious.

The two are drawn into the case, with their relationship evolving just as the clues do. But Paula’s meddling truly gets Brad involved when her “work” on the case leads authorities to make him their number one suspect.

William Powell, Jean Arthur star in The Ex-Mrs. Bradford
William Powell, Jean Arthur

Clearly playing on the popularity of The Thin Man (none of the sequels had been made at this point), this film holds its own and was one of the most popular comedies of the year. It was the last film for director Stephen Roberts, who died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 40 two months after the movie’s release. Roberts had directed more than 100 films in his 14 year career, including Star of Midnight just one year before, with Powell and Ginger Rogers.

Powell and Arthur had both worked for Paramount studios several years earlier, where each got his or her film career start in silent movies. While the transition to “talkies” was easier for Powell, in part because of his smooth voice, both were a hit in Arthur’s first major talking film, The Canary Murder Case (1929). That was also one of Powell’s first detective roles, a type of character he went on to play in numerous films, including The Ex-Mrs. Bradford.

William Powell in The Ex-Mrs. Bradford
William Powell

The film also features Eric Blore, the character actor who appeared in more than 80 films throughout his career, including such Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers films as Swing Time and Top Hat.

This is a charming, albeit lesser-known mystery-comedy with an outstanding cast, a plot that, while not of the calibre of Dashiell Hammett, is nonetheless clever, and a number of the elements of popular comedies of the day, including a divorced couple whose reunion we eagerly anticipate right from the start, a scatterbrained yet ultimately clever female lead and a convoluted, improbable path to resolution and reconciliation. Fans of screwball comedies of this era will thoroughly enjoy this film.

Ninotchka (1939)

Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas in Ninotchka

Ninotchka, 1939, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas, Ina Claire. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. B&W, 110 minutes.

After her three comrades are taken in by the pleasures of Paris, Nina Ivanovna “Ninotchka” Yakushova (Greta Garbo) is sent by the Russian government to complete their task of selling jewelry seized from the aristocracy during the Russian Revolution. Standing in her way is suave Count Leon d’Algout (Melvyn Douglas), who is representing the woman (Ina Claire) who claims to be the true owner of the jewels. The Count finds himself falling for Ninotchka, who, in her own cool, calculating way, begins to be seduced by both his charms and the sway of capitalism.

Ninotchka is practical and analytical, Count d’Algout is ardent and idealistic. The cold ideals of communism are faced with the bright lights of capitalism, and the hearts of all are quickened by the romance of Paris.

Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas star in Ninotchka
Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas

This was the first comedy for Garbo, and she was well-cast as the reserved Russian on a mission for the state. Her skills are put to good use in developing the character, and her delivery of some of the funniest lines is impeccable. As one of the finest actresses of her time, had she been given further opportunity in comedy, she may have been a shining light.

Studio executives were seeking an appropriate romantic comedy for Garbo, one with which they could use the line, “Garbo Laughs!” as a takeoff on the immensely popular “Garbo Talks!” marketing campaign used for her first talking film, Anna Christie. They approached Melchior Lengyel, who came up with this three-line synopsis of a story:

“Russian girl saturated with Bolshevist ideals goes to fearful, capitalistic, monopolistic Paris. She meets romance and has an uproarious good time. Capitalism not so bad, after all.”

and Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett and Walter Reisch turned it into the Academy Award-nominated screenplay.

Greta Garbo in Ninotchka
Greta Garbo

In what many consider to be the best year for films in the Golden Age of Hollywood (1939), Ninotchka was nominated for four Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actress (Garbo), Best Story (Melchior Lengyel) and, as mentioned above, Best Screenplay. It won none, but this was a year when it truly could be said, “it’s an honor just to be nominated.”

The timing of world events just prior to the release of Ninotchka played a part in its initial success. For years, Russia had been seen as a friend of the United States, and its anti-Nazi sympathies helped solidify the camaraderie. Being a communist sympathizer had not yet reached the point of being considered dangerous to the American way of life.

However, in August of 1939, Germany and Russia became allies, and anti-Nazi sentiment outweighed support of the Russian government or lifestyle. A political satire mocking this new-found enemy was timely.

Felix Bressart, Greta Garbo, Sig Ruman, Alexander Granach in Ninotchka
Felix Bressart, Greta Garbo, Sig Ruman, Alexander Karlach

The satire remains fresh today, and the performances of both stars as well as those of the numerous character actors, including the three men who played the Russians first sent to Paris, are strong and funny. Felix Bressart, whom Ernst Lubitsch also used with great effect in other films, such as The Shop Around the Corner and To Be or Not to Be, is particularly appealing. As is this film.

 

 

Captain Blood

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Captain Blood, 1935, Warner Bros. Starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone. Directed by Michael Curtiz. B&W, 119 minutes.

In 17th century Great Britain, young, brash doctor Peter Blood (Errol Flynn) is called upon to save a man injured during the Monmouth Rebellion against King James II. Arrested for treason and sentenced to death, Blood is instead shipped off the West Indies to be sold into slavery.

Once he arrives at his fateful destination, he attracts the attention of Miss Arabella Bishop (Olivia de Havilland), niece of the island’s military commander. When he is rejected for purchase by her uncle, Arabella bids for Blood, and in short order owns the doctor. She later gains a measure of freedom for her only slave by having him tend to the medical care of high-ranking members of local society.

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Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland

The saucy Arabella has met her match in the brazen young doctor. She endures his resentment at his situation, a fair share of which is directed at her. Despite his animosity toward Miss Bishop, he is attracted to the young woman, and it is clear she shares those feelings.

His resentment is turned to action, as Blood and other slaves keep vigilant watch for opportunity, and grab hold of their chance for freedom when they overrun a Spanish man-of-war. They begin lives as pirates, and soon they are notorious in their ventures. When Arabella’s uncle, the Colonel Bishop, becomes governor, fate intervenes once again in the tormented relationship between pirate and lass.

Errol Flynn, Basil Rathbone Captain Blood
Errol Flynn, Basil Rathbone

It is famously reported that Flynn and de Havilland each had a crush on the other, hiding their feelings because neither imagined they would be reciprocated.  Olivia de Havilland spoke to those passions years later in a television interview when she described the “deep crush” she had on Flynn for three years, but expressed no regret that true romance eluded the famous pair. While they may have kept their emotions to themselves, they could not, nor would they have wanted to, hide the chemistry that lit up between them onscreen.

Future films made better use of that dynamic, as well as de Havilland’s acting skills, but Captain Blood is a fine vehicle for the impudent, virile character Flynn played so well. While he was not the first choice for the role, it launched his career, and made him the kind of movie matinée idol you no longer see in today’s crop of actors. Fans of the dashing actor will note he isn’t yet sporting his signature pencil-thin moustache, and while hardly of note today, his hair is, for the era, bad-boy long.

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Olivia de Havilland, Errol Flynn

Nominated for two Academy Awards, Best Picture and Best Sound Recording, the film also won significant write-in votes for Best Director, Best Score, and Best Adapted Screenplay. The score, written by internationally renowned composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, is stirring and a significant element in the dramatic nature of the story.

Captain Blood has a complex story line and it’s easy to lose track of what’s going on, but that hardly matters, as long as you remember the errant pirate is the true hero and all who are pulling for him are on the side of good and the future of mankind. As a swashbuckler and man of adventure, there is none better than Captain Blood.

Bringing Up Baby

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Bringing Up Baby, 1938, RKO Radio Pictures. Starring Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant. Directed by Howard Hawks. B&W, 102 minutes.

Respectable, steadfast scientist Dr. David Huxley (Cary Grant) is engrossed in his latest project, completing the skeletal frame of a brontosaurus. He sets out to convince one Mr. Peabody of the worthiness of his endeavor, worthy, that is, of a million dollar donation from Peabody’s client, Mrs. Random (May Robson).

He’s rebuffed by Peabody while the two are playing golf, and the outing goes from bad to worse. In the middle of the game he discovers his ball has been appropriated by Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn), who goes on to drive off in his car. Susan can’t be convinced she’s wrong, and the scatterbrained young woman proceeds to lead Huxley on a chase for, among other things, his peace of mind.

Susan has just received a gift from her brother, a leopard with the unlikely name of Baby. She’s oblivious to the outrageous nature of this gift, as she is to much of the chaos that ensues wherever she goes. It turns out the leopard is intended for her aunt, Mrs. Random, the woman Dr. Huxley is hoping will donate to his paleontological project. Susan convinces Huxley to help her transport Baby to her home in Connecticut.

Cary Grant Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby
Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn

Bringing Up Baby did not do well at the time of its release, with critics calling it derivative and predictable. Today, however, it’s considered by many to be one of the top screwball comedies of the era.

Even director Howard Hawks was critical of the film. Years later he said in an interview, “I think the film had a great fault and I learned an awful lot from it. There were no normal people in it. Everyone you met was a screwball.” But he also expressed a fondness for the film in other interviews, saying once, “the most fun you can have is making fun of people…you get a doctor and get laughs out of him, like a psychiatrist, where you drive a psychiatrist crazy like in Bringing Up Baby.” That, it would seem, is a classic element of screwball comedy.

There has been much discussion over Grant’s meaning when, confronted about wearing a woman’s feathered silk robe, Huxley testily responds, “because I just went gay all of a sudden” (leaping in the air on the word “gay”). Many deem that the first time the word was used in a movie in its modern-day sense of “homosexual” rather than “happy,” while etymologists debate how common the term was, including its popularity in Grant’s circles. While the meaning may seem “obvious” to us today, and certainly the amount of innuendo in this film makes that belief laudable, it never was made clear by the director or actors what Grant intended. What does seem certain is the line was ad-libbed, which will forever leave its meaning open to speculation.

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Cary Grant, May Robson

The film created a great backlash of ill will for Hepburn, who was labeled “box office poison” after its release and relative failure. That never stopped this phenomenal actress, who two years later turned her luck around with The Philadelphia Story. Playing a ditzy heiress was not her best role; she did well in later roles playing privileged young women who were somewhat oblivious, but was a little irritating as one who is totally harebrained.

Definitive screwball comedy, Bringing Up  Baby is fast-paced, madcap and improbable. It is not Hepburn’s or Hawk’s finest work, but it is fun, and time has proven its worth.

 

 

 

Manhattan Melodrama

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Manhattan Melodrama, 1934, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring Clark Gable, William Powell, Myrna Loy. Directed by W. S. Van Dyke. B&W, 90 minutes.

Boyhood friends Blackie Gallagher (Clark Gable) and Jim Wade (William Powell) survive a disaster as children when the ship they are on catches on fire and sinks, killing many on board, including their parents. They are adopted by another survivor, but their life with him is short-lived as he is trampled to death by a policeman’s horse during a protest. A life-long bond between the two boys appears to be firmly set.

As adults, Blackie and Jim have gone down divergent paths, albeit paths destined to cross each other. Jim has taken the high road as an assistant district attorney on the fast-track. Blackie, on the other hand, has turned to a life of gambling, mostly in an illegal casino that’s allowed to stay in business with regular payoffs to the police department.

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Clark Gable, Myrna Loy

Blackie is dating Eleanor (Myrna Loy), but she objects to his lifestyle, and leaves him on the evening Jim is elected district attorney. By New Year’s Eve, she is brave enough to seek Jim out, despite Blackie’s predictions she would never be good enough for him. It turns out he was wrong, and Eleanor and Jim are soon engaged.

That same New Year’s Eve, Blackie shoots and kills a man who double-crossed him. Jim doesn’t know who committed the murder, but has the task of seeking out the killer, and his search leads him to Blackie, something Eleanor cannot abide.

Manhattan Melodrama marked the first pairing of William Powell and Myrna Loy, who would go on to make a total of fourteen films together, including the six in the Thin Man series. The Thin Man, in fact, was released only three weeks after Manhattan Melodrama; it was also directed by W. S. Van Dyke.

Loy later recalled her first connection with Powell, “I don’t remember much about my scenes with Clark. The picture doesn’t get going until Bill comes in. From the very first scene, a curious thing passed between us, a feeling of rhythm, complete understanding, an instinct for how one could bring out the best in each other. In all our work you can see this strange kind of rapport. It wasn’t conscious. Whatever caused it, though, it was magical.”

Her belief that the “picture doesn’t get going until Bill comes in” is debatable, as Gable gives an engaging performance as the likeable ne’er-do-well.

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Myrna Loy, William Powell

The ship sinking portrayed early in the movie was that of the General Slocum on June 15, 1904, when the excursion steamer, carrying more than 1300 passengers, among them 300 children, caught fire below deck. Ship hands, who had never taken part in a fire drill, discovered the hoses were rotten, as were the 2,500 life preservers they tried handing out to the doomed passengers. The final death toll was 1,021, the greatest disaster in New York City until 9/11.

This film is historically famous for being the movie John Dillinger was watching just before being gunned down by federal agents outside of the theater. It won one Academy Award, for Best Original Story (Arthur Caesar).

Manhattan Melodrama is a story that has been told numerous times since the making of this movie, making the tale seem a bit clichéd. It is, however, a notable film for a number of reasons, including the horrifyingly realistic depiction of the burning of the General Slocum, the assured performances of three stars, and a decent script. It is a movie classic film fans will want to see, if for no other reason than to watch the dynamics between Powell and Loy. Magical, indeed.

 

After the Thin Man

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After the Thin Man, 1936, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring William Powell, Myrna Loy, James Stewart. Directed by W.S. Van Dyke. B&W, 112 minutes

Nick (William Powell) and Nora (Myrna Loy) Charles have returned to their San Francisco home, just in time for a New Year’s celebration thrown in part in their honor. They are summoned to the home of Nora’s Aunt Katherine (Jessie Ralph) for dinner, where Nora learns a favorite cousin, Selma (Elissa Landi) is worried sick over the disappearance of her husband, Robert.

Also in attendance is long-time family friend and admirer of Selma’s, David Graham (James Stewart). David convinces Selma to join him and the Charles’ for a night out on the town, including a trip to local nightclubs to search for Robert. They find the errant husband easily enough, but as the clock strikes midnight, he is shot to death, and Selma, who is seen shortly thereafter standing over his body, holding a gun, becomes the prime suspect.

Skippy as Asta, William Powell and Myrna Loy in After the Thin Man
Skippy as Asta, William Powell, Myrna Loy

The search for Robert becomes a search for the truth about his killer. Joining the Charles’ in their venture is their loyal dog, Asta, who, it appears, has some new — and adorable — additions to his canine family.

This was the second of six Thin Man movies, and is nearly as good, and certainly as enjoyable, as the first, The Thin Man. Like the original, it is based on a story by Dashiell Hammett (although not a published novel or short story), with the screenplay written by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, who received an Academy Award nomination for Best Writing, Screenplay.

The Nick & Nora Charles of the films were a bit audacious with their heavy drinking and for-the-era racy adoration of each other (there’s no doubt this couple has a healthy private life), but the pair portrayed in Hammett’s novel were “a couple living in a liquor-soaked open marriage” according to a PBS biography. Even pre-Code Hollywood considerably toned down that element in the original The Thin Man, and the Code, with its tighter moral standards, was in effect for After the Thin Man.

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William Powell

Still, the characters in the films aren’t stereotypical Hollywood. Delivering such lines as, “let’s get something to eat. I’m thirsty,” Powell gives a dry, sardonic and sophisticated performance as the former detective called upon by the family who looks down on him to investigate the murder, and arrest, of their own. A fiercely determined Loy once again gets herself in trouble with her sincere efforts to help her husband, but he is always a step ahead of her. She’s no slouch or encumbrance, however, and delivers crucial evidence, despite her lack of investigative savvy.

James Stewart, still early in his career and limited to co-starring roles, is sympathetic as the man facing unrequited love, never willing to give up on the woman he believes would be happiest with him.

Myrna Loy, William Powell star in After the Thin Man.png
Myrna Loy, William Powell

This is a clever story with any number of viable suspects who, one by one, are eliminated through Nick’s dogged detective work. It moves quickly and leaves few, if any, loose ends.

Perhaps the best of the “Thin Man” sequels, After the Thin Man is quintessential whodunit fare combined with wit and colorful characters, part of what makes this series an enduring element of pop culture.

Mrs Asta and family in After The Thin Man
Mrs. Asta and family


 

 

 

 

 

 

Stella Dallas (1937)

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Stella Dallas, 1937, United Artists. Starring Barbara Stanwyck, John Boles, Anne Shirley. Directed by King Vidor. B&W, 106 minutes.

Stella Martin (Barbara Stanwyck) is brassy, brazen and audacious enough to step outside of class constraints and pull herself out of the hovel she grew up in to take her place in high society. She has set her sights on vulnerable Stephen Dallas (John Boles), who recently broke off his engagement with the refined Helen (Barabara O’Neil) when his father committed suicide after the family business failed. While waiting until he moves up enough in his new job to support the woman he loves, he discovers Helen has married another man. Heartbroken, Stephen is on the rebound, and falls for Stella’s efforts to charm him into wedlock.

A year after the two marry, they welcome their daughter, Laurel. Soon that child is the only bond between the couple. With his attempts to change his wife’s unrefined ways a marked failure, Stephen is increasingly put off by Stella. Add to that her friendship with the uncouth and loud Edward Munn (Alan Hale), a man of whom Stephen strongly and openly disapproves.

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John Boles, Barbara Stanwyck

Eventually Stephen accepts a job transfer to New York, and Stella stays behind in Massachusetts with Laurel (Anne Shirley), now a young girl on the verge of womanhood. Stella is a devoted and loving mother, and dotes on the growing girl to a surprising degree, given her otherwise self-absorbed nature.

Things take a dramatic change when Stephen has a chance meeting with Helen, now a widow with three boys. Their romance starts anew, with Helen welcoming Laurel into her life. Stella is faced with choosing between her own happiness and that of her daughter’s.

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Anne Shirley,  Barbara Stanwyck

Stella Dallas was based on the book of the same name by Olive Higgins Prouty, who also wrote the novel Now, Voyager, on which the film starring Bette Davis was based. Prouty also became a mentor to Sylvia Plath and is believed to be the inspiration for the character Philomena Guinea in Plath’s 1963 novel, The Bell Jar. Prouty, who herself suffered from psychological issues, had a strong interest in the internal motivations of the characters in her books.

The book had been made into a silent film in 1925, starring Ronald Colman and Belle Bennett, and was also re-made as the movie Stella in 1990, starring Bette Midler and Stephen Collins. The story has been analyzed numerous times for its perception of a woman’s role in society, the ideals of motherhood and the perils of sacrifice.

Melodramas of this sort were popular during the Golden Age of Hollywood, and to an extent we still see them today, albeit on the small screen. They are presented on cable channels such as Lifetime, notorious for somewhat overblown stories of human pathos. However, that is not what is delivered here. In the time Stella Dallas was made, production values for films of this calibre were much higher than the made-for-TV movies of today, and it shows in the final product.

The film received two Academy Award nominations, Best Actress for Stanwyck and Best Supporting Actress for Shirley.

This is a tale of woman who first wants more for herself, than dreams those dreams for her daughter, who is actually in a position to obtain them. It is both warm and tragic, with a character who is on the one hand appealing, and on the other, a bit appalling. In the end, whatever you may say about the decisions she made, her final motivation was from a mother’s heart.

Bachelor Mother

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Bachelor Mother, 1939, RKO Radio Pictures. Starring Ginger Rogers, David Niven, Charles Coburn. Directed by Garson Kanin. B&W, 82 minutes.

Polly Parrish (Ginger Rogers) has just been laid off of her seasonal job at Merlin and Son’s Department Store. It’s Christmastime, and she is in need of income, any income.

While at lunch on what appears to be her last day of work, she passes a foundling home and sees an older woman drop off an infant. Afraid the child may fall off the steps, Polly reaches out to pick him up, just as one of the home’s matrons opens the door. Inside, she’s unable to convince the home’s director the baby isn’t hers, but escapes the situation without a bundle of joy.

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Ginger Rogers

The foundling home tracks down her employer and convinces David Merlin (David Niven), the son in “Merlin and Son’s,” to give her back her job so she can care for “her” son. He does, but ends up paying an unexpected price for his generosity. Through a series of mishaps, the elder Mr. Merlin (Charles Coburn) comes to believe his son is the father of the baby, and expects him to do right by the child and his mother.

Bachelor Mother is an engaging comedy, predictable in some ways, yet clever in the details and twists that raise it above the level of bland storytelling. Nivens, Rogers, and Coburn each bring his or her own particular charm, with Rogers in particular showing an edgy, droll side. It doesn’t hurt that the baby is delightful, performing, it seems, on cue, although of course that likely wasn’t the case.

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David Niven, Ginger Rogers

Rogers initially expressed “deep reservations” about the script, stating the story line was thin and the characters “had no life.” However, her concerns proved unfounded, and in her autobiography she wrote, “I loved working with David Niven and the precious baby…(Garson Kanin) was imaginative and spontaneous and his good humor and lively sense of comedy smoothed out any problems along the way.”

The script was by prolific screenwriter Norman Krasna, who also wrote the screenplays for such movies as Mr. and Mrs. Smith and White Christmas.  It was based on a story by Felix Jackson, who received the film’s one Academy Award nomination, Best Writing, Original Story.

david-niven-starring-in-bachelor-mother
David Niven

The film critic for The New York Times wrote “through smart writing, direction and performance, the theme is developed hilariously, with sudden and unexpected twists which never are permitted to affect the insane logic of the yarn’s progression.”

Perfectly enjoyable, Bachelor Mother is a comedy all classic movie fans should see. While the plot line of child abandonment hardly seems comic material, it’s handled in such a way that the improbable is easy to believe and the unbefitting is downright funny.