Sunday 15 April 2007

Ann Vickers (1933) John Cromwell

Based on a Sinclair Lewis novel, which isn't the recommendation to me now that it was to audiences in 1933, it also stars two of the biggest serious actors of the era, Irene Dunne and Walter Huston. Now while not all his films are great and I don't buy all into the characters he had to play, Walter Huston has become something of a favourite of mine. He had a power to his performances that was always dynamically present, especially in the precodes, and was always enjoyable too. However Irene Dunne rubbed me up the wrong way from her first film, whichever one that was, and she kept on doing that in all the other ones I've seen. Sure enough, she's already overacting by her first scene proclaiming that she's not ready for love very theatrically indeed, and being outshone a couple of minutes later by Edna May Oliver who was always so effortlessly great that she really shouldn't have been put in the movie if the focus was supposed to stay on Irene Dunne.

Dunne is the social worker of the title, working at the Corlears Hook Settlement, and while she isn't ready for love she soon falls for Captain Lafayette Resnick, played in the classic Hollywood chiselled leading man tradition by Bruce Cabot, almost exactly as someone like Burt Lancaster would play a couple of decades later. The two of them spark a romance even though Resnick is about to head out to fight, and she promises to marry him if he comes back, but I had to fight from falling asleep. Of course he finds another girl and she apparently gets pregnant, which throws a real spanner into the works, even though it's surprisingly glossed over for 1933, solidly in the precode era.

Soon there's another man in her life, Lindsey Atwell, underplayed by Conrad Nagel who still outacts her even while trying not to, but she avoids him neatly and heads off to work at Copperhead Gap, a prison where Mitchell Lewis as Captain Waldo extols the virtues of the old school methods and Murray Kinnell as the weak warden. Melodrama quickly ensues, as Ann watches the harsh life at Copperhead Gap but gets blackmailed into keeping her mouth shut. The result is a book, Ninety-nine Days and Nights in Prison, which soon reaches its 20th edition, garners her an honorary degree and the chance to experiment in prison reform as Superintendent of the Stuyvesant Institute. All this makes sense yet at the same time makes no sense at all, because the brutal prison ordeals are treated with too much subtlety but the progression of the plot is bludgeoned home painfully and stereotypically.

And if you're wondering what happened to Walter Huston, he does turn up eventually. He's the leading man of the film but the first time we see him it's in name only as the author of the blurb on the back of her book. He doesn't actually appear until well over half the way into the film and it's a shame, not just because he's so good but because Irene Dunne improves no end when he turns up. Of course he's paramour number three or four or whatever number we've got up to, which is believable only through the suspension of disbelief that comes with realising that the popular ideal of womanhood today is not going to be the popular ideal of womanhood ten years ago or ten years from now. I'm not a big fan of the popular ideal of womanhood today but it's scary to believe that it was once Irene Dunne.

As always Huston is superb and he gets a much more interesting character to play than Dunne. She's a woman unafraid to make something of herself through valid means, and that's refreshing, but as unusual in the precodes as it would be a year later once the code hit. He, however, is a controversial Supreme Court judge, whose wife is on a perpetual tour of Europe with a gigolo, who plays cards with the criminal element, who embarks on a passionate affair with Ann which includes a son and who is soon indicted for receiving bribes. The film would have been far better had it been about him instead of her.

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