Sunday 15 April 2007

Finishing School (1934) Wanda Tuchock & George Nichols Jr

Crockett Hall is a school for only the highest bred young ladies and the sort of young ladies it turns out are aptly demonstrated by Billie Burke, a former student who is now the mother of a new one. She's Mrs Helen Crawford Radcliff, she's a complete flake and she's hilarious. Young Virginia Radcliff is as grounded in reality as her mother isn't so she soon clashes with her peers, who are far more interested in smoking, drinking and breaking any other rules they can discover. However that is just as quickly repaired and Virginia learns about real life through association with them.

Virginia is played by Frances Dee, a year after both playing Katharine Hepburn's sister in Little Women and an even bigger role marrying actor Joel McCrea. She's as excellent as I'm discovering she usually was. When she retired in the fifties, she always said that she never missed the movies but she certainly made an impression, especially as well over half her 53 films were precodes, though her most notable may well be I Walked with a Zombie for Val Lewton in 1943, a role she took so she could buy a car for her mother with the salary.

Her roommate is Cecilia 'Pony' Ferris, played by the excellent Ginger Rogers, who was always a natural comedian but who is joyfully unsteady on her feet here. I rant often about how I don't enjoy musicals, but I've become a huge fan of both Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, who often proved they were as great out of them as they were in them. Ginger Rogers was especially good in precodes because she was believable as a good girl and just as believable as a complete rebel, getting up to no end of mischief. Marjorie Lytell and Adalyn Doyle are also fun but get very little screen time. If the film had been the length of most modern movies they'd have had plenty of opportunity to shine.

Bruce Cabot didn't impress me much in Ann Vickers, as Ann's first unfortunate love, but he was superb the same year as the hero in King Kong. Here a year later, he's excellent again as Virginia's love interest, leaving me to wonder how he ended up in later years, mostly as a supporting actor to John Wayne. Here he's Ralph McFarland who meets Virginia at a hotel, where he's working as a waiter to pay his way through an internship at a children's hospital. If that wasn't enough to paint him as a saint, he introduces himself to her by rescuing her from a drunken paramour bent on forcing his attentions on her equally drunken self. He knocks out the All American and takes her back home to Crockett Hall.

Needless to say Miss Van Alstyne, who runs the school, won't allow him in, even on official receiving days, and her mother won't tolerate the possibility of a waiter coming into the family. As an expose of the double standards of the privileged classes, it isn't the success it could have been. However as a vehicle for many of the actors it's most certainly a success: Frances Dee, Ginger Rogers, Billie Burke, Beulah Bondi and as almost the sole representative of the male sex, Bruce Cabot. It may not be a great film but it's a fun one, though I missed the very ending because the movie overran the recording. Grrr.

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