Peter Morgan (James Stewart) has been sent to New York City to retrieve his womanizing cousin, Keith (James Ellison), and bring him back to their small college town of Old Sharon. He finds Keith in a nightclub, but is unable to convince his love-struck cousin to come with him. However, when Peter meets the object of Keith’s affection–Francey (Ginger Rogers), a young nightclub singer–Peter falls head over heels for the girl himself. After a whirlwind night together, the two marry, and Peter resolves to take Francey back to his hometown, Old Sharon, where he is a botany professor at the local college.
Waiting for the newlyweds in Old Sharon are Peter’s parents–the overbearing head of the college, Peter Sr. (Charles Coburn), and his fainting-prone mother (Beulah Bondi)–as well as his haughty fiancee, Helen (Frances Mercer). Wanting to break the news gently, Peter sends Francey away with Keith until he can tell his parents and Helen about their marriage. But as Peter is continually delayed in explaining the truth, Francey inadvertently makes a terrible impression on the Morgans through a series of hysterical mishaps, threatening their happy marriage before it even has the chance to truly begin.
Directed by two-time Oscar-winning director George Stevens, Vivacious Lady (1938) is a delightful comedy with a charming cast hitting all the right marks. Why this film remains one of the relatively lesser-known entries in the “screwball” genre, I can’t even begin to explain, because it has just about everything you’d want from a 1930s comedy: a little music, a little love, a little (okay, a lot) of misunderstanding, and yes, a little sex. Rogers and Stewart share a palpable chemistry, making it easy to root for them to finally overcome all of the foolishness thrown into their path and get down to business (if you know what I mean).
Indeed, this film is one of the best of a subset of screwball comedies in which at least part of the action revolves around delayed sexual gratification (see: It Happened One Night; The Lady Eve; The More the Merrier; I Was a Male War Bride). It’s a highly effective technique, one that ratchets up the sexual tension while still toeing the prim lines dictated by the Production Code. It’s obvious that Francey and Peter want each other; it’s there in every glance, every pining note in their telephone conversations as they remain at separate addresses until Peter can explain the marriage to his parents. Even in the elements of physical humor, there’s a note of barely-repressed sexual longing, as when both Peter and Francey attempt to make her recalcitrant Murphy bed “innocently” fall down from the wall. It’s all one long dance of foreplay that builds to an unbearable pressure by the time the film reaches its inevitable conclusion.
And it’s hot.
Seriously, seriously hot.
The chemistry between Rogers and Stewart aside, the undisputed highlight of the film is Rogers’ patio scrap with Mercer, a brilliantly-constructed fight that remains one of the greatest scenes in screwball history. Featuring all the hallmarks of the stereotypical catfight–hair-pulling, biting, kicking, name-calling–it builds to a chaotic crescendo as Helen, still unaware of Peter’s marriage, confronts the “interloper” in their relationship. Francey’s initial humoring of Helen is marked by Rogers’ trademarked brand of smart-assed repartee:
Helen: “Now are you going to mind your own business, or must I really give you a piece of my mind?”
Francey: “Oh, I couldn’t take the last piece.”
The fight itself–an absolute break in civility that is utterly hilarious to watch–is a blatant demonstration of the class struggle that is such a central theme to the film, as the forces of high class react poorly to the infiltration of the “common.” Peter, though deeply in love with his new wife, does not quite know how to introduce her to his family. Peter, Sr., repulsed by Francey’s perceived corruption and contemptible morality, almost destroys his son’s marriage due to his own preconceived biases. Francey, functioning as a stand-in for the audience, watches Peter’s family with a mixture of disbelief and mild contempt, unable to understand their eccentricities and slightly bewildered by their reaction to her, sight unseen. As a result, insecurity interferes with Francey’s sense of self; she fears she does not meet the requirements to be a professor’s wife, and does not feel that she has any place within the Morgans’ stuffy world. But as in most screwball comedies, these issues work themselves out in the end, as the higher-class Morgans are shown to have just as many–if not more–issues than “average girl” Francey. And when the Morgans are finally brought “down to earth” (so to speak), love is allowed to win over class concerns in the end.
The solid casting of this film works heavily in its favor. Coburn and Bondi, as Stewart’s parents, are gifted comic sidekicks and stand out in their scenes on screen. Ellison, as sly cousin Keith, is a charming second banana. And Stewart lets loose in one of the best comedic parts of his career–the scene in which he drunkenly attempts to teach his class, under the judgmental eye of his father, is a particular highlight. But make no mistake: Rogers run away with the picture. Lady is undoubtedly a showcase for its lead actress, designed to separate her from the specter of her frequent 30s onscreen partner Fred Astaire in the minds of the movie-going public.
Does the film succeed in that respect? For the most part, yes. After the initial nightclub scenes, in which we get a taste of dancing-and-singing Ginger, the film moves beyond the music and engrosses us in the comedy and the romance to the point that we don’t really miss the musical interludes so common in a 1930s Rogers film. And this film, combined with other Rogers solo vehicles such as Bachelor Mother (1939), Kitty Foyle (1940), Primrose Path (1940), and The Major and the Minor (1942), demonstrates that Rogers was more than capable of crafting a successful career outside the bounds of the dance floor.
Warner Archive released the long-out-of-print Vivacious Lady through their MOD (manufactured-on-demand) service last fall, and I’ll confess that I just about genuflected upon hearing the news. As per usual, the DVD features no extras aside from the trailer for the film’s theatrical re-release in the wake of Rogers’ and Stewart’s 1940 Oscar wins (she for Best Actress for Kitty Foyle, he for Best Actor for The Philadelphia Story). And while the print is, admittedly, not a particularly clear one–there are moments of noticeable graininess and distracting flickers throughout–frankly, I’m so glad to finally own a copy of this fantastic film that I don’t mind these intermittent flaws.
True Classics thanks Warner Archive for providing a copy of Vivacious Lady for the purposes of this review.