Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Captures - Vivacious Lady

{Captures is a deep dive into the seemingly bottomless well of movies previously unavailableon DVD.}

While George Stevens is far from becoming a forgotten filmmaker, it’s undeniably true that his name and work are mentioned far less often than those of his contemporaries such as John Ford and Howard Hawks. Part of the reason for his relatively low profile may be that he was never quite as prolific as other directors of the era. He began his career as a cameraman before becoming a dependable director of comedy shorts for Hal Roach and later RKO. Moving into features, Stevens helmed several acknowledged classics in the late 30s and early 40s before the outbreak of World War II.

Stevens was one of several filmmakers who played a key part in the war effort, capturing legendary black-and-white and color footage of Nazi concentration camps and D-Day. But after the war, Stevens’ output slowed down considerably. He made only 8 films between 1948 and 1970. Granted, these included some of the best work of his career, including Shane and Giant. Nevertheless, it’s far less than Ford and Hawks turned out over the same period.

Vivacious Lady, a breezy romantic comedy directed by Stevens in 1938, is no classic but it’s deserved a better fate than languishing in obscurity for so long. James Stewart, just starting on his transition from “what-the-hell-do-we-do-with-this-guy” to leading man, stars as botany professor Peter Morgan. Tasked with fetching his philandering cousin Keith (James Ellison) home from New York, he instead falls head over heels in love with the object of Keith’s affection, nightclub singer Francey (Ginger Rogers). After a whirlwind courtship of less than 24 hours, Peter and Francey impulsively decide to get married.

Peter brings his new bride home to the staid college town of Old Sharon where his father (Charles Coburn) is president of the university. But after seeing Francey get off the train with Keith, Mr. Morgan makes a snap judgment against the blonde hussy and will hear no more about it, leaving Peter far too flummoxed to tell his parents or social-climbing fiancée (Frances Mercer) about his new marital status.

Even by screwball comedy standards, the plot of Vivacious Lady is outlandishly contrived. The entire film hinges on Peter’s total inability to convey a single bit of information to his family (not to mention Francey’s willingness to put up with this and not just drop the bombshell herself). And while Jimmy Stewart was certainly a world-champion hemmer and hawer, this strains even his abilities. But Stewart and Rogers have terrific chemistry together and if that were all the movie had going for it, it’d probably be enough to carry it a long way.

In fact, it’s the interplay between the supporting characters, particularly the women, that makes Vivacious Lady worth revisiting. Beulah Bondi appears as, surprise surprise, Stewart’s mother and she shares several affecting scenes with Rogers, sneaking cigarettes behind her husband’s back and sharing marital secrets. It’s a very pleasant surprise to see such genuine moments of female bonding in a movie of any vintage, much less one from 1938. While on the opposite end of the spectrum, Rogers and Mercer get into it with a truly hilarious fight scene. Even if you like nothing else about the movie, you’ll probably like this scene.

If the men don’t fare quite as well, there is at least a case to be made for James Ellison’s performance as Keith. When Peter and Francey return as husband and wife, a more predictable movie would have found Keith in a rage at Peter for stealing his girl. Instead, he reacts with minor irritation, followed quickly by resignation and bemusement at Peter’s predicament. It’s as if Keith knew he never really planned on asking Francey to marry him. He’s just out for a good time. If anything, he seems happier to have Francey as a pal and in-law than as a wife. The characters seem more believable thanks to this platonic but still flirtatious relationship.

It’s too bad Stewart and Rogers never made another movie together after Vivacious Lady. Jimmy could have been to Ginger’s comedy career what Fred Astaire was to her musical career. As for George Stevens, he would eventually begin to focus on more serious-minded pictures but first, he’d go on to make a few more crackling romantic comedies, including the classic Tracy-Hepburn team-up Woman Of The Year. And while all involved would go on to make better pictures, Vivacious Lady remains an entertaining step in the evolution of their careers.

Vivacious Lady is now available on MOD DVD from the Warner Archive Collection.

No comments:

Post a Comment