Friday, 10 June 2016

Finishing School (1934)

If I believed all film reviews as gospel, especially for older movies where I occasionally wonder if the reviewer has actually seen the film in question, I would possibly miss out on watching some very interesting movies. For example, the late Leslie Halliwell whose word I am more prepared to trust then most, described the above movie as "modest pap for the teenage audience". This is grossly unfair, although other reviewers are equally dismissive, and the film certainly bombed on its initial release.

The movie has been on my 'would like to see' list for a rather long time since Danny Peary listed it as 'a sleeper' in his "Guide for the Film Fanatic" (1986). (My goodness, doesn't time fly by when you're having fun?) It was briefly available on You Tube but rapidly deleted by them before I had a chance to watch it. So a fortuitous showing on BBC2 last weekend -- and believe it or not it was a UK television premiere -- finally saved the day.

Produced at the very end of the pre-Code period, it's a fascinating look at morals and class hypocrisy. Frances Dee plays Virginia, the spoiled but na├»ve daughter of tycoon John Halliday and flighty socialite Billie Burke, who is enrolled in (or perhaps dumped at) her mother's old school Crockett Hall which is actually billed as 'the villain' in the front credits. There she meets room-mate Ginger Rogers, known to all as 'Pony' and not just for her fondness for horses! Pony and her cronies are game for a laugh and think nothing of breaking all of headmistress Beulah Bondi's many rules -- no drinking, no smoking, no lipstick, no anything that it likely to ruin your or the precious school's reputation. Their mantra is that you can do what you like -- as long as nobody finds out and you're not caught. Besides she says such indiscretions are nothing compared to the school's 'genteel racketeering' in over-charged uniforms and outings. The schools's annual fee incidentally is $6000.00 -- and remember this is 1934! Lessons focus on such important things as knowing how many calling cards to leave if the family in question is not at home.

The girls escape to New York for the weekend purportedly to stay with Pony's dear 'aunt' -- a washed up old actress who is paid to meet the school's chaperone on arrival at Penn Station and again on departure; "one step lower and I'll be in the movies", she chortles. Instead the girls check into a seedy hotel ready for a high old time, where the current boyfriends and their pals and quantities of booze are waiting. Dee admits that she has always wondered how it would feel to get tight and they're soon chanting "Ginny gonna get fried" to the tune of "The Farmer in the Dell". When a sozzled Dee subsequently tries to escape from the amorous groping of her blind date, she is saved by heroic hotel waiter Bruce Cabot (Fay Wray's macho saviour in "King Kong"), a medical intern who is moonlighting to pay his way through his studies. When a romantic attraction develops, Bondi and of course Burke wish to end it since they can only see him as a lowly waiter and not as a noble would-be doctor -- to the extent that Virginia is not allowed to spend weekends away and his letters are intercepted and destroyed, even after it becomes self-evident that the young lady is now pregnant. This takes place off-screen in a nicely handled scene where one sees her footprints in the snow after she has escaped for a clandestine meeting gradually fill in with the falling snow as the night progresses. She is led to believe that she was just a cheap fling for this no-goodnik 'waiter' and she contemplates suicide, since nothing must interfere with the demands of 'proper' society.

Of course all of the players are a little too old for their roles, but this is nothing new when one looks at teenage/young adult movies today. Despite this, Dee acquits herself well and one wonders where her career might have taken her had she not placed her l933 marriage to Joel McCrea above screen ambitions. She continued to appear in films through the early 50s, but these were gradually diminishing supporting roles. Incidentally her marriage to McCrea which lasted through his death in 1990 was one of Hollywood's longest and presumably most solid.

It is interesting to note that the film was written and co-directed by a woman, Wanda Tuchock, a rarity at the time. Tuchock never directed another feature but did churn out some notable screenplays from the silent "Show People" and "Hallelujah" through classics like "The Foxes of Harrow" and "Sunday Dinner for a Soldier". There's some lovely dialogue as well, such as when Pony describes the 'suitable' young beaux dragged in for Crockett Hall tea parties as 'If you took the hair off their combined chests you wouldn't have enough to make a wig for a grape". There's also the ditty that Pony sings in the shower: "Never hit your Grandma with a shovel". This was apparently later recorded by Spike Jones in 1942 but it has been suggested that Rogers composed it herself.

OK, perhaps it's not a great film, but it is a progressive and engrossing look at another era -- and a heck of a lot better that some reviews imply.   

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