Ann Vickers (1933)
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RKO couldn't have picked a better actress to play the part of Ann Vickers. Irene Dunne was young, sensitive, brave, intelligent everything the `modern woman' of the day was supposed to be. Her early professional career was marked by a series of skillfully done tearjerkers of which "Ann Vickers" is one of the better ones.
I highly recommend this movie. Walter Huston did a fine job as Ann's second love, and the man who restored her faith in a loving relationship. It's well directed and filmed and is a wonderful insight into life in the U.S. from just after World War I up until the middle of the Great Depression.
Even in the days before the Code this was pretty heady stuff for Hollywood to be coming out with. Then again, novelist Sinclair Lewis was never anything but controversial in what he gave the American public. In fact his own relationship with newspaper columnist Dorothy Thompson parallels the one that Dunne has with Walter Huston in the film.
We first meet Ann as a social worker at a settlement house before World War I where she has eyes for one special doughboy, Bruce Cabot even with lawyer Conrad Nagel panting hot and heavy for her. Cabot proves to be something of a rat and impregnates her, but the child is a stillborn.
Ann is a role model feminist, a former suffragette who went to prison for the franchise. She's a career person first and she moves on to various jobs in the penal system, including running a women's prison. She becomes a best selling author and eventually falls in love with married judge Walter Huston with whom she has another child. Then Huston gets himself in a jackpot, but Irene also stands by her man.
I've not read the Sinclair Lewis novel, but just viewing the film you could tell an awful lot was left out. Possibly a great deal of this film wound up on the cutting room floor. Edna May Oliver has a fine part as Dunne's mentor, but she's abandoned a third of the way through the film and we don't know what happened.
Dunne does well in a role that Katharine Hepburn would have hit a home run with and she does get good support from the rest of the cast. Still this abbreviated version of Sinclair Lewis leaves a lot to be desired.
"She's going to make the world over - if it takes all winter" says Malvina (wonderful Edna May Oliver) of her friend Ann Vickers (Irene Dunne). Social worker Ann has a passion for helping people and when she meets disillusioned soldier (Bruce Cabot, playing a heel as usual) she spends a blissful week, with promises of marriage when he returns from the front. His letters become less frequent and when they accidentally meet at a restaurant, she realises that he has forgotten all about her. After her baby dies, she finds a job at a women's prison. Copperhead Gap Prison is grim,especially under Captain Waldo, a lecherous "Simon Legree" type, who yearns for the "good old days" of public floggings with the cat 'o nine tails and other nice amusements!!! Ann is appalled at the harsh treatment the women receive - she witnesses lashings, even hangings and when she is forced to leave writes a best seller that exposes the conditions of prison life. The publicity helps her secure a job as Governor at Styvessaunt Industrial Home. "I'm going to get you off the snow - cold turkey" (words I never thought I would hear Irene Dunne speak), "Show a little respect - I'm a A.M. and a Ph.D, - Well, I'm only a A.B.A. and a SOB" -the racy dialogue sprinkled through the film shows it was made in pre-code times - There's even a joke about going "cold turkey" later in the film.
At a party she meets Judge Barney Dolphin - it is nice to see Walter Huston playing a pretty down to earth guy for once - yes, he is a Judge, but he is certainly not stern or forbidding. He is the man who, through his high praise, helped make her book a best seller and when they meet there is an instant attraction. Ann has found her soul mate - they are both intelligent and have high ideals. He is married - to a grasping woman, who prefers to live abroad and will not give him a divorce. they embark on a relationship and when he is sent to prison, by standing by him Ann loses her prestigious appointment. Trying to get friends to rally around her, she has a showdown with Lindsay Atwell (Conrad Nagel), an old admirer and a part that probably made more sense in the novel. Ann is reduced to writing articles about prison reform from her small upstairs flat and when Barney is released, finds Ann and their little boy waiting for him.
With other stars, this film may have been maudlin - but the superior acting skills of Dunne and Huston make this an extremely fine movie. J. Carroll Naish has a "blink and you'll miss him" part as a drunken doctor, Gertrude Michael has a small scene as Barney's wife and if there is a prison matron in a movie, chances are it's Mary Foy.
Highly, Highly Recommended.
And then the story grinds to a halt and Ann's life comes apart, and all because her lover, a corrupt judge, is convicted and sent to jail. When she is forced to abandon her career it is made eminently clear that she owed her success to her once influential lover. All her hard work amounted to nothing once her powerful protector disappeared. Moreover, she betrays her own ethical standards by pleading for her lover's freedom. So the implication is that love is the paramount motivating factor in a woman, and Ann is reduced to a stereotype. She even waits for her man to get out of jail and learns to cook for him.
Frankly I felt betrayed. I became involved in this woman's life and cheered her on only to discover that Hollywood lacked the courage to present a truly alternative lifestyle. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised. After all 1934 was the year the dreaded morality code went into effect. Still, "Ann Vickers" would have been a much better film if they had left well enough alone.
** (out of 4)
Static version of Sinclair Lewis' play has Irene Dunne in the title role of a social worker who gets dumped by an American soldier (Bruce Cabot) and then puts all her attention on her work. She eventually falls for a controversial judge (Walter Huston) but this here might cost her everything she's worked for. This RKO film was produced by Merian C. Cooper the same year he made King Kong but that's the only thing the two films have in common. Dunne is good in her role but the film is all over the place and it's easy to see that the film is trying to cover several parts of the book but can't take everything in within the short running time. Huston stays under control and gives a winning performance as does Cabot and Conrad Nagel in his supporting role. Edna May Oliver and J. Carrol Naish also have small roles.
The film begins with Miss Dunne as a social worker assisting troops heading to Europe for WWI. In the process, she meets a scalawag (Bruce Cabot) who eventually convinces her to sleep with him. She becomes pregnant and he then goes on to the next unsuspecting woman. However, Miss Dunne does NOT want him back, as she realizes he's not worth it, but later her baby dies at child birth. While all these very controversial plot elements are used, they are always alluded to--almost like they wanted the adults in the audience to know but hoped that if they phrase it or film it in just the right way, kids in the audience will be clueless (after all, films were not rated and kids might attend any film at this time).
Surprisingly, this entire plot involving a stillborn baby and Cabot ends about 1/4 of the way through the film and is never mentioned again or alluded to. It was as if they filmed part of a movie and abandoned it--tacking it on to still another film. In this second phase of the film, Miss Dunne unexpectedly begins working at a women's prison (though we actually never really get to see her doing anything there). What we do see are countless horrible scenes of severe abuse and torture that were probably designed to titillate. And, as a result of all this violence, Miss Dunne goes on a crusade to clean up the prison and becomes a reformer and famous writer.
But then, out of the blue, another type of film emerges and the women's prison reform business goes by the wayside. Dunne meets a judge (Walter Huston) who is married but he desperately wants her. Now throughout the film, Dunne is portrayed as a very good girl--even though she did have unmarried sex with Cabot (she was more or less tricked into it). But now, single Irene, who is a tireless reformer and good lady begins sleeping with a married man. He tells her that he and his wife are estranged and are married in name only, but she never thinks to investigate if this is true, and with his assurance, off flies her clothes and they are in the baby making business! BUT, while she's pregnant with his love child, he's indicted for being a crooked judge. He assures her he's innocent, but he's convicted and it sure sounds like he's a scoundrel--using inside information from people that have come before his bench in order to amass a fortune. Then, in the final moments of the film, Miss Dunne tries in vain to get him freed and vows to wait with the child until Huston is released. The film then ends.
So, we basically have three separate films AND a bizarre early 30s idea of what a nice girl should be like. I gathered that she should be a strong-minded working girl who instantly becomes an idiot in her personal relationships! This really undoes all the positives about Dunne's character and it's really hard to imagine anyone liking the film. A strong women's rights advocate might easily be offended at how weak-minded and needy she was and religious people might see her as totally amoral or at least morally suspect! With a decent re-write, this could have been a good film or at least interesting as a lewd and salacious film, but it couldn't make up its mind WHAT it wanted to be and was just another dull Pre-Code film.
BRUCE CABOT is her first mistake, a man proclaiming great love for her but abandoning her not long after she bears his child. In a weak supporting role, she treats CONRAD NAGEL as a man she cannot love but values as a friend. He's not too happy about that arrangement.
Then comes married man WALTER HUSTON, unhappily married who finds Dunne a refreshing bit of love interest. She has a career that keeps her busy and stands by him when he is accused of mismanaging funds. He's soon imprisoned but she finds a way to get his case some political attention and eventually he is free to marry her.
That's about it, all handled in dreary fashion with hardly a note of music on the soundtrack to lift it out of the doldrums when it gets too soggy to bear. As social commentary on conditions in the 1930s and women's issues, it's a failure. Miss Dunne plays a social worker who rises to play an important role in the penal system for females.
IRENE DUNNE suffers nobly, but it's a weak vehicle for a strong actress and she can do nothing to give the film a sense of real life struggles. Chalk this one up as a failure, even if it was based on a novel penned by no less than Sinclair Lewis. Evidently, not too much has been retained from his novel.
Summing up: Not worth your time. Any film that wastes the talents of EDNA MAY OLIVER as a Duchess has got to make you wonder what they were thinking. It's her dullest role ever.
Perhaps, New York's Cardinal Spellman, in his private audience with her, gave her a good dressing down over this role? That we will likely never know, inasmuch as she never spoke of it in later years, though she did denounce her morally suspect, (though quite successful) 1932 film, "Back Street" as "trash".
Certainly by the time she received the distinguished St. Robert Bellarmine Award in 1965 for exemplary public Catholicism, "Ann Vickers" was no longer recalled by the general public.
Suffice it to say that "Ann Vickers" works neither as entertainment or social commentary.
Miss Dunne's role as an adulterous social worker, who sleeps around, (between reforming prisons and writing a best seller on correctional rehabilitation) doesn't dovetail with her temperament or on screen demeanor, and one keeps suspecting that the whole thing is a kind of tongue in cheek gag, (what else can we think when we witness a montage of Miss Dunne's sympathetic beatific gaze superimposed over a shot of a female prisoner being scourged?) By films end, she has renounced careerism in favor of marriage, (to crusty convict Walter Huston no less--and what kind of lunacy would ever conceive of pairing these two romantically?)
Irene Dunne completists will no doubt wish to see this curiosity, if only for the chance to hear her promise to rehabilitate a cocaine addict under her charge: "I'm going to get you off the snow cold turkey" !!!
Well, if nothing else such sordid goings on, do present her light years from her usual milieu of operatic trills, furbellowed chiffon and strawberry phosphates--cocaine addiction not being the first subject one associates with the irreproachable Miss Dunne.
Dunne is Ann Vickers, a social reformer dedicated to her career and not interested in men or dating. Nevertheless, due to her attractiveness, men are interested. One is a soldier about to be shipped out during WW I (Bruce Cabot) with whom she enjoys a one-night stand and becomes pregnant. She has promised to marry him if he still wants her upon his return; he really doesn't. She goes off with her friend Malvina (Edna May Oliver) to her country place.
In one scene, she talks about how much she wanted the baby girl, and it was a shame that the baby died. So either she miscarried or had an abortion. We're left hanging. If she and Malvina were going out of the city, I understood that it was so she could be pregnant and no one would know it. Maybe not.
Ann throws herself into her work for prison reform, and meets a judge (Walter Huston) whose wife lives in Europe and won't divorce him. And complications ensue.
You can tell by the way I've related this story that this is not about a woman ahead of her time, independent, an early feminist, although that is supposed to be what it is.Instead the story is skewed toward her love life, and she marvels at how the Huston character has "killed her ambition."
As in so many other movies, ambition and careers mean one thing - spinsterhood - and a happy ending can only be achieved if she forsakes her career for the man she loves.
It sounds like I'm knocking this philosophy - I'm not. This was the attitude back then and in some places, it's still the attitude. The Vickers character was unconventional sexually, a feature of precode.
Once the '40s hit, she would be in tailored suits up to her neck, aggressive in business, and softened by love, which removes all that frustration.
After seeing a few of these, the message is clear.
So rather than focus on her reform work, although it's mentioned, the movie focuses on her love life. And spoils what could have been a good story.
Dunne is wonderful as Ann, and you sense that she has a real backbone. Her character doesn't allow herself to love at first, perhaps for fear of being hurt.
Huston as the judge with more than a few issues is always good, and Edna May Oliver gives an earthy, practical performance.
All in all, I did not think this was very good. It would have been a lot better with more balance between Ann's private life and career, and if she had found one.