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Leisurely paced yet excellent drama is beautifully acted
Produced by the MGM studios and directed by the prestigious King Vidor, H.M. PULHAM, ESQ. contains Hedy Lamarr delivering the best dramatic performance of her career. Here she is not the mysterious, distant, and seductive woman as in her other films; rather, she is warm, loving, kind, and human in her role as Marvin Myles, a career girl who works and eventually falls in love with the title character, Harry Pulham (Robert Young). This bittersweet film was Hedy's personal favorite film and the mild-mannered Robert was her favorite costar. Robert was not the first choice for the role: both Gary Cooper and James Stewart turned the role down, leading Vidor to offer the role to Robert Young, a solid actor but hardly a matinée idol. In order to fill up more theatre seats, studio executives ordered Vidor to cast the gorgeous Hedy Lamarr with Robert.
The film contains a superb supporting cast: Charles Coburn as Harry's father, Van Heflin as Harry's best friend, Ruth Hussey as the woman Harry eventually marries, and Fay Holden as Harry's kind and understanding mother. Under Vidor's meticulous direction, all the performances are excellent and the film contains a subtle quality that seldom dates the film. The film is the first to present a phone conversation as it would be heard in real life, while other films at the time would use distorted voiceovers. MGM composer Bronislau Kaper includes a sparse music score that heightens the reality of the film, despite the soap opera elements of the story. The screenplay, written by Vidor and his wife Elizabeth Hill, is intelligently written and is based on a bestselling novel by J.P. Marquand.
My only complaints for the film are its slow pace and two-hour length, as well as an obvious indoor set representing the exterior of Harry's Boston mansion in the winter. Some editing, some trimmed scenes, and a more realistic set could have made the film even better.
The film brought Vidor some of his best reviews since his silent films, and Hedy was lauded for her performance in some reviews and criticized for being miscast in other reviews. One critic for the Hollywood Reporter wrote, "Every performance in the film achieves memorable quality Hedy Lamarr undertakes the assignment of a business girl, Marvin Myles, and pre-production critics were quick to voice their objections to her so-called miscasting. The manner in which Miss Lamarr comes through puts to a glorious end all the controversy, leaving her critics with a lot of words to eat. She does Marvin Myles, the girl Pulham might have married, so that it is impossible to imagine another actress in the partthat's how excellent she is." Vidor also thought that Hedy's performance was excellent but he later stated that he wanted an American actress in the role.
Sadly, Hedy never again received an intelligent script or mature role in her career and returned to the bland typecast roles that she was known for. Despite its flaws, H.M. PULHAM, ESQ. is a thought-provoking and solid drama containing excellent and subtle performances.
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