Vivacious Lady (1938, George Stevens)

Vivacious Lady strengths easily outweigh its weaknesses, but those weaknesses have a way of compounding on each other as the film moves to its conclusion. The most obvious–and usually forgiveable–problem is how the film can’t decide what to do with Ginger Rogers, the Vivacious Lady. Not the film, sorry, the script. Director Stevens, photographer Robert De Grasse, costume designer Irene, Rogers’s costars, they can all work with Rogers to great success. The script just can’t figure out how to make her “vivacious” and sweet simultaneously. Unless it’s opposite leading man James Stewart, because the film is able to sail over any troubled scenes on their chemistry alone. It’s how the rest of the world treats Rogers where there are problems. Read: how the script has the rest of the world treat her.

And it’s not Code consideration because Vivacious Lady establishes very clearly early on Rogers and Stewart are anxious get a bed of their own. It’s the film’s most vibrant theme, no less.

The film starts with New England college professor–associate professor–Stewart in New York City trying to collect his ne’er-do-well, womanizing cousin, James Ellison. Ellison has fallen in love with nightclub performer Rogers, though she hasn’t fallen for him. One look into her eyes and Stewart falls for her too. Turns out the feelings mutual and after spending the night out on the town, they elope and head back to Stewart’s home town.

Only he hasn’t told his overbearing father (and boss) Charles Coburn about it. College president Coburn’s got big plans for Stewart, so long as he stays in line, which means marrying harpy blueblood Frances Mercer. When they arrive in town, Ellison–very affable for a jilted suitor–entertains Rogers while Stewart tries to figure out how to tell dad Coburn and mom Beulah Bondi about the marriage. And to break off his existing engagement to Mercer (who he forgot to tell Rogers about).

Vivacious Lady runs ninety minutes. It takes about twenty minutes to get Rogers, Stewart, and Ellison from New York to the town–Old Sharon. The next half hour is gentle screwball comedy of errors with Stewart trying to tell his parents, but Mercer screws it up or Coburn is such a verbally abusive blowhard–aggrevating Bondi into heart problems–it just never happens. It culminates in Rogers and Mercer getting into a fight. Those thirty or so minutes, ending in the fight, all happen in the first day.

I think the movie takes place over three days. Maybe three and a half.

Anyway. The next portion of the film has Rogers pretending to be a college student so she can spend time with Stewart, who’s now not telling Coburn about their marriage because of the fight. Stewart’s always got some reason for not telling Coburn–a couple times it’s Bondi’s heart condition–it’s mostly just contrived fear of Coburn. Only there’s no way for Stewart and Rogers not to moon at one another, beautifully lighted by De Grasse; their scenes are the best in the film, they radiate infectous chemistry.

But everyone else just whistles at Rogers (she’s vivacious after all), which just draws attention to how little character development she’s had around Stewart. She has more character development with Ellison, Mercer, and Bondi throughout the film than with Stewart. Even during their whirlwind courtship, as Stewart–the film points out–never shuts up about himself. That radiant infectous chemistry covers up for a lot of it, but it’s still a major script deficit.

The other major problems in the script are structure and Coburn’s character. P.J. Wolfson and Ernest Pagano’s script frontloads one supporting cast member and shortchanges another, only to flip their positions in the last third. Wouldn’t be a problem if the movie’s conclusion didn’t rely on that character with the increased presence so much. It works out–pretty well–because the cast’s great, the direction’s great, and the script is (scene by scene) excellent. But the narrative structure is disjointed.

And Coburn. Coburn’s an unlovable bastard. He’s such an unlovable bastard you forget he’s Charles Coburn and he’s (probably) secretly going to turn out to be a lovable bastard. But he’s a bad guy, who gets worse–the script doesn’t imagine anything about these characters before the first scene–and no one seems to acknowledge the level of internal disfunction. And it’d definitely have external effects.

Stewart would be so browbeaten he couldn’t order a meal without consulting Coburn, much less be sent to New York to fetch Ellison; Coburn wouldn’t trust him to do it.

So problems. The film has some big problems. And they’re script problems (though Stevens also produced so he’s not off the hook). But Vivacious Lady is still an outstanding romantic comedy. Rogers and Stewart are glorious together. Separate, Rogers is better. She gets good material on her own. Stewart doesn’t. He’s still funny and charming, but the material’s nothing special. Rogers’s material–whether it’s showing down with Mercer or teaching Bondi to dance–is dynamic.

Ellison’s the film’s secret weapon. He’s a little annoying at the start, but once Vivacious Lady is in its second act and Stewart abandons Rogers for mean Coburn and Mercer (and suffering Bondi), it’s Ellison who provides the picture its affability. The script shortchanges him, but it shortchanges everyone at one point or another.

Bondi’s phenomenal. As wondrous as Rogers and Stewart’s chemistry is onscreen, when Bondi and Rogers get a scene together here and there, they’re able to do so much with the material. Their performances compliment each other beautifully.

Mercer’s fine. It’s a lousy part. Ditto Coburn. He’s a caricature of himself playing a caricature of himself.

Some good comedic bit parts–Phyllis Kennedy as the maid, Franklin Pangborn as an apartment manager. Willie Best is good as the Pullman porter, but the part is gross.

Vivacious Lady is a definite success. However, Rogers, Stewart, Bondi, and Ellison deserve to be a resounding one.

It almost recoups all (or most all) with the final gag. Then tries to one up itself and loses that ground. It’s particularly frustrating.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by George Stevens; screenplay by P.J. Wolfson and Ernest Pagano, based on a story I.A.R. Wylie; director of photography, Robert De Grasse; edited by Henry Berman; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Ginger Rogers (Francey Brent), James Stewart (Peter Morgan Jr.), Charles Coburn (Peter Morgan Sr.), James Ellison (Keith Morgan), Frances Mercer (Helen), Beulah Bondi (Martha Morgan), Phyllis Kennedy (Jenny), Franklin Pangborn (Apartment Manager), Willie Best (Train Porter), and Grady Sutton (Culpepper).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE FRED ASTAIRE AND GINGER ROGERS BLOGATHON HOSTED BY MICHAELA FROM LOVE LETTERS TO OLD HOLLYWOOD AND CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.


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4 thoughts on “Vivacious Lady (1938, George Stevens)”

  1. Your excellent review has pointed out some things to me that I think I’ve always brushed aside because I just love this film so much. You’re spot-on about Coburn’s character — I don’t think he deserves to stay with Bondi in the end. But the scenes with Stewart and Rogers are so fantastic, and the rest of the cast is so great, that I’m able to look past whatever problems the film has, particularly Coburn’s awful father.

    Thanks for contributing to our blogathon!

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