Apartment for Peggy (1948, George Seaton)

Apartment for Peggy has a protagonist problem. It’s also got what seems to be a Production Code problem, but more on that one later (especially since it gets tangled with the protagonist problem). The film opens with retired university philosophy professor Edmund Gwenn dispassionately deciding he’s going to kill himself. He’s been working on his post-retirement book for eight years, and it’s almost done, his wife has passed away, and his son died in World War II. So he’s just taking up space.

Gwenn makes this decision no secret to his friends, who are all still teaching; the university’s dealing with the influx of G.I. Bill students and their wives (and sometimes families), so everything’s hopping. The friends are mortified, but what can they do. This plotline and character arc seem entirely problematic with the Code, so, right off, Peggy is making big swings.

Then Gwenn meets Jeanne Crain (Peggy). She’s a G.I. bride with a bun in the oven, and she’s about to lose her place to live. Her husband, William Holden, wants to be a school teacher and try to help make sure the next generation doesn’t end up in a war, too–Peggy will, at different times, be about generational clashes, classism, capitalism, and gender expectations; Seaton’s all over the place and gloriously so. Except Holden also wants to be able to put a roof over his family’s head, so he’s thinking about dropping out and going to Chicago to sell used cars.

The film never identifies its location, but it’s not far from Chicago, not even in 1948. A couple hours tops.

It turns out Gwenn’s got an empty attic—where he roomed soldiers during the war—and even though it’s a dirty disaster, Crain’s willing to clean it up to keep Holden in school and their dreams intact.

The film will go from being Gwenn’s story to—very, very briefly—Crain’s story, then back to Gwenn’s story, then, finally, Holden’s story. The finale is a narrative shrug where Seaton just relies on goodwill and humor, though the film’s punchline didn’t make it past the censors. You’ve just got to assume from body language and vague implications. Unless they were referencing some kind of contemporary advertising campaign for a product. But there are a few times scenes end early, like fading out mid-sentence; someone hacked at Apartment.

In addition to his surrogate family arc, Gwenn also gets a renewed professional interest one as the “Lost Generation” discovers the G.I. Brides are just as smart—if not smarter—than their husbands. It’s an excellent informed versus intelligent bit, and it’s probably the most successful plot in the film. Maybe because, even though it’s somewhat truncated too, it’s the most complete.

Crain’s turn as protagonist usually involves her doing something to help someone else. The film’s very big on altruism and how it clashes with post-war malaise and despondence. It’s fascinating, especially as Gwenn gives the impression of austere academic scholarship, and Crain’s back at him with big ideas and lots of slang. Seaton’s direction of Crain is to turn it up to eleven. Then he just lets the energy ricochet around the frame (which, obviously, is noticeably absent when Crain’s got her mostly offscreen character arc).

When Holden finally gets to play the lead, he too does most of his character developing offscreen, but since he’s the focus of Crain’s attention—no matter what’s happening in her life—and she and Gwenn are surrogate family now, Holden’s everyone’s attention. As a result, the movie goes from being about an old white guy realizing white guys shouldn’t be the focus only to focus on the young white guy. It’s unfortunate and very noticeably reductive.

It might just be the second act being too short. The film only runs ninety-six minutes. They could’ve done a bit more with Crain and Gwenn’s bonding, Gwenn and Holden’s bonding (they’ve got a great, long comedy scene assembling furniture together), and Gwenn’s professional pursuit. Not to mention Crain and Holden rarely get to be a couple when they’re not moving the plot along.

While some footage is clearly missing, the plotting’s occasionally jerky, and there are a handful of awkwardly composed one-shots (director Seaton and cinematographer Harry Jackson keep doing these bad higher angle shots), the first two acts of Peggy are entirely solid. By the increasingly troubled third act, the film’s got more than enough goodwill to carry it. And the performances aren’t all of a sudden bad; the parts just fail the actors. The changes affect everyone, from Crain being demoted when her story’s the most compelling, to a rash change in personality for Gwenn (though, arguably, the most reasonable change), to Holden finally having to confront his chemistry class problems.

They appear to be a lack of eye-hand coordination, an unlikely memory issue, and a complete inability to read his professor (an uncredited and very good Charles Lane).

The finish only works because the cast works so well. And worked so well for the previous ninety-five minutes.

The three leads are outstanding, with occasional hiccups, and it takes Seaton a while to reveal enough about Crain to explain her exuberant, boisterous personality. The main supporting cast is Gwenn’s pals, mainly Gene Lockhart and Griff Barnett; they’re good. And survive Seaton making them carry a bunch of the third act so he can avoid certain Code-unfriendly scenes with the main cast.

Apartment for Peggy could have been great, a singular mix of comedy and contemporary social issues affecting a wide demographical array. But, instead, it’s just good. It’s a success; it’s just not the success it seems like Seaton wanted it to be.


7 Comments

  1. The Flapper Dame

    I personally enjoy Apartment for Peggy, and I also thought why it works well is because the cast is so excellent, and even if the plot is jumbled the characters carry it. If I remember correctly, I believe Robert Osborne also had positive feelings towards it. It has however been a few years since I’ve first seen it, and probably would agree that the plot is a little off-putting. The part I enjoy most is it’s a real look into postwar life- a GI, war bride, young couple starting their family/ home life. My grandparents married in 1947- so for me I suppose it really visualizes the similar struggles they had at first! Thank you so much for writing in the blogathons and I look forward to seeing / participating in future blogthons with you in the future!! -Emily

  2. Virginie Pronovost

    Thanks for this well-detailed and informative review of the film, Andrew! It really refreshed my memory on some of its aspects. I must admit, the first (and last) time I saw it, I didn’t love it. Just thought it was ok. But that was such a long time ago so maybe it deserves a re-watch. Thanks so much for taking part in our blogathon!

  3. Jeanne Okano

    To Stop Button, Thanks for your interesting review on Apartment for Peggy. I agree that Seaton was all over the place tackling a myriad of themes, issues, and personal relationships that could have gotten jumbled in lesser hands.
    But I think Seaton managed well. His film dealt with the post-WWII housing shortage, the GI Bill, joblessness, suicide, and depression and did so without condescension or morbidity. In fact, to create a warm tale laced with humor out of all that is miraculous.
    You kept referring to possible violations of the Production Code, yet never specified which one—was it suicide?
    I loved this movie because all three actors were excellent in showing off their understanding of character. Crain, the well-meaning chatterbox, disintegrates into a tearful breakdown when her husband implies that a baby will cause problems in their lives. Gwenn is the sage advisor persuading husband to return to college so as to “bring light to the dark places.” My favorite is Holden who as an earnest and level-headed husband , shines in a comical scene involving a baby bathtub, and then electrifies us in his angry outburst at Gwenn for giving up.
    It’s those moments of intimate personal struggle that make this film great.