Character clichés don't diminish this pre-Code melodrama condemned by the Legion of Decency - a badge of honor in this critic's book. Finishing School (1933) features some exceptionally good performances, and though shamelessly if effectively manipulative, offers a still-potent bite of social commentary. Back then Great Depression audiences no doubt responded to its story and characters much like modern, economically-downturned audiences will be seeing it.
This Warner Archive Collection release is the usual no-frills DVD-R, without a trailer or anything else though the transfer is fine, about on par with Warner Home Video's standard DVD releases for films of similar vintage.
Finishing School's beautiful and talented star, Frances Dee
Virginia Radcliff (Frances Dee) is accepted into exclusive Crockett Hall, a finishing school for young women, open only to "families of breeding and inheritance" and where its students can "meet, graciously, all the pressing social demands" of the idle rich. (During the opening titles where the various cast members are introduced, the last-billed member of the cast, billed as "The Snob," is Crockett Hall itself.)
Virginia befriends straight-talking roommate Cecilia "Pony" Ferris (Ginger Rogers), who invites her to join a group of friends on a weekend trip into New York, chaperoned by her Aunt Jessica. Once in the city, however, Aunt Jessica is revealed as a broken-down actress hired by the girls. They then check into a hotel for a weekend of drinking and carousing. Virginia is paired off with obnoxious college football star Bill Martin. When he drunkenly tries to assault her a hotel waiter, Ralph "Mac" McFarland (Bruce Cabot), comes to her rescue. He turns out to be an unpaid intern studying medicine, working part-time at the hotel to pay for his tuition.
Mac and Virginia fall in love. However, both Crockett Hall's headmistress, Miss Van Alstyne (Beulah Bondi), and Virginia's nitwit mother, Helen (Billie Burke), are steadfastly against the relationship and do everything they can to stop it, including secretly destroying Mac's telegrams to Virginia.
A Merian C. Cooper production for RKO, Finishing School has the usual clichés: the hypocritical, disciplinarian headmistress, the scatterbrained, self-involved mother and, as was often the case with other films of this time and type, the more sympathetic, completely unpretentious father, played here by John Halliday (echoing similar performances by Walter Connolly and Eugene Pallette in films like Broadway Bill, My Man Godfrey, etc.)
The picture was written and co-directed by a woman, very unusual in 1930s Hollywood. Wanda Tuchock had contributed to the scripts of numerous important films, including Hallelujah!, Billy the Kid, Susan Lenox , The Champ, Bird of Paradise, and Little Women. No doubt that influenced RKO's decision to let her co-direct, with George Nichols, Jr., Finishing School's women-heavy cast. (Nichols was probably on-hand to ensure Tuchock shot the right kind of coverage.) Sadly, her only other credit as a director is a juvenile delinquency short that she also produced, Road Runners (1952). Her last known credit as a writer is a 1959 episode of Man without a Gun; Tuchcock died in 1985 at the age of 86.
Too bad in part because of her unusually good direction of the actors. Frances Dee, the wife of actor Joel McCrea, is exceptionally well castcast. With just the right balance of innocence and assertiveness, her performance is emotionally authentic throughout, which in turn generates some real tension during the last few reels. Bruce Cabot is a real surprise. Fresh from starring opposite Fay Wray in King Kong, released just two months before, Cabot's performance here is relaxed and assured, the opposite of his clumsy, all-thumbs line readings in King Kong. For me Cabot was always one of King Kong's few weaknesses, but in Finishing School he leaves you wondering why he never became a big star. Burke, Bondi, and Rogers are fine in their standard-issue roles.
The picture's condemnation of the idle rich and their pretensions resonate as strongly in 2011 as it did 78 years ago. Virginia's neglectful mother and father, rather than spend Christmas with her, mail her a $2,500 mink coat and $1,000 check, respectfully, this at a time when the average annual income in America was around $1,500. Meanwhile, at Crockett Hall the girls' expensive education consists mainly of poise and grace lessons. In one scene the girls are taught conversation topics on literary classics like Anna Karenina - so that they won't be bothered with having to actually read the book.
(Spoilers): The condemnation by the Legion of Decency probably specifically referred to the (implied) pre-marital sex between Virginia and Mac, and near-violation by Miss Van Alstyne and the school's doctor (Helen Freeman), who suspect Virginia is with child. It's a very intense sequence, still powerful all these years later.
Video & Audio
Finishing School looks just fine in its original, full-frame and black & white presentation, on par with other RKO titles of this vintage. The Dolby Digital mono is adequate, though hard-of-hearing fans may be out of luck: the disc is neither subtitled nor closed-captioned. There are no Extra Features.
A real find, Finishing School is a must for Pre-Code Hollywood fans and Highly Recommended.
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