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Kitty Foyle: The Natural History of a Woman

Kitty Foyle: The Natural History of a Woman
Warner DVD
1940 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 108 min. / Street Date Jan 31, 2006 / 19.98
Starring Ginger Rogers, Dennis Morgan, James Craig, Eduardo Ciannelli, Ernest Cossart
Cinematography Robert de Grasse
Art Direction Van Nest Polglase
Film Editor Henry Berman
Original Music Roy Webb
Written by Dalton Trumbo, Donald Ogden Stewart from a novel by Christopher Morley
Produced by Harry E. Edington, David Hempstead
Directed by Sam Wood

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Kitty Foyle is known for one thing, establishing Ginger Rogers, musical-comedy star, as a dramatic actress. It worked like gangbusters, for everyone's favorite dancer walked away with 1940's Best Actress Oscar. Kitty Foyle is a spirited but dated "woman's picture" about a thoroughly modern Kitty making her way through a series of tough romantic choices. The dialogue, emotions and acting are good, as is the direction of Sam Wood. But the story is a stack of contrivances, tailored by Dalton Trumbo to provide attractive problems for Ginger's Kitty Foyle. By attractive, I mean Hollywood-sanitized and discomfort-proofed.


Troubled store clerk Katherine Foyle (Ginger Rogers) is about to marry struggling doctor Mark Eisen (James Craig), when her on again, off again sweetheart Wynnewood "Wyn" Strafford VI (Dennis Morgan) sweeps her off her feet with the invitation to join him in a new life in South America. As Kitty decides what to do, she remembers her childhood back in Philadelphia and her previous history with Wyn. She fell in love with him but resisted marriage because she wanted nothing to do with his stifling old-money family.

Let's get the SPOILERS out of the way right off the bat. Kitty is in love with two attractive, and attentive men, a familiar movie fantasy. Her present beau Mark is colorless actor James Craig, who is either an intern or a free clinic doctor interested in spending his life helping poor sick kids. His Albert Schweitzer rating is A+, and, he's also a sexy guy with a lively personality.

Then there's the rich fellow Wyn, played by actor Dennis Morgan, whose crooked smile would soon make him a wartime favorite. Morgan's no Sonny Tufts, but having all the name stars away in the service helped some too. This Wyn is a complete flake. He disappears for months and years at a time, only to resurface at inopportune times to romance the heck out of Kitty. Wyn takes her on romantic trips and shows up to escort her on a night's dancing and dining in Manhattan. The problem is that they both come from Philadelphia, and his incredibly snotty rich family wouldn't tolerate Kitty for a minute. Wyn doesn't face up that difference, preferring to keep Kitty in a fog as to what their future will be. (SPOILERS aren't over yet...) Finally, Wyn breaks down Kitty's resistance by telling her they can get married because he's relocating in New York and she won't have to deal with his family. The first thing Wyn does is take her back to Philadelphia and throw her to the Strafford wolves in his mother's aristocratic house (mother is played to the insufferable hilt by Gladys Cooper). Wyn then stares mutely when Kitty asks him to reaffirm that they're not going to be living in Philly. (SPOILERS, no kidding). She walks out on him, discovers later that she's pregnant, and loses the baby in childbirth. One divorce and several years later, Kitty meets the new Mrs. Strafford and the little boy that might have been hers. Then Wyn shows up with the plan: He's leaving his wife and going to South America (!) and wants Kitty to come along for a marriage-challenged relationship.

The first crazy thing about this is that Kitty (and we) are supposed to think that her choice between Wyn and Mark is a close one. Wyn's final offer, delivered with a "the boat leaves in two hours, make up your mind" deadline, is to go to a foreign country, Brazil or Argentina, which in Hollywood movies is one of those drop-off-the-end-of-the-Earth places. Kitty can't know whether he'll have to leave his kept woman at home, or if she'll be expected to wear a sarong, like Tondelayo or Dorothy Lamour. The most insulting contrivance is (SPOILER) the death of Kitty's baby. It's apparently born in wedlock but birthed after the divorce, and is only there to provide evidence of poor Kitty's need to be a 'real' woman. The script kills the poor kid off, as it's assumed the audience will want Kitty to continue to have romantic problems, not diaper issues. Besides, the story is a flashback about a woman who in the present is apparently childless.

Finally, the film has lumpy full title inviting us to apply Kitty's example to womanhood in general. Is the film saying that Kitty's problem is universal for the females of 1940? I think most of the females of any time are lucky if they have one or two choices for their futures that have any real love in them at all. It's interesting that all the problems in Kitty's life are about the lack of money, but when she chooses to marry she's adamant to be rid of the stuff. I think it would be the other way around, as in, "Sure Mrs. Strafford. Send me to school to learn how to be a veddy proper Strafford and look down at people. I'll just do what I want anyway." Why not marry Wyn and then give all his relatives heart attacks by disobeying them?

Kitty Foyle is expertly directed but it employs a surfeit of narrative gimmicks. In some ways it's a lot like George Stevens' Penny Serenade released the next year. Kitty's flashbacks are built around a time-shifting dissolve device, a decorative snow scene paperweight similar to the one dropped by Charles Foster in Citizen Kane ( for a good laugh, imagine those giant lips saying not "Rosebud" but "Kitty"). That's how we know that Wyn keeps Kitty in marital suspense for an entire decade. He's there promising her the moon in 1932, because Prohibition is being repealed.

Kitty also talks to her own conscience, which materializes in a mirror to talk with her via some Lin Dunn matte effects. This gives Kitty the opportunity to debate herself, so that her biggest scenes aren't shared with some other actor. Finally, the script starts with a now-unnecessary prologue comparing the 'liberated woman' of 1900 with her counterpart during prohibition. Kitty is joining the workforce as a stenographer in 1930 or so, because of the big depression.

In any given scene Kitty Foyle makes emotional sense. The dialogue is good and reasonably witty, and Ginger Rogers is her delightful self. It's not half as funny as Roxie Hart, the original version of Chicago. Nor is it as emotionally satisfying as Dalton Trumbo's Tender Comrade, another Dalton Trumbo that was accused as being pro-Communist. As for Rogers doing her best to be accepted as a serious actress, I liked her wonderful Gregory La Cava film, 1940's Primrose Path, much better. It had to hide its theme of prostitution, yet came out as a much more honest story.

Warner DVD is hitting the Oscar-Winning Actress films hard this month, and Kitty Foyle lets Ginger Rogers show her stuff. The transfer element is in good condition, and the show plays well.

Warners have come up with good extras. A trailer is included, even though the packaging doesn't mention it. Two entire radio productions of Kitty Foyle starring Ginger Rogers are included. They've also added two cartoons that use the Kitty Foyle title as a passing joke, the Tom & Jerry short Kitty Foiled and Tex Avery's masterpiece Bad Luck Blackie. If you haven't seen the Avery, you should rent the disc for it alone.

It appears that Warners have made a format change to save some money, at least on this series of releases: The usual disc artwork no longer appears, with just the title of the film on plain a silver topping. Those picture discs certainly weren't essential, but they were attractive.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Kitty Foyle: The Natural History of a Woman rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Two cartoons, two radio versions of the show, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 8, 2006

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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