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Segue-ing away from her role as Fred Astaire's dancing partner, Ginger Rogers used all her resources to nail down her solo career at RKO. Her first stop was a standout role in the semi-ensemble light drama Stage Door (1937), whereupon she turned to a straight-up screwball comedy, 1938's Vivacious Lady. Only top directors would do. For this show the man on the job was George Stevens, at the time considered one of the best talents in Hollywood, a director who wouldn't settle for anything short of excellence.
Vivacious Lady is actually a fairly lightweight screwball comedy, with fringe benefits. The casting isn't very exciting with the exception of young James Stewart, at the time a promising fresh face being bounced around MGM in one so-so picture after another. Rogers asked for Stewart based on their chemistry -- they'd actually dated a couple of years before and she found him to be charming.
The plot isn't exactly inspired, but Ms. Rogers perks up every scene she's in. The show earns extra points with a couple of clever slow-burn gag sequences that are paced like a silent comedy. This will come as no surprise to fans of director Stevens, who served as cameraman on a bushel of Laurel and Hardy's best short subjects.
Romantic complications ensue when meek botany professor Peter Morgan (James Stewart) journeys to the Big Apple to retrieve his playboy brother Keith (James Ellison). While trying to extricate Keith from a nightclub, Peter sees nightclub entertainer (and Keith's latest squeeze) Francey (Ginger Rogers) and immediately falls in love. They marry in a big rush and take the train back to Old Sharon, the college town where Peter's father (Charles Coburn) tries to run his family in the same dictatorial manner by which he rules his university. 'Complications' conspire to keep Peter and Francey from consummating their marriage, while the bullying Mr. Morgan assumes Francey is one of Keith's showgirl tramps. When Peter tries to get a word in edgewise, he's reprimanded for putting strain on his mother's heart. Mom (Beulah Bondi) deals with her tyrannical husband and the wayward Keith by faking fainting attacks whenever things get too tense. Instead of a honeymoon, Francey must stay in a women's hotel, guarded by a prissy attendant (Franklin Pangborn). Keith offers Francey his open arms, but she prefers to pretend to be a botany student. The other students are surprised by Peter's obvious infatuation with the new girl in class. Making things worse, Peter's fianceé Helen (Frances Mercer) intuits something fishy. She takes an intense disliking to Francey, who can't reveal the marriage but can sure put up a fight when Helen brings the hostilities out into the open. Mrs. Morgan also realizes that something is going on between Francey and Peter, but it might be too late -- seeing that the situation is hopeless, Francey makes plans to return alone to the city.
Although the formula works every time, Vivacious Lady is one of those movies where a big romantic secret can't be revealed until the final act, and the screenwriters and actors must work overtime to arrange the inevitable mix-ups and mayhem into an amusing pattern. The relationship between Francey and Peter is therefore an exercise in frustration: the truth will come out sooner or later, and the reasons for delay become more desperate. These were still Salad Days for the gangly, sincere James Stewart. You Can't Take It with You would explode just three months later, but this is the pre-Capra movie in which we see him use all of his personality tricks -- the respectful reserve, the boyish charm, the verbal stumbling -- that he'd still be using to audience-pleasing effect forty years later. Stewart fumbles in the classroom, wilts before his domineering father, and must play second-story man to break into his own wife's hotel room. The sexus-interruptus plot device is pretty much dead now, but under the old Production Code it was one of the few ways that Hollywood filmmakers could shoehorn frisky sexuality into movies. The decency code all but guaranteed that movie characters never resembled real people.
Ginger Rogers had been shoved into third-tier Gold Digger position for most of her Warners musicals, and found her star-making role opposite Fred Astaire more than a little confining. Vivacious Lady is her show all the way, as the excitement seems to happen only when she's on screen. Francey is an amusingly feisty lady unable to explain her marriage to the Morgans. But when the snobbish Helen gives her grief, Francey cuts loose. The hostilities finally explode on a terrace at a crucial (what other kind is there?) university dinner dance. Helen insults Francey, Francey retaliates, and words are replaced by kicks and shoves. In no time at all a real catfight has broken out. It's a winner, and was apparently recognized when new as a throwback to silent movie mirth. Sound pictures had pretty much obliterated high-end slapstick from screens but people still loved the old gags. The oft-repeated story is that RKO wrapped Ginger's legs in wooden armor, so that Frances Mercer could deliver worry-free kicks to the star's million-dollar shins.
A couple more moments approach that highlight, but Vivacious Lady now seems a little drawn out. It has a forgettable cute ending where the socko finish should be. Francey boards a train in a state of depression. She meets Mrs. Morgan, who is also leaving her husband. The effect is oddly depressing. Stevens' complicated comic scene between two coach rooms doesn't work, as by now the show should have moved beyond such simple jokes. Poor Beulah Bondi deserting her husband? That's kind of heartbreaking.
Although often cited as the best Astaire-Rogers musical, George Stevens' Swing Time also seems rather slow for this reviewer. Just as Stevens' comic sense didn't abandon him in his postwar epic movies, there was usually a sober quality to even his biggest comedy hits.
The talented, Beulah Bondi ended up playing James Stewart's mother several times (four?). Charles Coburn would return for George Stevens in a far better part in the great The More the Merrier. Pulling duty in the "thankless role" is beautiful Frances Mercer, who shows excellent timing taking repeated slaps from Ms. Rogers. Someone ought to do a remembrance for classic-era actors that laid down "sacrifice" performances to make stars look good. Also showing up are Jack Carson as the waiter in New York, and Willie Best, who is given proper respect as the train conductor in the last scene. The inimitable Grady Sutton appears to amusing effect as a quietly girl-crazy botany student.
Weak link actor James Ellison sticks out pretty badly. He must have been extremely handsome and charming in person. Traded between studios like a baseball card, Ellison didn't seem to fit anywhere. Outside of series westerns he's best remembered for Busby Berkeley's The Gang's All Here and Val Lewton's I Walked with a Zombie. Way down in the cast list is RKO bit player Russell Wade, who also ended up with a couple of leading roles in Val Lewton pictures -- Lewton's horror unit seemed to be the studio dumping ground for contract talent nobody wanted.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Vivacious Lady is a reasonably good-looking transfer of this popular light comedy from the screwball factory. Rogers appears in a cute floorshow number but seems dead set on moving beyond her dancing talent. The song "You'll Be Reminded of Me" comes across well on the disc's soundtrack.
The WAC's disc packaging tells us that this was George Steven's first experience both producing and directing. It's a perfectly fine movie, although Ginger's comic talents got a much better workout in William A. Wellman's Roxie Hart and Billy Wilder & Charles Brackett's superbly written The Major and the Minor.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Vivacious Lady rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.