Every now and then, one stumbles across a movie that completely subverts your expectations.
Whether it be a comedy that makes you cry or a drama that makes you laugh, it’s always good every once and a while to have your assumptions thrown into a tizzy; that’s one of the many reasons why the romantic comedy Vivacious Lady works so well.
Released in 1938 and directed by George Stevens, the movie stars Ginger Rogers, James Stewart, and Charles Cogburn, plus a talented supporting cast including James Ellison, Beulah Bondi, and Frances Mercer.
The movie tells the story of Peter, a homely botany professor who falls in love with a nightclub singer (played by Ginger Rogers) while on a trip to the city to retrieve his playboy cousin Keith (played by James Ellison) who’s been “painting the town red.”
The catch? Peter’s parents (specifically his overbearing father) would no doubt disapprove of his new relationship.
Sounds amusing? Well, it is.
Peter spends the bulk of the film trying to convince his dad Peter Morgan Sr. (played by Charles Coburn) that his “floozy” girl he picked is actually his new fiancée. The only dilemma is Peter isn’t the most assertive chap, so, emphatically proclaiming his love for an “uneducated” showgirl won’t sit too well with his father.
As stated earlier, the movie starts in lively fashion when Peter is forcibly removed from his office by his domineering father and forced to search for his rowdy cousin Keith who’s cavalierly traversing through each and every Manhattan nightclub.
After exhausting every resource he had to look for Keith, Peter finds him in a nightclub trying to ‘take home’ (if you catch my drift) a blonde showgirl who wants nothing to do with him.
Francey or “Fran” (played by Rogers) was initially infatuated by Keith’s charms, but, in typical classic Hollywood fashion, her eyes quickly moved towards Peter after realizing his “better-looking family member” is a bit of a lush.
After pulling an all-nighter and walking around the snow-covered streets of Manhattan till their heart’s content, Francey, and Peter decide to elope.
The trio return to the Morgan household located in the sleepy town of Old Sharon, New York where Fran finds out how seriously Peter takes his day job.
Seeing as though his father is a very egotistical man, Peter is apprehensive about telling him about his recent marriage. When he does muster up the courage to tell his dad, not only does the elder Morgan brush off his son’s concerns, he mistakenly believes that this “blonde hussy” is just another student at the college Peter teaches at.
Being the soft-spoken man that he is, Peter tries to broach the subject again, only to be rejected for the third and final time.
It isn’t his father who spurns his advances this time, however, but his mother Mrs. Morgan who apparently has a chronic heart issue. Naturally, with her nervous disposition, this makes it fairly difficult to bring up the subject that Peter so desperately wants to get off his chest.
Sick and tired of being walked over, Peter decides it would be a good idea to reveal the true identity of his wife during the College’s semi-annual student-faculty prom (apparently this something that happened back in the day…). With the help of his cousin, Peter coerces Keith (despite having a fiancée) into taking Francey to the dance as his own date.
Increasingly growing frustrated that she has to continue to pose as a student, Fran inadvertently develops a close friendship with Peter’s mother (this will be very important later.) Fran’s cover is almost when Keith’s fiancée Helen (played by Frances Mercer) picks a fight with her in a jealous rage which eventually has Fran accidentally punching Peter’s father in the face.
Sidenote: this scene genuinely had me on the ground howling with laughter, I couldn’t gain my composure for a good 10 minutes.
After un-pausing the movie and regaining my senses, the film continues with Peter candidly shouting at his dad (mostly due to frustration) that the blonde-haired student that’s been following him everywhere is actually his wife.
“Finally,” he thought. “I’m no longer burdened with this secret that’s been shredding my heart to smithereens.”
Not so fast.
It turns out that his dad was about to give a “state of the union,” – so to speak – to the higher-ups at the college board. This results in a quarrel between the two which causes Mrs. Morgan, who’s sitting a few steps away, to have another heart “flare up”. Concerned for her well being, Peter orders Fran to take Mrs. Morgan back to her dormitory.
This is where Mrs. Morgan comes clean about everything. She confesses to Fran that she knew who she was the entire time and that she regularly fakes her heart ailments to get out of arguments with her husband (I should try this when I get married.)
Thanks to George Stevens, we get this hilarious scene where Keith, Mrs. Morgan, and Fran essentially celebrate having a couple of minutes away from the insolent spirit of the elder Morgan.
After their brief moment of bliss, Mr. Morgan confronts Fran and demands her to separate from Peter. When that doesn’t work, he threatens Peter’s job security. Ultimately, Francey gets the hint and begrudgingly leaves.
Mr. Morgan’s strong statements prompt Mrs. Morgan to drudge up some hidden feelings about the state of their marriage that have been ruminating inside her for years. Taken aback by his words, she hitches her wagon to Francey’s one-way ticket out of Old Sharon.
Free from the clutches of the elder Morgan, both women get on the first train down to Reno.
Peter’s resolution to the problem is to create possibly the most disrespectful situation a child could possibly subject their parents to – public drunkenness. As you can imagine he makes a complete fool of himself.
He loosens his tie, takes off his shoes, and downs about 7 glasses of whiskey in his classroom’s broom closet accompanied by who’s Keith cheering him on a couple paces away. Peter claims he’ll continue on this downward spiral until his father retracts the statements he spewed so flippantly a few hours earlier, even if this stunt costs him his cushy office job.
Several hours and many bottles of Johnnie Walker Blue later, Peter hits the hypothetical brick wall of drunkenness. This sees him miss the train that was carrying his emotionally distraught wife and mother.
When this was happening, Fran (being the typical woman) expects her ‘knight and shining armor’ to come galavanting down the train tracks, enter the convoy, sweep her off her feet then ride off into the sunset hoping to reconcile their failed marriage. When that doesn’t happen, she accepts her fate and proceeds to cry into Mrs. Morgan’s supportive shoulder.
Surprisingly, while Peter is knocked from his all-day ‘bender’, Mr. Morgan swallows his pride, finds the train before it leaves the station and takes it upon himself to apologize to both his wife and daughter- in- law.
You may be wondering, “how does one man stop a 100,000+ pound train dead in its tracks?” “Surely, it must be impossible.”
Well, if your first answer isn’t to park your car it in front of its path, then you may be a heartless jerk (according to what the movie says, anyway.)
Miraculously, Mr. Morgan finds his way onto the train tracks and hobbles his way into the shared cabin of Francey and Mrs. Morgan. With Peter not too far behind, the elder Morgan manages to weasel his way back into the loving clutches of his wife, profusely apologizes to both women. As for Peter and Francey, everything appeared to go smoothly for them.
Fortunately for the duo, they reunited without a hitch and forgave each other fairly quickly. Unfortunately for the audience, that happened to be the last scene of the movie, but based on their reactions, I have it on good authority that something as petty as this probably won’t happen again to the Morgan clan.
Vivacious Lady is a picture that made my heart soar. Since the plot wasn’t as convoluted as some other romantic comedies from this era, the sole focus revolves around Ginger and James‘ incredible chemistry that permeated every inch of this movie.
Filled with pure amusement and warmth. The phenomenal attraction between Rogers and Stewart is what makes this movie tick. If this film had any other pair of leading actors, It might not have worked as well.
We can thank George Stevens for masterfully crafting a romantic comedy that genuinely feels romantic. Now, that sounds a bit redundant, but, there have been plenty of times where I’ve watched romantic dramas/comedies where I felt no connection to the characters, plot, or outcome. With Vivacious Lady, however, I was very interested in whether or not Fran and Peter (and to a lesser extent Peter’s parents) would be able to fix their issues.
All in all, Vivacious Lady is charming romp about star-crossed lovers and the many forces that threaten to derail their relationship. The movie is funny, touching, and slightly sensual (thanks to the pre-existing real-life relationship between Ginger and Jimmy.)
What more, as a classic film fan, could you possibly want in a movie?