Thursday, June 3, 2010

What women want

Last night saw a number of John Huston movies on TCM; tonight sees two movies starring his father, Walter. The first of these is the interesting pre-Code Ann Vickers at 9:30 PM ET.

Irene Dunne gets top billing in the title role. At the beginning of the movie, she's a social worker dealing with veterans returning from World War I. One of these veterans, Bruce Cabot, tries to woo her, but at first she refuses, wanting to maintain her career. He's a cad, though, and eventually convinces her to have sex with him, since she winds up pregnant and he runs off leaving her more or less alone to raise the coming baby.

Unfortunately, the baby is still-born, although that allows Miss Vickers the opportunity to keep working, going inside a women's prison to observe conditions and write an award-winning book describing the scandalous way the women prisoners are treated. This gains her influence and eventually she gets put in charge of a women's prison of her own, where presumably more progressive conditions will be afforded the prisoners.

This rise in status also brings her to the attention of Judge Barney Dolphin (Walter Huston). He falls in love with her, but also knows he can never really have her. The problem is, he's trapped in a loveless marriage with a woman who won't grant him a divorce, instead traveling around Europe. At least the wife's being away gives the good judge the chance to have his dalliances on the side.

Then again, the good judge isn't a good judge, but a corrupt bastard. Eventually he gets arrested for the corruption, but not before having knocked up Ann Vickers. He goes off to prison, and she works lesser jobs waiting for him to get out of jail....

It's fascinating stuff, based on a novel by Sinclair Lewis. Ann Vickers is supposed to be a strong powerful woman -- after all, she's able to write a scathing book about women's prisons. But every time she meets a bad boy she gets weak in the knees. (On the other hand, the one good man in the movie, lawyer Conrad Nagel, leaves her completely cold.) That having been said, what Vickers does isn't portrayed as particularly immoral, at least, nowhere near the way it would be portrayed in movies released once the enforcement of the Production Code became strict. Further, there's some relatively lurid (at least for 1933 standards) stuff here, in the form of the treatment Vickers witnesses in the women's prison, and how her face is superimposed over those images with a hardened expression. Also in the cast is Edna May Oliver as Vickers' mentor, a role that becomes distinctly too small after Vickers' first baby is stillborn.

Ann Vickers veers from one part of the plot to the next so quickly that it sometimes feels disjointed, which is certainly a drawback. All the same, it's still quite an interesting movie. Sadly, it's never been released to DVD.

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