Sunday, May 23, 2021

Mrs. Parkington

I've argued before that there's a certain sort of opulent movie that MGM was quite good at making. An excellent example of this is Mrs. Parkington.

Greer Garson plays Mrs. Susie Parkington, a widow living in a big house in New York City in 1938, complete with servants and the works. It's Christmas Eve, and she's brought together all of her descendants to come celebrate the holiday with her. Her daughter Alice (Gladys Cooper) is stuck up and doesn't like the children caroling outside her house or her Mom's dogs. Her grandson-in-law Amory Stilham (Edward Arnold) is a businessman with two adult kids, Jack (Dan Duryea) and Jane (Frances Rafferty), who is about to be engaged to be married to Ned (Tom Drake). Amory's wife has a sister Madeleine (Lee Patrick), who has gotten serially married, currently to rancher Al Swann (Rod Cameron). Most of the relatives don't care much for the matriarch, only for her money; the exception is Jane.

So when Jane tells her great-grandmother that she's planning to elope with Ned, Susie starts thinking back to when she got married.... She was living out in Leaping Rock, Nevada, as the daughter of a woman who runs the local rooming-house, which serves as the place where a bunch of workers at the silver mine live. That mine is owned by Maj. Augustus Parkington (Walter Pidgeon), who is a bold risk-taker as a businessman, skimping on mine safety to get the silver out more quickly. Sure enough, a mine accident kills not just the workers but Susie's mom, so the major marries the orphaned Susie and brings her back to New York.

There, Parkington builds Susie a big house and introduces her to the Baroness Aspasia Conti (Agnes Moorehead), who loved Augustus in the past and, as a companion to him, helps Susie adjust to her new life. It's a difficult life for her, as the members of the Four Hundred, the social elite in New York, blackball Augustus for his actions in the Civil War that killed an ancestor of one of the Four Hundred, as well as his business practices.

Those business practices have continued to the present day; even though Augustus is long dead, Amory has been running the family business and speculating with the business itself, to the point that he's lost some $30 million that he's not going to be able to replace. The auditors are going to find the hole, arrest Amory, and bring shame to the Parkington family. In fact, that's why Ned wants to elope with Jane: he's seen Amory's criminal actions, and doesn't want to have to testify, thereby hurting his wife-to-be.

The financial hole could be plugged if the company could float an issue with Mrs. Parkington's fortune, but when she puts it to a vote of the other heirs, they all say no, because they want to keep their inheritance. It prompts Susie to have another flashback to the time when she finally reformed her husband's own shady business practices, as well as to a time after her son's death when it seemed another woman might take Augustus away from her.

Mrs. Parkington is a workhorse of a movie, taking a fairly familiar story idea -- the elderly person looking back at his or her very eventul life -- and imbuing it with all the class MGM could bring to it. Walter Pidgeon especially, and to a lesser extent Garson, were solid if unspectacular actors who could take this sort of material and make a professional, quality product. Both leads are the sort of actor it can be a bit hard to warm up to, not because of anything bad they're doing but because they're working with material that's really of its time. Everybody else is frankly much too old to be playing the characters they are, at least if you believe the opening that implies Mrs. Parkington is in her 80s, but they all do well enough, Arnold taking the honors among the supporting roles. But it's Greer Garson's movie all the way, even more than Pidgeon's.

Mrs. Parkington is available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive.

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