Monday, November 10, 2008

“Vivacious Lady”

You’d be hard pressed to find a more engaging cinematic couple than Jimmy Stewart & Ginger Rogers, the stars of George Stewart’s 1938 Vivacious Lady. Stewart had that awkward eager charm, which he displays so marvelously in this film (of course, this is reminiscent of his character in The Philadelphia Story, especially in the superb late night swimming scene with Katherine Hepburn); Rogers is gorgeous as ever, but more importantly displays a winning combination of wise-cracking self-confidence & vulnerability—again, qualities that defined many of her roles. There was a lot more to Ginger Rogers than being Fred Astaire’s elegant & sexy dance partner. She was a highly skilled comic actress.

Vivacious Lady is a true comedy of errors, & the com
plications that keep the plot spinning are mostly created by Stewart’s character Professor Peter Morgan Jr., who just can’t screw up the nerve to tell his staid, college president father that he’s married to night-club singer Rogers; the father (a monocled & delightfully obnoxious Charles Coburn) sees Rogers' character Francey as a gold-digger at best, & certainly not the sort of woman his son should be involved with.

The film is fast-paced—at least that’s my experience (Eberle’s, too); I have seen some more negative opinions about Vivacious Lady on the net. Is the story silly? Does it require the viewer to suspend disbelief in all sorts of directions? Well, of course—it’s a screwball comedy, not a Bergman flick. The whirlwind romance between Rogers & Stewart isn’t the stuff of “real life” (tho such things do happen, but probably don’t typically turn out real well); the situations they find themselves in are “incredible,” too in the etymological sense of "not to be believed."
Nonetheless, the film has some extremely funny moments: the fight between Rogers & Stewart’s finacee (now ex, tho she doesn’t know it yet) outside a stuffy college prom is one such moment; the wild dancing scene with Rogers, James Ellison, & Beulah Bondi is another, especially when Charles Coburn walks in on the trio. There are some moments that are both sweet & funny—when Ellison (playing Stewart’s rakish cousin Keith Morgan—who originally had been smitten with Francey) places the bride & groom figures from an uncut wedding cake next to Rogers & Stewart each in their separate beds. The scenes between Ginger Rogers & Beulah Bondi (the ur-mother of old films—also Stewart’s mother in What a Wonderful Life & Mr Smith Goes to Washington) play very nicely. Ellison’s portrayal also works well in the film—he’s just enough of a playboy to add some suspense to the situation between Rogers & Stewart, without being enough of a scoundrel to ever represent a real threat to the couple.
But the real sparkle is between Stewart & Rogers. I understand they were “an item” during the filming of Vivacious Lady, & that’s not hard to believe watching their energy together. On the other hand, both of them are skilled at portraying that sort of alternately abashed & delighted aura that can so effectively portray desire on film—we know this from their other roles. While some steamy romance scenes can be very enjoyable, the interaction between Rogers & Stewart seems more “real” in terms of the average guy's or gal’s experience.

This is a 1930s movie, & there are a few uncomfortable scenes involving race, & also involving Franklin Pangborn as a fey apartment manager at the boarding house where Rogers has taken up residence. These issues are fraught, of course, but they can’t be avoided in films from this era; you have to make one’s own peace with that fact if you’re going to watch these movies. For what it’s worth—& to career wildly from the serious to the comical, the first time Eberle & I watched this film, we were on the edge of our seat
s because it seemed clear there was no way Rogers & Stewart could end up together; also, watching Stewart bungle one opportunity after another to tell his father the truth is exasperating in an entertaining way. After all, Jimmy, you’re hiding the fact you’re married to Ginger Rogers? Come on!

Contrary to some of my fellow internet opinion-mongers, I think Vivacious Lady has lots to recommend it, & whenever you’re up for 90 minutes of charming entertainment, this film would be a swell pick.

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