Saturday, May 29, 2010
Movie Time: Rewind: Kitty Foyle: The Natural History of a Woman
I'm back after a bit of a break this month with another chapter of the Movie Rewind, where I review a great film from Hollywood's history. I had a lot of fun last month reviewing Broadway Melody with Eleanor Powell, so I thought I would continue the trend by reviewing a film by another one of my favorite actresses, Ginger Rogers. The film is 1940's Kitty Foyle: The Natural History of a Woman, the film for which she won the Oscar for Best Actress.
RKO Films, the studio that made Kitty Foyle, was never considered one of the richest studios, like MGM and Paramount, but they compensated for that by having having a diverse production slate of films and had an impressive stable of stars in the 1930's, though MGM would corner that market by the onset of the 1940's and as RKO had financial troubles. RKO had many of the most notable stars under it's banner in the 30's, giving actors and actresses like Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, Irene Dunne, Fred Astaire, and of course Ginger Rogers. Ginger had teamed up with Fred Astaire throughout much of the mid to late 30's, their pairing being finally profitable for the studio, making 8 films between 1934 and 1939. In fact, they were RKO's number one draw and the only stars to top the list of box office performers while at RKO. By 1939 though, the duo wanted to branch out. Astaire wanted to make his on name and Ginger was eager to stretch her acting chops, having started out on the stage as a serious actress before going into musicals. The to still had a deep affection for each other as Astaire went to MGM to team with Eleanor Powell in the sequel to Broadway Melody, Ginger set her eyes on Kitty Foyle.
The film is a the story of a working class woman set in the early 1930's. Kitty Foyle (Rogers) works as secretary to a wealthy Philadelphia socialite named Wynnewood Statfford VI (Dennis Morgan), helping him in his attempt to succeed in establishing a magazine during the Depression. They fall in love, and she always believes he will ask her to marry him once the magazine is a success. The magazine fails unfortunately and Wyn is forced to return to his parents for employment. Kitty is left behind and decides to leave for New York to take a new job working in a department store. While in New York she meets Dr. Mark Eisen (James Craig) who loves her, but Wyn Stafford shows up and asks Kitty to marry him. She initially refuses citing the differences in their social backgrounds. She feels that Philadelphia socialites would never accept her. Many of these beliefs are echoed by her father, who cautions her against reaching above her station in life. Wyn agrees to leave behind Philadelphia and move to New York, so that they can be together. They are married in New York and weeks later they go to Philadelphia to let family know about the marriage. The family is overbearing and obnoxious to Kitty, leaving her feeling ostracized and unworthy. She leaves, and eventually divorces Wyn, believing her father to have been right all along. Kitty finds out afterward though that she is pregnant with Wyn's baby. Kitty steels herself and decides to have the baby anyway, bucking conventional wisdom (at the time) about single motherhood. Sadly though the baby is delivered still-born. Meanwhile Wyn marries a rich socialite as his parents insistence, and by chance, Kitty meets his wife and son. This is difficult for her because she still loves Wyn. She observes the life that Wyn is leading but re-connects with Mark Eisen, the young doctor who was in love with her. Eventually Mark proposes and Kitty is finally forced to reevaluate her life and decisions. In the end, Kitty has to choose between money or love, and in so, she is finally able to let Wyn go and be happy.
Kitty Foyle was a huge film for both RKO and Ginger Rogers at the time.It was RKO's highest grossing film of the year and proved Rogers could be a bankable star without Fred Astaire. It also did a lot to change many people's view of Rogers. Because of Kitty Foyle, Rogers diversity made her a valuable commodity. As many of the 1930's biggest stars, like Irene Dunne, Eleanor Powell, Claudette Colbert, and Greta Garbo waned in the 40's, Rogers continued to star in pictures. She seemed to have a knack for picking the right range of roles for her, from musical to comedy, to romance, to drama, and excelled in the industry after many of her contemporaries were left behind.
Kitty Foyle's message at the time was quite forward in it's thinking. Lauding a lead actress at a major studio to star in a film that promoted many principals that at the time were not considered common. Principals like single motherhood and female independence. Rogers though really raised the bar in her role, showing her depth and range and despite some of the elements on the film not holding up as well, particular elements like the belief that a woman can only rise so high, Rogers is stellar in her role. Next to her performance in Top Hat, this is my all time favorite Rogers role and the role that I really credit for helping me break the conventions of the stereotype that I had of her as well. The same stereotype that I envision that she so desperately wanted to prove that she could break. Ginger Rogers was establishing a new role, revealing in female empowerment, and embracing the changing culture of the time. A culture where many of America's women were entering the workplace to man the factories while the country was at war.
The film itself though, is based on Christopher Morley's 1939 novel, Story of an American Girl and it of itself is very different than the screen version. Adapted by famed screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (one of the Hollywood 10 who would later be blacklisted as Communist sympathizers) he is credited for having glamorized much of the traditionally more risque moments of the book. In the novel, Kitty originally has an abortion instead of a mis-carriage and Trumbo toned downed some of the explicit sexuality within to make it more palatable to the Motion Picture Association's rating system. The book's explicit nature was so profound that Rogers initially turned it down, only changing her mind after reading the screenplay. The film itself ends on a far more upbeat tone then the book, painting a picture for a more hopeful future, giving it a more traditional Hollywood ending. Still, Trumbo's work won him his first Oscar for screenwriting and helped establish himself as one of the pre-eminate writers in film throughout the 1940's, and even throughout the following three decades despite having to write under a pseudonym or use a front to get his work published from the Blacklisting.
Though some of the other performances in the film don't hold up as well as Rogers and many of the ideas and thoughts within may seem dated, in viewing the film as a product of the time you can see what a daring motion picture that it is, despite glamorizing some of the toils of the working woman's oppressive daily grind. As a film it helped to establish Rogers as more than just a dancer and comedienne, it made her a star in her own right. In terms of he greatest actresses of all time, I really think Ginger Rogers is vastly under-rated, trapped in the stereotype of her teaming with Fred Astaire. I firmly believe her to be the most diverse actress of her generation, excelling in all fields and genre's of film. Perhaps matched only in terms of diversity with the great Audrey Hepburn. Still Ginger is one of my favorite stars, if you've never seen the film treat yourself o a very surprising tale along with a very powerful performance from the one and only Ginger Rogers. Kitty Foyle: The Natural History of a Woman.
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