Sunday, October 4, 2009

"Kitty Foyle: The Natural History of a Woman"

After a trip, I find that I sit and vegetate. I breathe deeply, trying to get the smell of the airplane out of my nose. I stare at the TV hoping that I can reach some kind of mother lode of relaxation. Yesterday, I hit the jackpot. I happened upon “Kitty Foyle: the Natural History of a Woman” on Turner Classic Movies. The movie was released in 1940 and starred Ginger Rogers and the title character. She won the Academy Award for her portrayal. The long title gives us a sense that there is something different about this movie. It’s not just about a woman, but about how that woman evolves. In the early ‘40s the audience may well have had to be prepared for what they were about to see, since the movie does present a strong unmarried woman, looking for a man, who becomes pregnant “out of wedlock” as they used to say. The movie has a prologue that attempts to present a short history of the “white-collared woman” through a series of vignettes that depict a young attractive working woman. This includes her being offered a seat on the trolley- once all of the men get a look at her. The next vignette deals with her being proposed to by a nerdy guy and the young woman becoming all atwitter about it. I was confused by these vignettes- I wasn’t sure what their purpose was and why they were necessary. As the movie unfolded, I better understood their preparatory role for the 1940s audience.

The story is simple. Kitty was the spunky daughter of an Irish immigrant family in center city Philadelphia. She meets, works for, and falls in love with Wyn (Dennis Morgan) of a rich and influential family from Philadelphia’s mainline. Morgan was a handsome guy with a crooked smile, straight teeth and the waviest hair that I have ever seen. His hair is held in place by some oily looking substance but every wave remains perfectly ordered. Anyway, his magazine about Philadelphia runs into financial trouble and he must lay off his employees, including Kitty. Wyn invites Kitty to New York for a weekend and they have a drink in a neighborhood Italian restaurant on the eve of Roosevelts first presidential win. Kitty wants to stay in New York, but Wyn is so tied to his family that he returns to Philadelphia. As a career woman, Kitty works in a cosmetics house. Because she inadvertently pressed a fire alarm button, the store must be evacuated. To escape being blamed, Kitty fakes that she fainted. As luck would have it, the physician who comes to treat her is Mark (James Craig). Mark is immediately smitten with Kitty. Wyn again shows up. Kitty marries Wyn, and then divorces him after a confrontation with his family and soon after, Kitty is pregnant. This must have been shocking to the sensibilities of the 1940 audience. I think this is the reason that the prologue was added in order to forewarn audience. Kitty looses the baby, which I supposed is the way she is punished for being an independent career woman. Later, Wyn again shows up asking Kitty to go to Buenos Aires with him. He wants her to be his mistress because he will not divorce the woman he had subsequently married. Kitty is faced with a dilemma- should she get married to Mark or flee with Wyn?

The plot sounds very sudsy and formulaic, but Rogers’ classy performance keeps everything from sinking under ponderous histrionics. She was a phenomenal actress. She did not open her mouth widely when she talked so that she kept her voice and her face under control. This gave her an understated quality that makes the audience feel that it is overhearing her intimate conversations. Only once in the movie did she become shrill. This was after meeting Wyn’s family who wanted to turn her into a Philadelphia Mainline finishing school graduate. When leaving the families sitting room she shouts that she will never be made over. This was the only part of Roger’s performance that didn’t take advantage of her emotional control. I fault the director for this misstep. The other performances in the movie were forgettable. Morgan’s Wyn is charming, but too good-natured to be convincing as a mainline born and bred patrician. Craig must have been an acting lightweight. He was handsome, poised and well-dressed, but he didn’t provide enough substance or weight to the character to make him a strong counter to Morgan’s Wyn.

The production values of the movie were good. Views of the Philadelphia skyline only included the city hall, so it didn’t look particularly impressive. New York looked far more interesting, which was, of course, what the director was trying to show. The film begins with Rogers engaging herself in a conversation in the mirror. This worked as the device to show the history leading up to where Kitty found herself- should she marry Mark or go with Wyn? Major time shifts are handling by focusing on a snow globe. It was a simple and effective device for indicating a new time period.

“Kitty Foyle” is quite a fine movie. I was really pleasantly surprised to see Rogers’ work. She was a subtle yet forceful actress. I am trying to compare her with someone today, but, alas, subtlety is not part of modern sensibilities. For example, when I see Meryl Streep act, I always think she is secretly saying “Wow, another Oscar for me.” She couldn’t pull off Kitty Foyle in the ways Rogers did. Streep’s Foyle would always be pushing her hair out of her face with the palm of her hand and she would have a foreign accent!

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