Friday, August 19, 2016

From the DVR: Goodbye, My Fancy (1951)


Agatha Reed (Joan Crawford) has capped off her successful career (among her former occupations: war correspondent) with her election to the U.S. House of Representatives (when we first see her, she is exiting a meeting of a committee she chairs).  But when a letter from Dr. James Merrill (Robert Young)—president of Good Hope College (For Women)—requests her acceptance of an honorary degree at the institution’s graduation ceremony, Reed sees it as the culmination of all she’s achieved—she’s even turned down similar requests in the past from loftier institutions of learning like Vassar.  Besides, there’ll be irony in the fact that Good Hope will be paying tribute to a student who was actually expelled before she graduated…a saucy anecdote that does not particularly set well with Claude Griswold (Howard St. John), one of Good Hope’s trustees.

So why was Agatha expelled?  Well, she was caught sneaking back into her dorm room at the butt-crack-of-dawn, and though it takes a little while during Goodbye, My Fancy’s 108-minute running time, we eventually learn that she and Merrill were mahd for one another and had planned to run away to be married.  Agatha, concerned that this little indiscretion would scotch Jim’s career trajectory, nobly fell on the grenade and never revealed this to anyone…allowing Merrill to transform himself over the years from a respected instructor to a stodgy college president who’s little more than a puppet performing at the whims of fatheads like Griswold.

It won’t be until the conclusion of Fancy that Congresswoman Reed realizes this; she’s so overcome with nostalgia meeting up with her former fiancé that she tells her assistant “Woody” Woods (Eve Arden) she’d marry Merrill faster that you can hum “Here Comes the Bride” if he’d only ask her.  Unfortunately, the third member of what forms an awkward love triangle arrives on the scene: Life magazine photographer Matt Cole (Frank Lovejoy), an old flame from her war correspondent days.  (Agatha had once agreed to marry Matt…but left him just like Bergman left Bogie in Paris in Casablanca—though with considerably less drama.)

Before you start thinking that I’m on a Joan Crawford kick as of late, I need to explain why I sat down with Goodbye, My Fancy (1951) the other day.  I saw Eve Arden’s name in the cast, and after that it was Katie bar the door.  Maybe this says more about me…but I cannot for the life of me figure out a movie in which Joan Crawford is fighting off two suitors and Eve winds up with none.  Arden gets most of the best lines in this movie (my favorite is “I hate Life photographers...they're always trying to catch you picking your nose”), and she demonstrates that irresistible tart sarcasm displayed in her previous collaboration with La Joan, Mildred Pierce (1945).  Simply put, I’d sweep Miss Brooks off her feet in a New York minute.

The other major handicap of Fancy is that neither gentleman caller is really worthy of Joan’s attention.  It’s a toss-up between the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man and an obnoxious photographer…and I say this last part reluctantly, because my admiration for Frank Lovejoy knows no bounds.  But Lovejoy’s a real jerk in this movie; I won’t reveal who Joanie ends up with so as not to spoil it for those who have not watched it…but I couldn’t help wishing (here’s an election metaphor for you) that a giant meteor could have hit the Earth in Fancy, putting me out of my misery.  (Yes, I realize that Crawford—in the same manner of stablemate Bette Davis—had to have George Brentian doormats to romance her in films.  This is why I have such a thing for Eve Arden.)

Goodbye, My Fancy (the title comes from a Walt Whitman poem) was adapted for the big screen (by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts) from the successful Broadway play by Fay Kanin (sister-in-law of Garson), best-known (with her husband Michael) for the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Teacher’s Pet (1958).  Both Fay and Michael were later blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the original content of Fancy probably goes a lot toward explaining why: the Reed character has brought an anti-war film she’s produced to be shown at the college during graduation weekend.  The play was originally produced in 1948…but by the time Warner Brothers got hold of it, the Korean War was in full swing and so the decision was made to water down the content (Agatha’s movie now addresses academic freedom under Fascism and Communism).  To his credit, director Vincent Sherman had wanted the movie to focus on the academic fight against loyalty oaths (it’s touched upon briefly, in the matter of a popular instructor [Morgan Farley] who’s being pressured to resign) but the studio would brook none of that nonsense, choosing to emphasize the romantic triangle instead.  Fancy was the third and last collaboration between Sherman and star Crawford; the two had previously worked on Harriet Craig (1950) and The Damned Don’t Cry (1950).

Fancy was the first credited film role for actress Janice Rule (she had a bit part in 1951’s Fourteen Hours), who plays Merrill’s daughter Virginia…and her youth, beauty, and talent was not warmly embraced by the film’s star.  (I know this will be hard to believe—but the insecure Crawford was a tad jealous.)  La Joan had Rule rattled to the point where she purportedly told her: “Miss Rule, you'd better enjoy making films while you can.  I doubt that you'll be with us long.”  (Meowr!)  I think Rule does a solid job considering the circumstances, but as is my character actor inclination I gravitated to the smaller-but-no-less-effective performances from Viola Roache, John Qualen, and Ellen Corby (there’s a sweet hint of romance between Qualen and Corby, both playing teachers at the college).  And of course, I found TDOY favorite Lurene Tuttle a delight as St. John’s flibbertigibbet spouse (and Crawford’s old dorm mate) who shows she does have a little Moxie on the ball by film’s end.

I DVR’d Goodbye, My Fancy at a time when the DISH austerity program had not yet taken effect, and while the movie wasn’t my particular meat I can’t complain that I wasted time watching it (unlike 1967’s Hillbillys in a Haunted House, which I also watched this week—my reaction was the same as Emory Parnell’s in It’s in the Bag [1945]: “Stinks!”).  It turns up on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ from time to time, and is also available on MOD DVD from the Warner Archive.  (OTR fans will be interested to know that Young, Lovejoy, and Tuttle reprise their roles in a January 14, 1952 presentation of The Lux Radio Theatre, with Barbara Stanwyck in the Crawford role.)

3 comments:

Greg Daniel said...

So you are the "other guy" who DVR'd "Hillbillys in a Haunted House." Thought I was the only one who fell for that. Was hoping for a "hoot" but definitely did not get one. Kept watching -- not to see if it would get better, but to see if it would NOT get worse -- it did!

Margo said...

"George Brentian doormats." And they wonder why I love you, Ivan.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Greg shook his head:

So you are the "other guy" who DVR'd "Hillbillys in a Haunted House." Thought I was the only one who fell for that.

I thought to myself: "Hey, I love Rathbone, Carradine, and Chaney...and I'm a big classic country music fan. How bad can this be?"

If ever a movie needed to be cut up to address the looming banjo pick shortage...this is the candidate. Painful.