Pre-Code Irene Dunne? Yes, Please! New Warner Archive DVD Debut: Ann Vickers
November 5, 2015
Let's get this straight. In my book, Irene Dunne is untouchable. She could do no wrong. Drama, comedy, romance, musical, western, circus suspense (kidding on that last one, but she would have irrefutably nailed it): Dunne easily held her own with the best of them or steered a whole picture on her own two shoulders, whatever the script called for. She could fully immerse herself in a character yet retain many of the qualities so distinct to Irene Dunne, the woman: charm, strength, refinement, and a bit goofy at times, too.
I first stumbled upon two of Dunne's earlier pictures, Consolation Marriage (1931) and Ann Vickers (1933), years ago on TCM. As a big fan of hers, I noticed that both films remained near the top of my imaginary list of Dunne favorites over the years (and they definitely are my top two adored pre-Codes of hers). However, I also made note that both movies remained somewhat elusive, available for several years only on VHS.
Thankfully, Warner Archive Collection righted that wrong, debuting both films on DVD alongside two other lesser-known Dunne pictures, Sweet Adeline (1934) and Never a Dull Moment (1950). Below is my review of Ann Vickers. Tomorrow, I'll post my thoughts on Consolation Marriage.
Ann Vickers (1933)
Social worker Ann Vickers (Irene Dunne) oversees a party thrown for soldiers before the Great War. Within the first ten minutes, she's proposed to by Captain Resnick (Bruce Cabot), who she turns down because she's about to embark on her career. However, she and Resnick become inseparable in the days before his departure, and Ann promises to marry him if he still wants her when he returns.
Letters abroad from Resnick prove few and far between. While dining with confidante Malvina (Edna May Oliver) one day, Ann spots Resnick with another girl. When Ann confronts Resnick and informs him that they should be married right away, he gets the hint, and he’s not happy: "What a break." But the attitude is enough for Ann, and she walks away. To take Ann's mind off of everything, Malvina whisks her away on a ‘vacation,’ where Ann ‘loses’ her baby.
Upon their return, Malvina's friend Judge Barney Dolphin (Walter Huston) helps secure Ann a position at a prison. There, she witnesses the violent treatment the female inmates receive, but her fight for reform is met with resistance. In fact, the prison staff frames her and threatens blackmail if she doesn't resign. Ann complies but retaliates by writing a book called 99 Days and Nights in Prison, the success of which affords her an honorary doctorate and a new job.
Ann finally meets Barney at a party one evening, and they hit it off. At his place, he confides in Ann that he's being investigated; though he makes his money honestly (according to him), he's friends with gamblers and criminals, until he has to send them up that is.
Barney tells Ann he'll ask his disinterested wife, who lives in Europe, for a divorce. Again. That would be helpful, because Ann is pregnant. Not long after their son is born, Barney is indicted and sent to jail. Soon thereafter, Ann is forced out of her job because she doesn't uphold the high moral standards expected of her in her private affairs. She turns to writing to pay the bills, downsizing her life as she waits for Barney, but will his wife finally grant him his freedom so he and Ann can become a family?
A photo from rehearsal featuring Walter Huston, Edna May Oliver, Bruce Cabot, and Irene Dunne.
My Two Cents
Ann Vickers is one film I’ve long wanted to write about in depth but haven’t been able to do so without a copy to watch repeatedly. With that no longer an impediment, and with some research under my belt in the film's Production Code Administration files at the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library, I hope to tackle a more research oriented piece soon. I'll try my hardest to limit this post to my review and opinion on the film. Key word: try.
Though perhaps not as famous as, say, The Story of Temple Drake (1933) or Baby Face (1933), you have to admit on paper Ann Vickers packs a pretty pre-Code punch, and you can rest assured the film is just as scintillating on screen as well. According to Mark A. Vieria’s excellent Sin in Soft Focus, the Sinclair Lewis book of the same name on which the script was based, tightly adapted by Jane Murfin, was indeed prohibited reading material for Catholics; if it was banned for that group, an audience could reasonably expect at least a smidge of indecency. I mean, between two pregnancies out of wedlock (one assumed abortion and the other resulting in an illegitimate child), an affair with a married man, references to drugs, and much more, Ann Vickers stands as a pretty solid poster child for the re-adoption of the Production Code just one year later, in the summer of 1934.
That being said, I find Ann a very different pre-Code woman. To me, she leans more towards Ruth Chatterton in 1933's Female as opposed to someone like Stanwyck in Baby Face, the latter film also providing censors with pounding headaches around the same time as Ann Vickers. For sure, the movie as a whole falls into the “sex” category, but the leading provider of that title, Ann, is more nuanced than ladies like Stanwyck (in Baby Face) and Jean Harlow (in 1932's Red-Headed Woman) who agressively use sex to get ahead. While an attempt to balance Ann's ethical actions in her public and personal lives - a definite imbalance to the moral compasses of the day - ultimately provides for a more well-rounded and realistic role, it also results in some splintering, as good and bad traits are assigned strict corners. Nevertheless, the resulting character still comes across as quite a relatable and contemporary woman, so fiercely passionate in both her professional and private worlds, which is why I adore this film and character.
And of course Dunne does a splendid job navigating the character through her ups and downs. She’s got that sullen downward/faraway stare, eyebrows straight (how do you do that?!) gaze down pat – the one that announces her disappointment but asserts that she's more resilient than you think. I actually prefer the character in her work and prison sequences, because I think she shines brighter there, but having said that, Ann’s scenes with Barney near the end breathe vibrant life into the film. Confession: I never pictured Walter Huston as a romantic lead, but he is so slick and compelling here that it’s no wonder a character like Ann could fall so heavily under his spell.
Dunne and Huston, in a rather rare romantic leading role for him.
In his latest Classic Movie Guide, Leonard Maltin docked the picture for being "more episodic than any movie has a right to be," a statement I wholly agree with. While director John Cromwell's rapid movement through these significant occurrences in Ann's life helps with the film's pace and serves to pack a lot of action into a 76 minute movie, this propensity also tends to widen the moral gap between the personal and professional sequences.
I've recently noted that oftentimes I'll enjoy a movie immensely...only to take issue with the ending (more routinely with post-Code films). Despite the pre-Code date, Ann Vickers falls into this category for me. I haven’t read Lewis’ book, so I can’t tell if RKO capitulated and softened the conclusion to provide the censors with a small smidge of satisfaction or not; certainly, Ann’s relationship with Barney, which is ultimately dealt with at the end, was one of the central topics of concern in the film’s PCA files. However, it’s Ann’s attitude and reaction to some of the picture's final events that’s bothersome to me, but I think that reaction has more to do with me projecting current day ideals of feminism on a movie from 1931. Sometimes I have to remind myself it doesn't work that way.
All in all, despite some unevenness Ann Vickers remains one of pre-Code Hollywood's most daring titles, and it stars one of classic Hollywood's most regal ladies, to boot! I certainly recommend it, especially if you're a fan of pre-Codes or Dunne.
Thank you to Warner Archive for providing me with a review copy of this title. Please note Warner Archive releases are manufactured on demand (MOD). To order, visit the Warner Archive Collection at the WBShop.com.