Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: KITTY FOYLE (1940)

Kitty Foyle: The Natural History of a Woman (1940) presents a quintessential example of the women’s melodrama, or “weepie,” that enjoyed the height of its popularity throughout the 1940s. Although leading ladies like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford became particularly associated with the genre, in this film it’s Ginger Rogers eliciting the sobs and sighs as the title heroine, a working class girl who has to choose between her youthful ideal and a more pragmatic suitor from her own income tax bracket. Rogers gives an Oscar-winning performance that demonstrates her ability beyond musicals and light romantic comedy, which makes Kitty Foyle essential viewing for her fans, and a handful of emotional scenes earn the movie its tearjerker reputation. The story, however, is more interested in bursting bubbles than in delivering a satisfying romantic narrative, and modern viewers, especially women, might well take issue with its insistence that women need men to give their lives meaning.

Rogers plays Kitty at various points during a decade of her life, as she grows from a starry-eyed kid in pigtails to a sadder and wiser woman of twenty-six. While still living at home with her beloved Pop (Ernest Cossart), Kitty meets the wealthy Wyn Strafford (Dennis Morgan) and promptly falls in love with him, even though her father predicts that their social differences will make them unhappy. Kitty also strikes up a cooler relationship with Mark (James Craig), a penniless doctor just beginning his career. After many ups and downs, including a brief marriage to Wyn, Kitty must finally decide which man to choose.

The opening scenes of the film declare its general opposition to progressive feminism with a lament about the way in which American women traded chivalry for jobs and the vote, so it’s no shock that Kitty Foyle sees very limited options for its heroine. Staying independent isn’t on the table; Kitty can choose adulterous passion in South America with the remarried Wyn or a conventional marriage with the lackluster Mark. Given that this is 1940, we already know which one she’ll pick, even if the movie treats it as a big secret. Neither of her suitors has much to recommend him; Wyn is a shallow Prince Charming ready to abandon his wife and child to get what he wants, while Mark comes off as a real stick in the mud whom even Kitty doesn’t like very much. This is romance between a rock and a hard place, meant to deflate the Cinderella myth of living happily ever after, but it unintentionally makes spinsterhood look pretty good in comparison.

Kitty’s most compelling relationships don’t involve either of her disappointing admirers, and the scenes without them prove far more memorable. The men in her life who really matter are her father and her unborn son, both of whom are named Tom Foyle. Determined to have the baby even after her divorce from Wyn, Kitty imagines him as “my little candidate for the year 2000,” and she says that women want the future more than they really want men. Her father’s death is the first poignant loss of the picture, but the scenes that depict her pregnancy and its aftermath really wring the viewer’s heart. So much of the rest of the story depends on this central section of the narrative, from the early scene of Kitty holding a poor woman’s newborn child to her later encounter with Wyn’s young son. Oddly enough, Kitty’s relationship with her female employer, Delphine (Odette Myrtil), also matters more than her romantic pursuits; only Delphine supports and comforts Kitty during her pregnancy, providing a much needed maternal presence through the darkest period of the heroine’s life. In a more enlightened decade, Kitty might have made a role model of the successful and apparently single Delphine, but she seems unable to imagine her future without some sort of man, even if her mood at the conclusion suggests resignation more than optimism. In the absence of a true Prince Charming, Cinderella opts for the footman, if only to avoid ending up an old maid.

In addition to Rogers’ win for Best Actress, Kitty Foyle scored four Oscar nominations, including nods for Sam Wood as Best Director and Dalton Trumbo for Best Screenplay. Enjoy more of Ginger Rogers without Fred Astaire in Bachelor Mother (1939), The Major and the Minor (1942), and Monkey Business (1952). See Dennis Morgan as a more attractive leading man in Christmas in Connecticut (1945), and look for James Craig in The Human Comedy (1943). For more from director Sam Wood, try A Night at the Opera (1935), Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), and The Pride of the Yankees (1942). Break out the tissues for a weepie double header with Stella Dallas (1937), Dark Victory (1939), or A Woman's Face (1941).