Irene Dunne in a publicity photo for Ann Vickers, 1933
Irene Dunne. How do I adore thee? The ways are innumerable. As with most children of the 90’s, who were of a special brand of awesome, I was introduced to Irene Dunne through the magic muddle of public domain VHS. From Life With Father to Love Affair to Penny Serenade, we had a varying showcase of Irene’s immense talent, and a gateway to wanting to see more. My local Family Video had The Awful Truth, My Favorite Wife, and Anna & The King Of Siam. They offered more insight into her abilities. Oh, this lady was hilarious and also sang? Please tell me she also saved the world, by night.
Wading through this mess of a life of mine, Irene became my sort of beacon of goodness. This isn’t to say that I believe I truly put her on a pedestal and refused to believe anything bad about her… there just wasn’t ever anything bad about her! She is God’s Della Street. It would be many, many years before I could make myself sit down and watch Irene play the role of a sort of “compromised” female, and I still maintain that Irene Dunne in an open marriage freaks me out a little bit (Consolation Marriage). When Warner Archive recently announced the release of Never A Dull Moment on DVD, though, I decided “Oh hell, it’s only money, buy all the Irene releases!” Among them was Ann Vickers. The DVD has been sort of staring me down for weeks, daring me to push aside homework and general responsibility to watch it. This past weekend, I did it. Sick of Excel and nuclei and the Federal Reserve, I took a deep breath and said, “I am a smart, strong, sens…” wait, sorry, that was Tina Belcher. What I did was more along the lines of laugh nervously and pray I could play adult long enough to enjoy a movie.
Line rehearsal with the cast of Ann Vickers
What was making me so nervous about watching this movie, you ask? For starters, it was based on a novel of the same name, by Sinclair Lewis, which involved such taboo topics as abortion, adultery, and women with ideas (I know, that last one is pretty radical). Promising to be more sensational than the book, I couldn’t imagine what way the movie would be headed. Made a full year before the strict enforcement of the Production Code, RKO still faced the back and forth rejections from Joseph Breen,the Hays Office’s PR man.
As we see the film, Ann Vickers is seduced by an Army captain, played by Bruce Cabot. After he has left for camp, she discovers she is pregnant. Over the course of the few, far between letters he wrote her, she comes to the realization that she has been taken advantage of. He was merely a charmer making big promises that he would never keep. Ann does not marry Captain Resnick and, instead, goes to Havana with Dr. Malvina Wormser, played to perfection by Edna May Oliver.
In the original draft of the script, Ann was to have married the Captain. Breen was adamant that this, coupled with Ann’s later affair with Judge Barney Dolphin, was a prime example of what his boss, Will Hays, call “progressive prostitution.” Now, I’ll be damned if I can figure out where he came up with that phrase, as no money for services changed hands. I suppose I’ll have to remember that this is the same office that demanded Jeanette MacDonald have her feet on the floor, when kissing Maurice Chevalier, even though neither of their feet were in frame. The office simply didn’t make good sense.
Personally, though, I do believe that the deletion of the marriage was for the best of the final product. It strips away a layer of vulnerability that Ann would have otherwise had- should she have married, let’s say “for protection of her name,” then the character would not be as strong as she was.
In Havana, it is clear that Ann is in recovery, though we’re never told if she has had an abortion, as in the book, or if her baby died at birth. One line seems to suggest that it was a stillbirth, but there is just enough ambiguity to leave the abortion idea on the table. Now, that’s pretty ballsy, if you ask me. Portraying abortion on screen, in 1933, was about on par with lighting a statue of baby Jesus on fire while a man in a red union suit played the fiddle.
This is the point in the movie where I feel Irene really became one with the character. She goes back into her life, headstrong and in control. Observing the inhumane treatment on women in prison, she threatens to talk, and the men in charge try to tear her down with some phony pictures to “ruin her reputation.” Irene was always great with characters who, simply put, threw her bag of damns to give in the dumpster. Whether they were serious or delightfully daffy, Irene could play them to the hilt. Ann walks away, writes a tell all about the revolting and disturbing abuses happening in the women’s prisons, and starts a reform movement.
It’s when she is in charge of a progressive women’s reform home that she meets Judge Barney Dolphin, a man who had written glowing testimonials for her book. The two quickly fall in love, and it’s not hard to see the appeal they would have for one another. The judge isn’t crooked, per se, but he does take stock tips and he does gamble with less than savory characters. His actions never sway his opinions on the bench- they’re more potentially self destructive, than anything. Ann holds her own secrets- she is supposed to be a pillar of morality, something which a revealing of her past would betray. They hold secrets and become each other’s secret. Judge Dolphin is married to a woman who prefers to live in Europe, but refuses to divorce him. This presents a bit of a problem, when Ann becomes pregnant and gives birth to Barney’s son. Her pregnancy is not portrayed, in the film, and it is clear that those around Ann have no idea of the child’s paternity. How that worked is the only real mystery of the film. (I hear enough of those conspiracy theories in my other fandoms, though, so I’m happy to move right on past that.)
The only disappointment I had, in the movie, was that it felt a little rushed, toward the end. Great time and care was spent in building Ann’s life and character, and what, in the end, seemed to matter most to her was Barney and their son. The state indicts Judge Dolphin for his behaviors in taking stock tips and the like, accusing him of granting leniency toward those who “bribed him.” While we have seen that this doesn’t appear to be the case, he is found guilty and sentenced to six years of hard labor, which seems akin to the death penalty, by today’s standards. Today, the hardest thing he’d have to do in his white collar prison is learn how to use the standard cable box remote, after years of having only Dish, at home.
Once the board of the reformatory find out the true paternity of Matthew, Ann and Barney’s son, she is forced to resign. She writes articles to support herself and Matthew, in anticipation of Barney’s eventual return home. She pleads his case to an old friend, only to be met with disappointment. She resigns herself to the quiet, unambitious life, dreaming of the day when she will be the simple wife of a simple man named Barney Dolphin.
Naturally. She can have ideas and be a productive member of society for a while, but she has to renounce her entire life, once love comes in to play.
Okay, okay, that’s harsh, but still, you get it.
Overall, even with a slight disappointment in the ending, I was absolutely blown away by how powerful this movie was. It is daring for it’s time. It is dramatic without being maudlin. It is a film about a bunch of what would later be described as anti-heroes. They’re not perfect, but by God, they make you look at yourself and think, “well, neither am I, but we all deserve second chances, right?” It is the type of film that has a moral lesson, not in the virtue and righteousness in the characters, but in how we react to them. If we can root for movie characters who made mistakes, the kind that were done in the name of protecting others, or that were a simple matter of hurting no one but oneself, why can’t we do that in everyday life?
Irene Dunne, ladies and gentlemen. Saving the world.
Sidenote: Watch Irene try to figure out what to do with a cigarette. You know someone tried to teach her, and she was clean out of cares to give about that particular knowledge.
Ann Vickers can be purchased on MOD DVD, from the Warner Archive store. You won’t regret it.