Vivacious Lady (1938) George Stevens

One can easily understand why James Stewart’s introverted professor falls so quickly and hard for Ginger Rogers nightclub entertainer, she is sexy, charming and adorable. “Vivacious Lady,” directed by George Stevens, is a smart and funny romantic comedy, in other words, the kind Hollywood does not or cannot make anymore. The film won’t make anyone’s top list of great comedies, it’s certainly not in the same class as THE LADY EVE, THE AWFUL TRUTH or BRINGING UP BABY but it does have its charm. Written by P.J. Wolfson and Ernest Pagano from a story by I.A.R. Wylie it is a remarkably simple story with a running time of 90 minutes and few of those minutes are wasted.

It’s love at first sight when Peter Morgan Jr. (James Stewart) falls for nightclub singer Francey Brent (Ginger Rogers) when he travels to New York to bring back home his wayward playboy cousin Keith (James Ellison). Within days the couple quickly marry and head back to Peter’s small hometown where he is a professor of Botany and his stanch, rigid, unyielding father, beautifully played by Charles Coburn, is the President of the University. Peter has always bowed to dad’s wishes, as does his mother (Beulah Bondi) who fakes heart problems just to gain sympathy and keep family peace when the senior Morgan gets on his high horse. You see, Morgan Sr. is a man who is just use to getting his way. Knowing his father, spineless Peter wants to hold off on announcing the marriage. Two attempts to tell Dad end abruptly with his father constantly interrupting him. As the conversations heat up, Peter’s mother would fake one of her ‘heart condition’ flare-ups. Also waiting back home is Peter’s fiancée, a stuffy, annoying woman named Helen (Frances Mercer) who is not letting Peter go too easily. Finally, the newlyweds are continuously attempting to consummate their marriage throughout the film.

George Stevens was on his way to becoming one of Hollywood’s heavyweights. He had already directed Rogers in “Swing Time” but films like  “Gunga Din,” “Woman of the Year,” “The Talk of the Town,” “The More the Merrier,” “A Place in the Sun,” “Giant” and “Shane” still waited in the future. Stevens got his comedy chops certified as cinematographer on shorts working with Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy in films directed by Leo McCarey (Big Business, The Finishing Touch, Liberty) James Parrott (Double Woopee, They Go Boom) and others.

The antagonism between Francey and ex-fiancé Helen was both verbal and physical, with catty remarks tossed by both ladies.  At a University dance, Helen pointedly tells Francey, “I’m a going to give you a piece of my mind.”

“Oh, I couldn’t take the last piece!” Francey quickly retorts.

Stevens comedy touch can be a bit heavy handed at times with too many beats as if to emphasize the joke to the point of squeezing it for every chuckle possible. This is illustrated best by the action and reaction shots between Rogers and Stewart and Coburn when the two men walk in on Rogers and Mercer in a wrestling match, a battle which in itself is superbly done. Slaps, kicks, headlocks, a hatpin stuck in the derriere and finally a body flip before the brawl is stopped.

One of the most clever scenes takes place in the Francey’s apartment, the all female rooming house where she is living. As mentioned, though the couple are married, the marriage is yet to be consummated but not for lack of trying. Fed up with the arrangement Francey is packed and reluctantly ready to head back to New York. The apartment contains a Murphy bed which Francey mentions falls down with the slightest slam of a window or a door. Eyeing the bed, the couple, without being obvious, attempt to make it fall down by slamming doors, and pounding on draws all unfortunately to no avail. At this point Francey asks Peter to autograph a school book she would like to take back home with her as a remembrance. Even though Peter is not the author of the book he agrees. She tells him there is a pen in the kitchen. France meanwhile run over to the Murphy bed and shakes it loose. When Peter returns, they both admit they do not want to separate; Peter tosses the book onto the floor as they embrace and the bed suddenly coming crashing down!  Atlas they are interrupted when house manager Franklin Pangborn comes a knockin’.  It’s a sweet, low key sexy scene. The intensions are clear, yet are not obvious, perfect for the censors of the day and played wonderfully by Rogers and Stewart.

Best known at the time for her musicals, Rogers was beginning to expand her cinematic horizons wanting to prove herself to be a comedic actress, as well as a dramatic one. Coming off Gregory La Cava’s “Stage Door” which paired her with Katherine Hepburn, RKO’s most prestigious star, and “Swing Time” with long time dance partner Fred Astaire, Rogers would go on to make “Bachelor Mother” and “Fifth Avenue Girl” firmly fixing her position as a talented and sexy comedic actress.

It was Rogers who suggested Stewart for the role of the milquetoast Professor one in a long line of shy, reticent professors that were showing up in films at the time. Among them were Professor Gary Cooper in “Ball of Fire” and Professor Ray Milland in “The Doctor Takes a Wife.” For James Stewart, on loan from MGM, this was one of his earliest leading roles and one of his first with an important director. Rogers also felt Stewart would not outshine her in the film but her former lover was so perfect for the role of the shy professor and RKO was so happy with his performance they gave him co-star billing with Rogers.

Charles Colburn’s blustering father, is loud, brash, a typical part for the supporting actor. Beulah Bondi compliment’s Colburn’s loud mouth character with an opposing taste of quiet style. The cast also includes Franklin Pangborn and a young Jack Carson in a bit role.

The film’s biggest downside occurs toward the end when a black railroad porter, played by Willie Best, is forced to mug his way through a poorly done scene for what are cheap and embarrassing laughs even by the standards of the day.

The film opened at Radio City Music Hall in New York following a successful run of “The Adventures of Robin Hood” with reviews that ranged from mixed to good.

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11 comments on “Vivacious Lady (1938) George Stevens

  1. It’s an enjoyable film, and the leads are appealing as always. And I’m glad you gave George Stevens his kudos as people sometimes remember him only for his serious films. He was expert at romantic comedies as well, and he loved working with Jean Arthur.

    • John Greco says:

      CFB – Jean Arthur is a quirky treasure. Her films with Stevens and Capra, among other directors, are a joy. Like you say, its an enjoyable film without being anything great.

  2. Sam Juliano says:

    John, you have brought this rather underseen Stevens film some deserved distinction with this breezy piece that asserts some most interesting historical tidbits, like Stevens working as cinematographer on some Stan and Oliie shorts. Stewart is such a versatile actor with exceeding charisma, so it’s not at all surprising he clicks here with Rogers. He’s connected with Sullavan, Reed, Arthur, Kelly,Novak, Dietrich and Miles and others. Coburn has appeared in a number of othjer supporting comedy roles as well winning an Oscar for THE MORE THE MERRIER. Great workhere John!

  3. Sounds like an entertaining film with a great cast. (Who doesn’t love Charles Coburn as a blustering character – he’s so good at it!)

    • John Greco says:

      I agree with you on Coburn. He does bluster better than anyone. Hope you get to see it.

      • I love him in “Bachelor Mother” – one of my faves.

        Also wanted to say that I enjoy reading your posts. You always have something interesting to say.

      • John Greco says:

        Thanks again SS- I recently saw BACHELOR MOTHER also and thought Rogers and David Niven made a wonderful team…and of course Mr. Coburn is a gem. After seeing Ginger Rogers in these two films plus FIFTH AVENUE GIRL all recently I think she was a fantastic comedic actress!

  4. Dave says:

    Unfortunately most people know Ginger Rogers for dancing skills not so much for her comedic talent. Nice review.

  5. [...] Vivacious Lady (1938) George Stevens « Twenty Four Frames [...]

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