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Monday, July 08, 2019

When Twenty Years Was Long Ago

Chicago First-Run for Margie

Margie (1946) Is Teen Life In The 20's

Quaint era of eighteen-years-before are celebrated in this 1946 reflection on small town 20's roaring. What remarkable change the culture saw in that short window. A market crash, the Great Depression, then a World War. No wonder 1928 seemed ancient history to moviegoers in 1946. But imagine us giving a same treatment to 2001. I guess the biggest difference would be spread of the Internet and all else technical that has, dare I say, made our lives better? What gets me in Margie is disdain attic-searching Ann Todd shows when she comes across mom Jeanne Crain's relics of a girlhood past. Here is attitude, widespread at the time, that consigned movies to ash heaps as soon as they passed the "brand new" gate. This kid would never have sat through a silent feature. We're primed at Margie beginning to regard the 20's as a simple, if not simple-minded, period better past. Still, there was nostalgia, and enough paying customers wanted the trip back to make Margie a substantial hit ($5.2 million worldwide) and establish Jeanne Crain as a star who could support marquees by herself.

Henry King directed, already an old-timer in the 20's, and not likely to have worn raccoon coats to Army-Navy games. He approaches the material as a parent would, teens and their fads being silly then as now. What Margie maybe needed was more celebration of what switched youth on in days that from most accounts really were carefree before bottom fell out of a US economy. Parts of Margie light up, much of it pleasingly offbeat, but then we're back to Jeanne Crain's bloomers falling down, an overused device, plus tendency of the kids to be types rather than people. There's pleasing snow on the ground that 20th Fox was said to have put there at considerable expense, though negative cost was well-contained at $1.6 million. Comparison with Meet Me In St. Louis is inevitable (in fact, Margie borrows several plot devices from the MGM musical), it being another smash of a glimpse back, but Crain was no Judy Garland and never could be, something Fox learned to eventual woe as they forward-cast JC in parts frankly beyond her.

Then there's ticklish business of high school teacher Glenn Langan taking romantic interest in student Jeanne, an all but hanging offence today, but no problem in 1928, or for that matter, 1946. The guy would do three-to-five for such conduct now. In fact, I'll bet a 2019 theatre-full would gasp at Margie's closing scene and reveal of who she married. Langan was affable, lacked the luck of, say, Cornel Wilde when it came to Fox star creation (in fact, Wilde turned down Langan's part in Margie), and would be remembered best as The Amazing Colossal Man for AIP. Margie was shot in Reno, Nevada, an interesting choice, and one that Fox would make again when time came to film Apartment For Peggy in 1948. Henry King was always good with locations leaning toward bucolic, Reno effectively doubling as Small Town, USA for purposes of Margie background.

Selling of Margie played down the 20's setting. Would 1946 youth have been turned off by specter of even a comparatively recent past? Ad art put Jeanne Crain in 40's fashion as to distance her from cartoony sheiks and flappers in poster margins. "Her Big Starring Moment" was Margie's message with regards minted star Crain, she having clicked as support in Leave Her To Heaven, an enormous success, and as brightest light of ensemble that was State Fair. Margie wasn't a musical, but songs and dance were emphasized in terms of what mom-and-dad took to bosoms before swing and jive taught us better. Showmen parked Tin Lizzies at theatre fronts and arranged for flagpole sits. Margie seemed the more innocent for post-1928 struggles no one could have seen coming, that being eve before long-lasting storm. To set a cheerful movie then was perfect timing on Fox's part. "In Those Days, Wolves Were Sheiks," said publicity, but that was misleading, courtship ritual having much coarsened since the 20's as older patronage surely noted, the war much to do with rush jobs romance had come to. 


Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer considers "Margie":

“Margie” is a very appealing film for me, less for its recreation of the look of a particular period as for the prevailing values of the time. The Margie of the story is a sweet, rather innocent and inexperienced girl growing into her womanhood. She’s becoming more alive to the power of ideas, but also to new emotional needs and how they might be expressed in love, romance, or the creation of her own family. It is a little overwhelming for her, and often she seems poised between laughter and tears. As portrayed by the lovely Jeanne Crain, she has a rather shy, beguiling charm, as though she is very aware of the great adventure opening before her, and not entirely sure of how she might enter it. She is self-conscious and clumsy in her girlishness, but this vulnerability only makes me love and appreciate her even more. I don’t believe that anyone who has lived a life can be unaware of how inadequate he felt before new responsibilities, or how he might have wanted to have avoided them, never realizing the wonderful possibilities that would come with accepting them and living that life.

I imagine that, for audiences of the time, the special attraction of “Margie” would have been its evocation of lost innocence. Clothes were more modest, houses more ornate, cars more upright, and the mores and manners seemingly more gracious and considerate. The setting is just before the Great Depression and the descent into the horrors of World War II. Sitting in a theater, they would have wanted to put aside the international tensions coming into being or the possibility of perpetual war for perpetual peace. The question for Margie in her debate was whether the U.S. Marines should be recalled from Nicaragua. If the audience laughed, there would have been an ironic edge to it, for there was seemingly no question but that we were in for it now, win or lose.

What they would have found reassuring, however, is the framing device of Margie grown into her womanhood, with a family of her own, but still the sweet, beguiling person that they’d come love. The Great Depression and the war had come with great sweeping changes, and yet, in her, they found the presence of immutable values, which may be given different expression, from time to time, yet remain the same.

I wonder, though, whether a current generation would not find the film “dated,” to use the term most often applied to anything different from what is accepted today, whatever its validity. You mention the relationship of the older teacher with Margie, and how objectionable some would find it. Certainly, that is one thing. What it reflects, however, is the fundamental theme of growing into adulthood and accepting the status and responsibilities that were assumed to go with it. This also seems at variance with our times. I don’t know how many of the current generation even find it desirable to become adults, if doing so is attended by such responsibilities as marriage, children, family, or a greater service to community. There seems to be a desire to prolong adolescence, with its sense of unrealized possibilities, but also with being cared for, rather than fixing one’s life into place and caring for others.

For me and other readers of this blog, “Margie” reflects what our parents and grandparents believed and sought. Their values are our own. Whether our children accept them as well remains a question, but perhaps the film offers its own reassurance, even for us, as to the eternal acceptance of all that is good and true.

8:34 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

MARGIE is one of my all time favorites, just revisited it a month or two ago. Ms. Crain may have had a narrow range but her take on overly earnest naviete mixed with youthful enthusiasm was always spot on (indeed, Fox would have her doing schoolgirls right up to her thirties.)

The film is, I think, a lot quirkier than you give it credit, John and a touch darker. Few movies of this era handle the crazy adolescent pendulum between exuberance and depression as well as MARGIE and, yes, that includes MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS in my opinion. Director King, always an ace working with generous slabs of Americana, was on the top of his game here, balancing the giddy bathtub stuff with those dark, moody bedroom scenes. The girl's family situation is a bit nontraditional, and the kid definitely has some daddy issues which might explain her eventual coupling with Langan. She lives with grandma Esther Dale (a great character for contemporary audiences, despite her Whistler's Mother get-up)and has an oddly formal relationship with papa Hobart Cavanaugh. Yet she and her dad obviously idolize each other! After abject humiliation, Margie is genuinely delighted to be escorted to the prom by mousey little Pop and he, too, seems insanely proud!

I agree with much of what Dan Mercer says, although I think there is much more going on here than nostalgia for simpler times. When I first saw this movie at a college screening (!) years ago, my usually cynical pal leaned over halfway through and said if they bring back Cavanaugh's Nicaragua obsession, he would officially deem the thing a masterpiece. They do, and he did.

One more thing: Crain kicks off the flashback talking about 20's teen idol Rudy Vallee then we switch to blonde, gorgeous Barbara Lawrence warbling 'My Time is Your Time' while playing a uke. At the time, Lawrence really was still a teenager, but she pops up just two years later in UNFAITHFULLY YOURS as Rudy Vallee's marvelously snarky wife!

9:46 AM  
Blogger Rodney said...

Where did you find this one? Sounds interesting and my usual sources are turning up nothing.

10:17 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Love that picture of Louise Brooks. She was better than Hollywood.

10:39 AM  
Blogger Dr. OTR said...

Yesterday I listened to the latest podcast from the Reduced Shakespeare Company, which was about vaudeville. The expert they interviewed noted that while we think of vaudeville in terms of comedy now, it was so much more than that, with drama and quite a bit of cloying nostalgia. Loads of old songs about my beloved mother and all that.

I thought at the time how that was commonly reflected in films, perhaps especially once vaudeville died. This weekend my kids watched "Life with Father" with me, which is a visual paean to gaslit, horsedrawn New York of the 1880s. For some older viewers, that reflected their own childhood; for most moviegoers, it was the era of their parents or grandparents. But people seemed to lap it up. Period pieces have always been a mainstay in Hollywood, but they often featured nostalgic bits from the recent past. (Think of George's youth in Yankee Doodle Dandy, another film I've watched with my kids -- am I the only guy whose young kids enjoy watching old films?) For modern viewers, the attention to detail in a historic drama is half the fun; I wonder if it was so for the people seeing these films when they were new? (My kids and I started the Claude Rains "Phantom of the Opera" yesterday, and much of my attention was drawn to the open candles featured in almost every scene. Talk about a fire hazard!)

I guess my point is, perhaps a nostalgic film set in the 20s isn't quite so unusual as you imply?

10:49 AM  
Blogger Dr. OTR said...

Incidentally, the older man-younger woman dynamic can make for uncomfortable viewing nowadays, even if it's not a teacher/student combination. I recently watched "An American in Paris" and "Singing in the Rain" with my kids. I've loved both films for years. At some point in this latest viewing, though, I realized that Gene Kelly was about 40 in those films, while his love interests were about 20. (I think Debbie Reynolds was 19 for most of the filming.) Seen through modern eyes, the older man constantly pestering a woman half his age for a date, despite her persistent denials, until she finally gives in, is ... disquieting.

10:54 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

"Seen through modern eyes, the older man constantly pestering a woman half his age for a date, despite her persistent denials, until she finally gives in, is ... disquieting."

The best thing about our "modern age" is that soon it will be over.

11:22 AM  
Blogger Rodney said...

"Seen through modern eyes, the older man constantly pestering a woman half his age for a date, despite her persistent denials, until she finally gives in, is ... disquieting."

"The best thing about our "modern age" is that soon it will be over. "

Well, it's not something I'd want my daughter to experience. It should be disquieting, but shouldn't make us not watch an otherwise wonderful film.

1:06 PM  
Blogger antoniod said...

How many people watching MARGIE had(or have)any idea that the source material was about a Girl's awakening to Left-Wing politics, probably based on left-winger(and author of the story)Ruth McKenney's own adolescence(granted you do get of clue of that in the movie). McKenney was blacklisted eventually, and 50s adaptations of her work like the MY SISTER EILEEN musical film omitted her name. Bad enough she was blacklisted-her Sister, the real Eileen, died in a car crash before the play opened. I think her Daughter, also named Eileen, is still living and until recently was a New York Supreme Court Justice.

1:42 PM  
Blogger RichardSchilling said...

I have never seen this film, but I do recall that years ago my Mother, born in 1929, lit up when she remembered seeing. She would have been the perfect age for the film when it was released. Well my Mom is now 90 and I just asked her about Margie, she replied "Is that the one where Jeanne Crain played a black girl?" I said "No, that was Pinky." When I tried to rekindle her memory by describing it, it sadly was no longer much of a memory for her now.

2:54 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

The ancient rules, hardly limited to Hollywood, were simple: When a female was able to bear children and a male was able to feed and clothe them, they were plausible mates. There was also the cultural assumption / rationalization that females matured sooner, and were better matched with older males (Rita Rudner: "The old wisdom was, marry an older man, they're more mature. The new wisdom is, men don't mature so marry a younger one."). In practice, it was probably more a matter of the older males in a society having the wealth and power to get first pick of the prettiest girls. In Jane Austen's "Persuasion", the heroine is presumed an old maid at 27, while her former beau becomes universally eligible upon becoming wealthy.

The ideal for updated Cinderella stories was a male who managed to be rich and young at the same time -- Think of the comedies where a perky shopgirl or steno won over the boss's son. But the boss himself would suffice if he was presentable. Recently revisited the Disney comedy "Summer Magic". Hayley Mills is presented as a frantic schoolgirl, yet she and a slightly older cousin vie for the new teacher (just out of college), and Hayley ends the film paired with a handsome, rich, but not THAT young man. Somewhat more acceptable to modern eyes are the countless plots that revolve around the hero becoming rich enough -- or appearing rich enough -- to marry the girl. This could be a matter of quaintly winning parental consent or of frankly acknowledging the expenses of marriage. Yes, true love may triumph over finance. But money is almost always presented as a major obstacle to be overcome, one way or another.

The phenomenon of older leading men and younger leading ladies is partly a matter of Hollywood economics: Male stars tended to have higher box office value and a much longer shelf life. Female stars were usually limited by how long they could play nubile maidens in support of the male stars. Consequently there was a need to keep rotating in new young heroines while still salable heroes could age on camera. Yes, there was chauvinism in the scripts and a casting-couch culture in the studios, but they endured because money was being made. I get the impression those conditions still prevail, with the majority of bankable stars being male.

4:57 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I would guess that Kelly in both movies is supposed to be around 30 years old. In Singin' in the Rain, Donald O'Connor who is around ten years younger is playing Kelly's boyhood pal. In An American in Paris Kelly is supposed to be a WWll vet and it's only 5 years after the war.

9:01 PM  
Blogger Dr. OTR said...

Gene Kelly was a WWII vet, lieutenant in the US Navy. I've read variously that he worked in the photographic division and that he made documentaries. He left the Navy in 1946, when he would have been about 34.

Incidentally, it's not the age difference per se that dates those films. I know plenty of couples where there is a substantial difference in age between the two. It's more the persistent, well, pestering of the young woman, long after she has made it very clear that she is not interested, even to the point of showing up at her work or house uninvited (which would be called stalking today). I don't see many contemporary films, but I suspect you don't see that behavior onscreen any more.

2:27 PM  
Blogger Marc J. Hampton said...

Fun movie...excellent lead performance...worthy of rediscovery. Total MIA DVD...never even a VHS release. Rights issues?

6:53 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Dr. ORT - I know that Kelly was born in 1912 and was around 40 years old when he made those two movies. I should have said the characters in the two films are supposed to be around 30. Nina Foch who is younger than Kelly is the 'older' woman in An American in Paris. Singin' in the Rain takes place in 1927 and early in the film we see the Kelly and O'Connor characters as boys sneaking into a movie theater to see a serial, which probably would have been taking place in the mid teens - 12 years or so earlier, so the character might even be younger than 30.

The Kelly persona is that of brash, egotistical go getter that doesn't take no for an answer and has to be humbled in order to finally win the girl. It's in his first movie For Me and My Gal and continues through his whole musical career with minor variations.

I guess it would be called stalking today but it was an awfully common in comedies and musicals in the past. And in Bringing Up Baby Katherine Hepburn is stalking poor Cary Grant.

10:57 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Dr. ORT...may I assume you a fan of ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN?

7:04 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Okay, I love the direction this thread has taken. The subject of age disparity between romantic leads in classic Hollywood movies kinda fascinates me. I think an informal rule of thumb was a 15 year span and anything below was considered not worth batting an eye... totally 'appropriate'. A 20 or 30 year gap might warrant a line of acknowledgment. Or not. Bogart was 25 years older than Bacall, but then again he was 15 years senior to Ingrid Bergman. Astaire was 12 years older than Ginger Rogers. In MARGIE, it is suggested the French teacher is 8 years older than the girl, about the actual age difference between Langan and Crain, although both are playing characters slightly younger than their then ages. Occasionally a old school male star slipped right from juvenile roles into mature leading parts while still in his early 20s, allowing him to regularly play opposite female stars his approximate age... or older. Tyrone Power and William Holden are two good examples. And then there are a few actresses who didn't become major stars until their 30s and regularly appeared with same aged or younger co-stars... think Jean Arthur and Marlene Dietrich.

As a final note I might point out, rightly or wrongly, these big age gaps were not necessarily viewed as creepy by society in general generations ago. My own grandfather was well into his 30s when he married my 17 year old grandmother. And, uh, he was a schoolteacher.

9:23 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Cary Grant was 29 to Mae West's 40 in SHE DONE HIM WRONG (1933). What's good for the gander is good for the goose.

Today's movies are made for 13 year old Asian boys. The movies lost their audience decades ago.

9:54 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

And we shouldn't even go near the age thing in two-reel comedies, especially at Columbia. Charley Chase dyes his hair and runs around with college-aged ingenues; the elderly baby Harry Langdon has jail bait for girlfriends; Bert Wheeler consorts with much younger ladies. I suspect this was just to give the Columbia starlets some practical experience in front of the cameras, in low-budget productions (same thing happened in Columbia's Charles Starrett westerns!).

I remember seeing an exhibitor's report on a late-1950s Fred Astaire picture -- the theater manager wondered why Hollywood insisted on pairing Astaire romantically with such very younger women. I agree with Donald and Dave -- the aging male stars must have been perceived as still being viable objects of romance.

12:54 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Girls tend to mature earlier than boys. So figure young women watching sophisticated handsome men while the guys her age were live action versions of those MGM cartoon wolves.

5:37 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

In Terry Ramsaye's A MILLION AND ONE NIGHTS AT THE MOVIES I read the audience for movies was between 11 and 30, primarily 14 to 24 ans primarily female. Those older guys went after younger women because the audience was composed of younger women. In the mid 1970s the decision was made to make movies for young boys. That decision cost the movies the women (young and old) and the men. It's been downhill ever since.

9:35 AM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

I once asked this question on a Facebook fan page, but perhaps it's better served here: Did Grace Kelly ever play opposite a leading man near her own age? Sure didn't seem like it!


10:38 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Closest appears to be Louis Jourdan, born 1921 to her 1929, in THE SWAN. Beyond him, they all seemed to have been a LOT older.

11:27 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

8:07 AM  
Blogger Lionel Braithwaite said...

@Dave K., as far as I'm concerned this whole recent trend of regarding relations between older men and younger women as 'creepy' is a outgrowth of the (dare I say it) feminist movement, as well as the hyperawareness on sexual abuse in recent decades. Now don't get me wrong, I support the movement for getting equality for women, but it's gone beyond that into radical extremism and hatred of men in the last few years; mix that together with said above-mentioned hyperawareness of sexual abuse and the other hyperawareness of stalking, and you've got what we have now (although women don't mind if an older woman gets a younger man; double standards at work!)

8:55 AM  
Blogger Lionel Braithwaite said...

@Reg, today's movies are not made for 15-year old boys, unless you mean the animated ones (many fans of the comic books that have been turned into movies recently are adults like myself, and the readers of said books are likewise); also, I don't see how you can regard sci-fi movies as being for '15 year-old boys' (or any movie genre, for that matter) when you've likely not seen any current foreign movies or domestic independent (North) American ones.

9:06 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

9:29 AM  

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