Typically, when I review the TCM pre-Code line-up for a given month, several films jump out at me as possible picks for our Pre-Code Crazy series. For the month of July, I’d almost reviewed the entire month before even a single movie caught my fancy – and boy, was I glad to see this one listed! Airing on TCM on July 30th, Finishing School stars Ginger Rogers and Francis Dee as roommates in a ritzy boarding school and opens with the most unique credits I’ve seen in a while: The Girl played by Frances Dee; Her Mother, Billie Burke; Her Father, John Halliday; Her Pal, Ginger Rogers . . . and as “The Snob,” the camera pulls back to offer a shot of the school of the title: Crockett Hall.
We learn from the school’s marketing brochure that “in accepting young ladies for enrollment as students at Crockett Hall, consideration is given only to those families of breeding and inheritance who naturally wish their daughters to be fitted for carrying on the highest societal traditions. Crockett Hall offers more than an education . . . It provides a high degree of protection from the less desirable associations.” The Snob, indeed!
“The Girl” in the credits is Virginia Radcliff (Dee), who is just being accepted into Crockett Hall, which is the alma mater of her flighty, fast-talking mother, played by Billie Burke. Virginia is nothing like her mother, who greets the school’s director, Miss Van Alstyne (played by a blonde Beulah Bondi), by observing that she “looks like a painting by, uh, some painter.” No, Virginia is quiet, demure, and rather reserved and sheltered. And if you think she’s going to stay that way, well, baby, you just don’t know pre-Code!
Miss Van Alstyne runs down the rules of the joint (no lipstick, no smoking, and “naturally, we don’t drink!”) before introducing Virginia to her new roomie, Cecelia “Pony” Ferris (Rogers). And while Pony may come from, as Miss Van Alstyne describes, “a fine old family,” she’s certainly no stick-in-the-mud. Case in point: when the director and Virginia reach the room, they find that the door is locked – a violation of another one of the rules. Pony opens the door, explaining that her trunk “just happened to be against it.” And when Miss Van Alstyne leaves, Pony jams a chair under the doorknob, sparks up a cigarette that she withdraws from beneath her mattress, and drops some knowledge about the school’s mandates: “They just make those prissy rules to please our parents. So the old folks won’t mind the genteel racketeering that goes on. . . . You’re supposed to do exactly as you please in this old ladies’ home for nice young gals. Just don’t get caught, that’s all.”
Virginia also meets two other residents, Ruth (Marjorie Lytell) and Maggie (Adalyn Doyle), who literally start scuffling on the floor over a bottle of liquor they find in Virginia’s suitcase. Pony happily produces a corkscrew (“I’d sooner be caught without a toothbrush!”), but Virginia refuses to let them open it – the RULES, dontcha know? – and actually smashes the bottle to smithereens. This doesn’t go over too big with her new cohabitants, as you can well imagine, but Virginia later redeems herself by taking the fall over a note being passed in class by Pony. Afterward, the quartet becomes as thick as thieves – so thick, in fact, that the other girls invite Virginia to join them on their latest jaunt into the big city (wherein they hire an actress to pose as Pony’s “Aunt Jessica” so the school will think everything’s on the up and up). The girls head for a suite at the Waldorf Hotel, where Pony’s boyfriend, Chuck, and a blind date, Bill, for Virginia, are waiting.
At the hotel, Virginia successfully fulfills a long-term goal to “get tight,” but when Bill tries to take advantage of her inebriated state, she’s rescued by a hotel waiter – and, as it turns out, a medical intern – by the name of Ralph “Mac” McFarland (Bruce Cabot), who drives her back to school. (Incidentally, when Virginia is busted by Miss Van Alystyne, getting dropped off at the school in the wee hours of the morning, the school’s director gives her a dressing down, but not the one Virginia would have expected: “I can’t imagine a girl cheapening herself so completely. You surely knew enough not to drive up in front of the school at this hour of the morning,” Miss Van Alstyne lectures. “The least one expects of a lady is the nicety to cover her indiscretions. You have certain obligations as a student of this school. And the most important of these is to maintain appearances.” In other words, as Virginia herself points out, do whatever you want – just don’t let anybody see you doing it.)
As you may have guessed, Virginia and Ralph soon become an item – but to tell you any more would be giving away too much. I’ll just say that it’s pure pre-Code from here on out, and count on you to tune in to TCM on July 30th to find out what I mean. You’ll be glad you did.
Meanwhile, here’s some other stuff about the film:
A young, brunette Anne Shirley – billed as “Dawn O’Day” – had a small part in the film as a particularly annoying resident of Crockett Hall.
Finishing School was directed by Wanda Tuchock and George Nicholls, Jr. This is the first time I can recall seeing a classic film with co-directors, and because I’d never heard of either of these people, I did a little digging. Nicholls also directed Anne of Green Gables (which starred Anne Shirley, and from which she took her second and final “reel” name), but he was primarily known as an editor – his credits include The Dance of Life and The Devil’s Holiday, both which starred Nancy Carroll, as well as The Silver Cord, Double Harness, and Ann Vickers. He died in 1939 at the age of 42 from injuries he received in a car accident. As for Tuchock, she was better known as a screenwriter – in fact, she was one of the writers for Finishing School. She also contributed to the screenplays for Hallelujah, Letty Lynton, The Champ, and Little Orphan Annie, among others.
The film’s executive producer was Merian C. Cooper, one of the directors of 1933’s King Kong.
Near the start of the film, we see that the tuition for Crockett Hall was $6,000. In today’s dollars, that would be approximately $106,400. Also, Virginia’s parents send her a check for $1,000 as a Christmas present – equivalent to about $17,700 today. Needless to say, the Radcliff family weren’t exactly living paycheck to paycheck.
On Virginia’s application for the school, her family’s last name is “Radcliff.” But in the film’s credits at the end, it’s spelled “Radcliffe.” Hmm.
One of my many favorite lines in the film was delivered by Irene Franklin, who played Pony’s fake Aunt Jessica. After Pony pays her $5 for the job, “Aunt Jessica” brags that she’s shared a stage with some of the greats, including the patriarch of the Barrymore acting family, Maurice. She goes on, however, to lament: “One step lower, and I’ll be in the movies.”
Listen for the scene where Ginger Rogers sings in the shower, “Never Hit Your Grandma With a Shovel.”
Theresa Harris has a bit part in the film as the maid of Virginia’s mother. In case you don’t recognize her name, she’s a black actress you might remember from Baby Face, where she had a prominent role as Barbara Stanwyck’s confidante and constant comrade. She can also be seen in such classics as Golddiggers of 1933, Jezebel, The Women, and Out of the Past.
Another actress with an uncredited role is Jane Darwell, perhaps best known as Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath. In Finishing School, Darwell can be seen in a couple of scenes as a nurse with a really funky attitude.
Finishing School was placed on the Catholic Church’s “condemned” film list in 1934. And if that doesn’t make you want to watch it, well, I just don’t know what will!
Tune in to TCM on July 30th for Finishing School! And don’t forget to pop over to Speakeasy to read all about the pre-Code gem Kristina has picked out for you this month!