Pre-Code Crazy: Ann Vickers (1933)
In my experience, pre-Code movies with a woman’s name in the title tend to serve up title characters who are multifaceted, strong-willed, take-no-crap dames – Frisco Jenny (1932), Blondie Johnson (1933), Lilly Turner (1933), and Sadie McKee (1934) are among those that spring most immediately to mind.
Well, my Pre-Code Crazy pick for the month of September – 1933’s Ann Vickers – is no exception to this rule.
Brought to life by the always first-rate Irene Dunne, Ann Vickers is not only beautiful, intelligent, and independent, with a strong sense of self, but she’s also capable of fiercely loyal, undying love and devotion, regardless of the circumstances. In a nutshell, I find that she’s one of pre-Code’s most fascinating women.
Here are the reasons why I’m just wild about this character, and why I’m recommending that you take a look at this film. (But take care – if you don’t want to be spoiled, better exit stage left now!)
- Ann Vickers is an ambitious career woman – when we first meet her, she’s employed as a social worker in a settlement house – she’s got an office with her name on the door and everything! Ann, we’re told by one character, “has a passion for helping people. She’s going to make the word over if it takes all winter.”
- Even though she declares that she’s not ready for love and that her focus is squarely on her career, Ann is completely swept off her feet by a soldier on his way to fight in WWI. Just one day after she meets the smooth-talking Lafayette “Lafe” Resnick (Bruce Cabot), Ann’s having dinner with him in his hotel room – and breakfast, too, if you know what I mean. We get our first peek at Ann’s unique strength of character when Lafe proposes marriage that night, not once, but several times. But Ann is hesitant: “You’re going to France, and when you get over there, you’ll meet grand American girls driving ambulances. Pretty French ones, too,” she explains, displaying an unusual maturity. “If you were tied to me then, you’d be furious. If you want me [when you come back], I’ll marry you like a shot.”
- If you know your pre-Code, you’ll know that a departing soldier plus a one-night stand generally doesn’t equal good news. In keeping with this formula, Ann winds up pregnant and, of course, Lafe turns out to be a louse. Ann gets her initial hint of Lafe’s true nature when his once-impassioned letters are sent with decreasing frequency, and the latest one she does receive is full of praise about Leah Birnbaum, the “swell” daughter of a family that’s taken him under its collective wing. This hint develops into full-blown evidence when a happenstance encounter in a local restaurant reveals that Lafe is in town on leave – a fact that he neglected to share with Ann. But Ann shows what she’s made of when she sees Lafe dining with Swell Leah. When she gets an opportunity to speak with Lafe alone, Ann doesn’t withhold the information about her pregnancy, as we’ve seen many a noble sister do in these films; she tells him quite plainly, “You and I should, perhaps, be married right away.” Lafe grudgingly consents, but he makes it clear that he’s not happy about it – and that’s all that our Ann needs to know. For her, the conversation is over.
- Ann’s experience with Lafe becomes a life lesson – one, she says, that every girl ought to learn, sooner or later. “I’ve discovered that you can read into someone else all the things you want them to be. And you can love those things and think that you’re loving the person – blind to the truth that you’ve never once seen and never heard them. That you can read into boastful whining all the wise gallantry you’ve always longed for in a man, and into his glittering eyes an authentic passion which was not his at all, but only the projection of your own desire.” It’s an amazing realization for a woman to achieve in any film, but especially one from the early 1930s. From that moment, Ann Vickers had me.
- Sadly, Ann loses her baby (or goes to Havana to have an abortion – the movie doesn’t explicitly say), but she doesn’t allow herself to wallow in her sorrow; she determines to lose herself in her career. And later, when another man shows an interest in her, she chooses her work over a relationship with him. She’s unwilling, she tells her best pal, Malvina (Edna May Oliver), to employ the “regulation woman’s wiles” that it would take to snag him: “If I want a man, I must lure. Flatter. Be ecstatically impressed by all he says or does. Be coyly aloof. Wistful. Flattered by his handclasp. Arousing him to a conviction that I’m a swooning mystery which he must understand or die. No – I’m hanged if I will.” Instead, Ann takes her talents in the field of sociology to Copperhead Gap Women’s Prison, where she hopes to institute her ideas on prison reform.
- Upon her arrival at the prison, Ann is confronted by a weak-willed warden and his sweating, brustish enforcer, Captain Waldo (Mitchell Lewis), who longs for the “good old punishments” like public floggings with a cat-o-nine-tails and pouring salt in their wounds afterward. (He actually says this, y’all!) Ann’s efforts to improve the conditions at the prison meet with constant resistance but, to her credit, she refuses to give up or retreat – until her bosses frame her with a staged photo meant to show her in an uncompromising encounter with the prison’s doctor. The blackmail scheme forces her from the prison, but Ann gets the last word – she publishes a best-selling book about her experience, which leads to her appointment as head of Stuyvesant Industrial Home, a massive reformatory for women.
- Love re-enters Ann’s life in the form of Barney Dolphin (Walter Huston), a Supreme Court judge who’s admired her work from afar and finally gets the chance to meet her at a party thrown by Malvina. Ann is drawn to the judge like a moth to a flame – even after she learns that he’s soon to be the subject of a federal investigation into his finances. She’s also not put off by the fact that he’s got a wife (who, of course, refuses to grant him a divorce). “I may not know you very well,” she tells him, “but I approve of you thoroughly.”
- Ann and Barney carry on a secret but loving affair that results in the birth of a son, Matthew. Their happiness is shattered, however, when Barney is indicted for receiving bribes. He winds up with a six-year prison sentence, and when word of Ann’s illegitimate son gets out, she is forced to resign as the head of the Stuyvesant Home. (“You don’t seem to realize that the head of a woman’s reformatory should herself be above reproach,” she’s told by a board member of the prison.) There is a silver lining, though – the scandal entices Barney’s shrewish wife to finally seek a divorce. And through it all, Ann not only keeps her head high, but her devotion to Barney remains constant – she even goes so far as to ask a former boyfriend (Conrad Nagel), now a judge himself, to assist her in securing a pardon for her lover. (Talk about guts!)
And now, just so you’ll have a little of the movie to discover for yourself,I’m going to stop here. But before I go, I’ll leave you with a few tidbits about the movie:
- The film was directed by John Cromwell, father of actor James Cromwell, who has appeared in countless feature films, including Babe (1995), L.A. Confidential (1997), and The Artist (2011), and such television series as Six Feet Under (2003-2005) and American Horror Story (2012-2013).
- John Cromwell was known to make cameo appearances in his films. In Ann Vickers, he can been seen in three separate shots in the first scene, during a party at the settlement house where Ann works. Keep an eye out for the soldier who stands in the doorway throughout the event, gazing soulfully at Ann at every opportunity. That’s John Cromwell.
- Ann Vickers was based on a novel by Sinclair Lewis, who also wrote Elmer Gantry and Dodsworth.
- Barney Dolphin’s wife appeared in one scene. She was played by Gertrude Michael, who can be seen in Murder at the Vanities (1934), singing an ode to marijuana!
Ann Vickers airs on TCM on September 30th. Believe me when I say it’s worth your while to check it out, especially if you a fan of Irene Dunne and Walter Huston – and badass pre-Code femmes!
Be sure to pop over to Speakeasy to see what pre-Code gem Kristina is recommending for this month!