Pre-Code Crazy: The Life of Vergie Winters (1934)

If you know me at all, you know I’m a ginormous Ann Harding fan. What you might not know is that I am most decidedly not a huge John Boles fan. Not even a minor John Boles fan. Not even . . . well, you get the idea.

Despite this, I didn’t hesitate for even a second in selecting my Pre-Code Crazy pick for this month: The Life of Vergie Winters (1934), which stars none other than Ann Harding and John Boles. It’s good stuff – Boles or no Boles.

The film opens with a funeral that reminds me of the final scene in Imitation of Life (1959), a slow-moving convoy through streets lined with onlookers, with the cadence set by an appropriately solemn marching band. Among the many mourners is a haggard-faced young woman who peers sadly at the procession as it passes by the window of her jail cell. But who is she? Why is she in jail? And why should we care?

We don’t have to wait long to find out.

Everything’s better with Ann Harding.

A flashback takes us 22 years in the past, to a small-town millinery owned by the woman in the jail cell – Vergie Winters (Harding). During a visit from a pair of busybody old maids, we learn that Vergie’s heart belongs to recently wed John Shadwell (Boles), who has just returned to town with his bride, Laura (Helen Vinson), following a six-month (six months!?!?) honeymoon. “You know, last year we all thought you were going to break up that engagement of John’s,” crows Miss Busybody #1 (Cecil Cunningham).

As it turns out, Vergie and John are very much in love, but outside forces converged to prevent them from uniting – Vergie’s father was paid $10,000 by Laura’s father to break up the couple, which he did by telling John that Vergie was pregnant by a local handyman, and that she’d soon be marrying the baby’s father. (Thanks, Dad.) Shortly afterward, John married Laura and left town. When Vergie and John compare notes and comprehend the machinations that successfully separated them, they embark on a secret affair.

The plot thickens and bubbles over!

In true Back Street tradition, John and Vergie remain together for the next two decades – through John’s successful campaigns for the U.S. Congress and Senate, and despite rumors, scheming political rivals, malicious townspeople – even childbirth and war.

But The Life of Vergie Winters isn’t your typical Back Street story – there’s a whole lot going on, including several minor subplots and well-drawn characters, and there’s never a dull moment. I’m not going to tell you anything more; just trust me and tune in to TCM on March 5th to see it.

You only owe it to yourself.

Other Stuff

Don’t blink, or you’ll miss Dorothy Sebastian’s appearance.

Eleven-year-old, angel-faced Bonita Granville appears in the film briefly as Vergie Winters’s daughter. She’s in only one scene with the film’s star, but the interaction between Granville and Harding brings me to tears every time I see it.

Small parts are also played by a couple of others who were near the start of their careers – Walter Brennan (you’ll recognize his voice even if his face doesn’t look familiar) and Lon Chaney, Jr., who’s billed as Creighton Chaney.

Another small role was played by Dorothy Sebastian, who was a popular silent screen actress and who I know best from her roles in Our Dancing Daughters (1928) and Our Blushing Brides (1930). In this film, she has just a handful of lines. It made me wonder if part of her role ended up on the proverbial cutting room floor.

Listen for some violin music in the scenes with Betty Furness and Frank Albertson and a song playing on the radio in a scene with Harding and Boles – it’s very similar to music heard in Mildred Pierce (1945). The movies had the same composer – Max Steiner.

Helen Vinson was so good at playing women you love to hate. (Or just hate.)

The screenplay was penned by Jane Murfin, who also wrote (or co-wrote) the scripts for such films as What Price Hollywood? (1932); Double Harness (1933), which also starred Harding; and Alice Adams (1935). At the time that Vergie Winters was released, Murfin was married to actor Donald Crisp, who had a small part in the film.

Helen Vinson played Boles’s wife and, as usual, she excelled at bringing the bitch. She has one of my favorite lines in the film: “Sharing you is one thing, but giving you up is another, and I won’t do it!”

Don’t miss The Life of Vergie Winters on March 5th and be sure to pop over to Speakeasy to find out what gem Kristina is recommending for the month!

~ by shadowsandsatin on March 4, 2019.

6 Responses to “Pre-Code Crazy: The Life of Vergie Winters (1934)”

  1. I love Ann Harding! So happy to find that you do, too.

  2. Helen Vinson is in this? Sounds great!

  3. Well my dvr got the hiccups and chopped this one up into 4 pieces but I’m still looking forward to seeing it, like you I’m an Ann fan and sort of surprised I haven’t seen this one yet!

  4. Ann Harding ! Wonderful !

  5. Excellent article Karen! It really made me want to see this film 🙂 I must admit that I’ve only seen one Ann Hardin film so far (Eyes in the Night) so I should definitely explore more of her work.
    I like the fact that Dorothy Sebastian has a little part in that! I really liked her in Spite Marriage!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: