Monday, August 27, 2012
Claudia - 1943
“Claudia” (1943) is a film of rare accomplishment even while cloaked in the ordinary. Its comic premise of a scatterbrained child-bride and her lovingly tolerant husband barely scratches the surface in describing this remarkably deep film, and its deft exploration of love, death, birth, and especially marriage.
This week we’ll be covering both “Claudia” and its sequel, “Claudia and David” (1946). The sequel, unlike most sequels, was every bit as good as the original, so strong in its own storyline that it stands well on its own. Both films sprang from the hit Broadway play, “Claudia”, which sprang from a series of magazine stories, later developed into several novels, by Rose Franken.
Stop here if you don’t want any spoilers. The whole thing is going to be spoilers, spoilers, spoilers. Look! There’s another one! Duck!
“Claudia”, the Broadway play, shot lead Dorothy McGuire to stardom in a show than ran two years and over 700 performances. When Hollywood scooped up the rights, it scooped up Dorothy McGuire as well. Her role was then taken over on stage by Phyllis Thaxter, who recently passed away. Have a look here at my New England Travels blog for Thaxter’s “Claudia” on tour in Springfield, Massachusetts.
A beauty column written by Sylvia Blythe, syndicated in the Milwaukee Journal, January 18, 1942 picks up on the change:
Naturalness, which at long last brings good looks out from behind a cloak of artifice and affectation, is a style trend of the times…
If you shiver with fear that this new look is going to strip you of all pretentions to loveliness, look at Dorothy McGuire. Naturalness won this young actress the coveted theatrical role of the naïve girl-wife in ‘Claudia’, one of this season’s outstanding theatrical hits.
Moreover, as a vitamin-fed, pink-scrubbed, lean-limbed, sweater-and-skirt girl, Miss McGuire has captivated Broadway, which usually pays its homage to sophisticated glitter.
The movie was directed by Edmund Goulding, who worked magic with “The Constant Nymph” (1941) which we discussed here. This movie required the same sensitivity, despite the setting and the characters being much less artistic and fey. Still, Goulding pulled a magical twist on what could have been a really commonplace tale. He takes the characters seriously, and the script, though busy, always moves forward. The acting is superior.
Claudia, more waif than wife at first, hits us like a stiff breeze of constant activity, fast-talking speech that flits from one subject to another, even as Dorothy McGuire flits about her rather large colonial farmhouse. As was typical of Hollywood, the set designers depict what should be a fairly small home with uneven floor boards, low ceilings and small rooms -- has a living room large as a ballroom. The folks from “Holiday Inn” (1942) and “White Christmas” (1954) might put on shows here.
There is only one small touch of genuine New England architecture, when Miss McGuire proudly refers to a door being “the crookedest door in Connecticut.”
She is forced to grow up.
Until that moment she very much wants to be taken seriously, and no one does.
“YOU talk to her, Mother, you gave birth to her.”
“YOU married her. She’s yours now.”
In a showdown, Gardiner has one of his funniest moments when he quickly slips on a pair of glasses so Young won’t hit him.
Robert Young has a lot on his shoulders, and his worry over his wife’s emotional immaturity is compounded by some very bad news he’s been hiding from her.
Her mother is dying.
We find out at the beginning of the film that Ina Claire is going in for x-rays and to see a specialist. She confides in her son-in-law, who is supportive and wants to go with her to the hospital, but she does not yet want to tell her daughter. She’s probably got cancer, but it’s never said aloud, and doesn’t need to be. We’re all reading each other’s minds at this point.
She's worried about how her daughter will handle it. “Claudia has to learn to let go of people she loves. To hold close, but with open hands.”
How the film deals with this death sentence is quite frank and its very lack of melodrama gives the subject a much stronger impact. The news hits Robert Young, and us, like a ton of bricks.
“It means an operation,” Robert Young surmises.
“If I’m lucky,” she answers.
Director Goulding, who has framed this happy household in sunny window seats with billowing curtains and farmyard sets, now follows the stricken Robert Young out onto the porch in the half-dark, where Young pulls himself together after the phone call and tries to figure out a way to break the news to his wife. The camera pulls back, and we see she has been in the kitchen, listening on the extension.
Not usually the stuff of domestic comedies.
The servant couple have a son, who was in prison and came around to steal the egg money. We never see him, and that story is dropped pretty quickly in the film. Robert Young shoots a handgun in the air to frighten the unknown intruder away. He keeps the pistol in his car. We’ve mentioned loaded guns in desk drawers before, but not in the glove box.
There does not seem to be electricity in their house: all the rooms are lit with oil lamps. But they turn on the radio. Hmm.
Toward the end of the movie, Elsa Janssen diagnoses Dorothy McGuire as being pregnant, because of McGuire’s latest craving for pickles. A late menstrual period does not occur to either of them, but then only hygiene films dared mention menstruation back in the day. Robert Young insists upon a more scientific diagnosis by the doctor, and he confirms Janssen’s diagnosis.
She should know, after all, she’s the housekeeper.
“What’s the sense of pouring your heart and soul out in what you don’t possess and can never posses?”
Young answers, “Because a loan carries a greater obligation than a gift.”
“Claudia” tackles the full circle of life with surprising poignancy between waves of silliness. It established Dorothy McGuire as a star in her first film, and would lead to two other parings with Robert Young. They played the troubled couple in “The Enchanted Cottage” (1945) discussed here, and would return to the Connecticut farm in the following year.
Come back Thursday for “Claudia and David” (1946).