Monday, June 22, 2009

True Life Movies Pt 2 - Roughly Speaking - 1945

We continue our look at a couple of views of “true life” movies with “Roughly Speaking” (1945). Directed by Michael Curtiz, this fast-paced film with breezy dialogue punctuated by clever quips from leads Rosalind Russell and Jack Carson has similarities to “The Crowd” (1928) which we looked at last Thursday. The differences have to do more with tone and outlook than with basic content.

Unlike the spare, almost allegorical modern Everyman tale of “The Crowd”, “Roughly Speaking” is a cluttered scrapbook based on the memoir of Louise Randall Pierson. Both films study lives of trial and struggle, and bad breaks. “The Crowd” is somber, sensitive, and artistic. “Roughly Speaking” is more rollicking, uplifting, and though it covers some crucial episodes in time, is lighter fare.

Rosalind Russell’s character begins life as a daughter of a well-to-do New England patriarch in the early days of the 20th Century. When Father dies leaving debts, Miss Russell hitches her star to secretarial school (where the prim lady dean reprimands her for wearing a skirt that shows her ankles) and begins a wild ride of feast and famine for the next several decades.

A typically robust and hearty Alan Hale has a brief role as her first boss, who doubts a woman can do the job of typing letters in his shipyard office, but when she high kicks his hat off, he gives her a leg up in the business world. So to speak.

This occurs in New Haven, and when she and her roomie at the boarding house (where not a toilet is seen -- see the last post on “The Crowd”) date some Yale men, we hear the first of several choruses throughout the movie of the Yale fight song. You’ll have it memorized by the end of the film.

Her first beau proposes marriage, but she is a feminist and wants to support herself and does not want to quit her job when they marry. Her work ethic will come in handy in later years when she’s broke most of the time.

Her husband is a banker, a bit of a quiet drudge, but very stable, at least until he decides, after their fourth child is born, that he doesn’t love her. He leaves her, and we hear no more of him for the rest of the movie. But in the ebullient early days of the 1920s, Russell meets a new beau, played by Jack Carson with that wonderful deft way he had of playing both a good guy and a rogue. Mr. Carson doesn’t mind that she’s an independent woman or that she has four kids. He is a lazy loafer who needs a good woman to make him shape up, which is what happens. They have a great chemistry on screen and play well off each other. They look like they’re having fun.

One business booms, then busts. A lot happens in the parade of years. One of the children has polio, and we see her struggle with early paralysis to later being able to walk with a brace and a cane. Another baby is born. They move constantly to either better, or cheaper, digs according to their circumstances. The family is close and extraordinarily happy, joking at just about everything, even their bouts with poverty. Miss Russell and Mr. Carson get grayer in that artistic manner of the movie makeup artist.

A newsboy brings a big black headline to their porch that announces the Great Depression, and we have the stoic comment by Carson, “I guess the party’s over.”

But there is still the underlying all-American optimism that makes them bounce off the canvas, continuing to feed on the faith they have in themselves and their own ingenuity over a montage of “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” and “We’re In The Money.”
Finally by 1939, Carson gets a break, a job on the planning board of the New York City World’s Fair of that monumental year, but the rejoicing doesn’t last for long. At Russell’s 50th birthday party, where all the grown kids come home to help her eat cake and sing the Yale fight song, Rosalind Russell looks up from blowing out her candles to notice out the window over the fairgrounds that the Polish pavilion has turned off its lights. It’s a brief, but quietly dramatic moment in the film.

Young people seeing this film for the first time might not be aware of the significance of the statement, but it signals the beginning of World War II when Germany invaded Poland. Of all the foreign nations which sent exhibits to the New York 1939 World’s Fair, themed “The World of Tomorrow,” many Europeans could not return home once the war started. They were stuck there on the fairgrounds, in their native costumes, no longer trying to drum up business for countries that suddenly no longer existed.

Again, the wry comment by Carson, “Well, there goes the world of tomorrow.”

But the war puts the whole family on active duty. Who is not in the service is working in the shipyard. Miss Russell works in the office, as she did so many years ago, and Mr. Carson is a welder.

We have the final iconic scene where the boys are leaving at the train station, and the youngest, just 17, hands Mother and Father the permission slip for him to join the service. They have to put on their reading glasses now, and the makeup department has colored their hair completely gray. Russell and Carson capture beautifully the heartache and tension of the moment.

Afterward, the two aging empty-nesters sitting on the bench in the train station while the camera pulls back and they are lost in that crowd that threatened to swallow James Murray in “The Crowd,” argue about what would be the next business to start, a farm perhaps, and the movie ends in a hectic, though buoyant way.

This is the main difference between “The Crowd” and “Roughly Speaking,” the despair of one and the optimism of the other. One wonders how Murray’s character in “The Crowd” would have dealt with the Great Depression or World War II. Perhaps like the real-life actor who played him, he would have been long dead by then, crushed by his own inability cope.

Happier circumstances awaited Rosalind Russell, who after several years of comedies and minor dramas, this film began a turning point in her career where she was offered much stronger roles.

One might conjecture that “The Crowd” was made during generally good times, and during eras of political stability and a fair amount of prosperity, it’s easier to look at the hard side of life. During the Great Depression and the war, the movies were less eager to take a grim stance. Optimism was what was needed, or at least that’s what the movie studios perceived. After the war, movies got realistic again, but that was okay. We could take it by then.


K. said...

I don't know this movie, but now I want to see it. What do you think of the Steve Martin film Pennies From Heaven? To me, one of the 80s most underrated films.

I challenge you to identify the old movie reference in my blog today!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

It's been so long since I've seen "Pennies from Heaven" that I can't really comment. Parodies are always fun though, so is Steve Martin. Thanks for stopping by, K. I'll check out your blog.

Kevin Hagopian said...


A thoughtful and generous discussion of a movie that was very much of its time. Thanks for helping your readers to get to know this lovely and often moving film.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Welcome, Kevin, and thank you for your kind comments. I agree that "Roughly Speaking" is certainly an easy film to love.

Miss Fierce said...

Rosalind Russell is one of my favourite actresses, and "Roughly Speaking" is great showcase for her natural charm and penchant towards more physical types of comedy. Interestingly, this was supposed to be something of a "dress rehearsal" with Curtiz. He had her in mind for the title role in "Mildred Pierce." However much I adore Russell, I am glad she ended up not doing the picture because I can't imagine anyone other than Joan Crawford in the role.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Hi, Miss Fierce. I agree this movie is a nice vehicle for Roz's abilities. She's one of my favorites, too. I did not know that Curtiz was considering her for "Mildred Pierce". Interesting. Crawford was certainly memorable in that role.

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