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.

Playwright Rose Franken directed the stage show and picked Dorothy McGuire, with only some summer stock under her belt, to play the demanding role of a lead character who is in almost every scene. When she went to Hollywood, McGuire was touted as being part of that new look of young actresses, called natural, to distinguish them from the glamorous screen sirens of the 1920s and 1930s. Jennifer Jones and Ingrid Berman, Martha Scott and Teresa Wright, as well as Phyllis Thaxter, were part of this cadre.  Both McGuire and Teresa Wright understudied Martha Scott in "Our Town".

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.

Claudia is a young bride married to a slightly older, much more level-headed fellow, played here by Robert Young. He works as an architect in New York, but their home is a rambling hobby farm in Connecticut. They have an elderly German couple working for them, played by Frank Tweddell -- who played the same role on Broadway with Miss McGuire, and by Elsa Janssen, who we last saw as Lou Gehrig’s mama in “The Pride of the Yankees” (1943). You’ll remember her as one of the refugees at Rick’s in “Casablanca” (1943) as well.

Ina Claire plays Dorothy McGuire’s mother. She had a splendid stage career herself, began in vaudeville, performed in the Ziegfeld Follies as a fresh-faced comedienne, perhaps not unlike McGuire’s persona in this film, and starred on Broadway throughout the 1920s. She did only a handful of films, and “Claudia” was her last before spending the rest of her career back on stage which she preferred.

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.”

McGuire is all energy and little sense, and there are the usual clichés about her not being able to balance the checkbook, and having the bad wifely habit of listening in on other people’s phone conversations. However, there is a huge difference in Claudia compared to other movie scatterbrained wives.

She is forced to grow up.

Claudia is not really stupid or scatterbrained, rather she is undisciplined, coddled by a mother who thinks she’s a hoot, and tolerated by a husband who is charmed by her freshness and gaiety. The character is rather like a child or young teen who says something or does something unexpectedly funny, and wins the attention of all around her. So she tries to repeat the action until she gets the same response. Pretty soon, it gets to be a habit -- not the need for attention, but the desire not to be held accountable for anything she does or says.

Until that moment she very much wants to be taken seriously, and no one does.

McGuire is fascinating in the role. She moves like a fidgety kid, flopping on furniture, running her hands through errant hair that is always falling in her eyes. Her moods are mercurial. She and Robert Young have great chemistry. Their marriage, in so far as it has not been seriously challenged yet, is good. They are sexy, playful, with a lot of touching, tickling, and spontaneous gestures of desire and affection.

Robert Young moves gracefully between the comedy and the drama, always as steady as his character, and much of the depth of the film is due to him and his skill as a wonderfully empathetic actor.

Young is never really exasperated with his young wife, which would be the typical husband’s reaction in other films with comic scenarios of this sort. When she bungles the checkbook he is amused and play-acts frustration to bait her. He holds it over her head that she is a silly child, and to mock her innocence there is some coy conversation when their milk cow needs to be “serviced” to continue to produce milk. He tweaks her for being a mama’s girl, because she has a close relationship to her mother.

But Young, too, has a close relationship with his mother-in-law, also unusual in the movies. The two of them banter like pals.

“YOU talk to her, Mother, you gave birth to her.”

“YOU married her. She’s yours now.”

There are two moments of crisis for the couple, and both are really illustrated through Mr. Young’s reactions. First, the charming British scamp Reginald Gardner, a new neighbor, makes eyes at Miss McGuire. She encourages him because her husband’s teasing, which sounds condescending to her, makes her feel undesirable. She wants to see if she can attract another man.

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.

When Young confronts his wife, we see the tenor of Young’s attitude change. He is not as angry as he is hurt, as well as disappointed in her because he knows Claudia well, has long seen a pattern that is dangerous. He wants her to grow up, for the sake of their marriage. He asks if she knows she could have destroyed their marriage with this foolishness, and she wants to know why he never tells her she is beautiful or desirable. It is a moment of quiet conversation, one of many scenes in the movie that suddenly take an introspective turn. Both admit they messed up, but remain on tenterhooks.

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.

Young’s best moment is when he receives Ina Claire’s phone call about the results of her tests. Look at his expression crumble, his voice begin to shake. He is trying to be emotionless for her sake, and that makes the scene all that more emotional.

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.

Here is where Claudia has to grow up in most brutal way. She must let her mother go in way that will not put any more emotional demands on her mother. She has to let her mother feel free to die.

Not usually the stuff of domestic comedies.

There are subplots to round out the larger issues of life. A visiting Russian soprano wants to buy the farm. Olga Baclanova also came from the Broadway cast, and reminds me of Fanny Brice, with startling lung power as she erupts into high C shrieks. This was her last film role.

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.

One small touch I like: Ina Claire is reading the newspaper. It’s The Hartford Courant, still the oldest continuously published newspaper (since 1764) in the United States.  She said proudly.

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.

The joy of having a baby is destroyed for McGuire, now she has learned she’s going to lose her mother.

“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.”

Another fine moment: When Young insists to his mother-in-law that she will spend her remaining days with them, she bristles at being a charity case and mumbles, “I’d rather die.” Then she realizes the irony, and begins to chuckle.

“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).


Laura said...

A lovely post on a wonderful film. It impressed me very much when I saw it a few years ago. Two of the things which really caught my attention you highlight here: the couple's romantic relationship is wonderfully conveyed, and then that scene where Robert Young gets the bad news. That sequence was an eye-opener for me as to just how good an actor he could be.

Looking forward to your post on CLAUDIA AND DAVID! Haven't seen it for years and need to revisit that one.

Best wishes,

readerman said...

Any film with the lovely Dorothy McGuire will get my attention. Your interesting post does too. I'll have to check this out. Thanks.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks, Laura. I agree Robert Young was a very, very fine actor and whenever a scene of real substance came his way, he knocked it out of the park. Unfortunately, the studio always relegated him to second string, but he deserved better.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Readerman, I think Dorothy McGuire is tops, too.

grandoldmovies said...

A lovely post on what sounds like a wonderful film, and also a rare blending of comedy and poignant drama. I haven't seen Claudia or its sequel, but, after reading your article, I hope they're on DVD or soon to be. Looking forward to reading your follow-up!

I think this must have been Olga Baclanova's final film role; she was most famously in Freaks, as the woman turned into a freak at film's end.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks for mentioning about this being Baclanova's last film; I had mistakenly wrote "first", but of course she had a handful of small roles before this, including the infamous "Freaks".

knitwit said...

This was one of my mother's favorite films, and she passed that love to me. McGuire and Young are such a believable pair. This movie and "The Enchanted Cottage" are 2 of my 'seriously favorite' movies. Thanks for the great post!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks, knitwit. "The Enchanted Cottage" is one of my all-time favorites, too. Both roles are really complex, and McGuire had the ability to play these very different women with terrific skill and sensitivity.

Laura said...

Grand Old Movies: CLAUDIA is just out on DVD-R this month in the new Fox Cinema Archives line:

CLAUDIA AND DAVID is also available:

Best wishes,

Moira Finnie said...

I felt the same way about this post as I did the movie "Claudia." Why did it have to end?

Many thanks for sharing the beauty of this movie and the performances (especially the often overlooked Robert Young) in your nimble prose.

You can stop by my farm house anytime--we'll flood the floor in the living room and put on our own version of the ice follies, but we don't have electricity, so be sure to bring the batteries for the radio (I believe that many "city" people lived that way in the country then).

One other thing about this movie that fascinates me: no mention of the war!

Great stuff. Please keep it up.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Laura, thanks so much for coming back to fill us in on where to obtain "Claudia".

Moira, you are too, too kind. I agree that Robert Young's performances are often overlooked, but I can't think for the life of me why. Here he's the glue that holds it all together.

If you have a farmhouse where we can put on shows, then I only want to work on holidays, like Bing Crosby and the gang in "Holiday Inn". We won't need batteries for the radio, we'll just get a wind-up Victrola.

So glad you mentioned the NO mention of the war. That is one of the things that interests me about this movie. In a way I can understand, because the stage hit had no mention of the war, but even more so with "Claudia and David" you'd think there'd be some reference to wartime sacrifices being over or something. At the very end credits of "Claudia" we get the logo to BUY WAR BONDS, but if it weren't for that, you'd never know there was a war on.

Caftan Woman said...

"Claudia" is a film that I last saw so long ago that a new viewing will seem like the first. Your description of the movie brought it all back - beautifully. I'll certainly appreciate it more than ever the next time.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks, CW. "Claudia" doesn't seem to get shown much, but then neither does "The Enchanted Cottage". Makes it all the more special when they come our way.

autolycos said...

Just came across your excellent piece. Very eloquent. I was thinking about the "no war mention" in the film, and thought that maybe the mother's mortality and the turmoil around it can be seen as a reference to all of the death of the war. The line .."hold close with open hands" must have struck a chord. Also, there are several other nationalities represented: British, Russian, and (good) German.
Robert Young is wonderfully nuanced in this.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Welcome to the blog, autolycos, and thank you for your kind comments. You've made a good point about the war actually being represented in the mother's mortality and the nationalities present in the film. I hadn't thought of that, but it's there. I agree that Robert Young is terrific in this movie.

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