Saturday, May 23, 2009

The First Hundred Years (MGM, 1938)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film we picked was from a recent TCM tribute to Robert Montgomery: The First Hundred Years, made at MGM (his home studio) in 1938 — five years after When Ladies Meet, which I’d actually recorded from a different TCM “tribute” night, to Myrna Loy — and though not as daring in its plotting as When Ladies Meet it was actually a much nicer and more good-natured movie. It began as a story by screenwriter Norman Krasna, who also produced, though another writer, Melville Baker, worked up Krasna’s story into an actual screenplay.

The premise is an oldie but goodie: Lynn Conway (Virginia Bruce, a woefully underused actress whose talents entitled her to far bigger roles and better breaks than she got) insists on continuing to work for theatrical agent Harry Borden (Warren William) — on her job she uses her original last name, Claymore — even though her husband, yacht designer David Conway (Robert Montgomery), has just been offered a job supervising a shipyard. The problem is that the job is in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and being a married man in a 1930’s movie he naturally assumes that she’s going to quit her job, move there with him and become a stay-at-home housewife. She assumes no such thing; she wants to continue working as an agent and says that if he insists on taking the New Bedford job, they can always live apart during the week but spend the weekends together. “I want a wife, not a guest!” he snarls back (or at least as close to a snarl as Robert Montgomery ever got).

The rest of the movie consists of their attempts to resolve this impossible dilemma, which gets them as far as a legal separation (under which she is required to pay him alimony since she’s always made more than he has) and several misunderstandings before the inevitable (for a 1930’s movie) happens: undergoing a routine exam for an insurance policy, she discovers that she’s pregnant and the fetus ex machina finally brings them back together and leads her to abandon her career and move to New Bedford with him — though there’s a charming Krasna-esque tag scene in which, not knowing his wife is already pregnant, while they’re driving to New Bedford David muses that maybe they should have a child. “I’ll think about it,” says Lynn before she nods off in the passenger seat and the end title comes up. (Just when the two of them stopped their mad rush of work, parties and misunderstandings long enough to have sex is a minor mystery this film leaves unanswered.)

What’s most likable about this movie is what it doesn’t do: it doesn’t moralize against its proto-feminist heroine (the way the somewhat similarly plotted Kept Husbands did); it doesn’t show the couple getting involved with other partners on their way to a reconciliation (a subsidiary character played by Binnie Barnes does sort-of try to vamp David, but she doesn’t seem too serious about it and the writers don’t, either); and it treats the incidents it depicts in a nicely matter-of-fact fashion that makes even the sexist ending easy to take — though given how many two-career, two-income couples there are these days, the central dilemma of the film “reads” very differently today than it did in 1938 (and a modern filmmaker doing the same central premise would approach it very differently, too).