Monday, April 19, 2010

Small Town Girl (MGM, 1936)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After Society Doctor TCM showed a better-known Taylor vehicle which also cast him as a young, aspiring doctor: the 1936 MGM film Small Town Girl (not to be confused with their 1953 musical of the same title — which had little in common with it but the title and the basic situation of a small-town girl marrying a rich stranger from a big city who meets her as he’s driving through), based on a novel by Ben Ames Williams, who was a big enough “name” at the time that he’s featured prominently on a reproduction of the cover of the novel used as the main title of the film. (Other hit movies based on Williams’ work include Jubilo, the 1920 silent from Goldwyn that made Will Rogers an unlikely silent-film star; and the 1945 Leave Her to Heaven that got Gene Tierney her only Academy Award nomination.)

Small Town Girl was originally announced with Robert Montgomery and Jean Harlow as the stars, but Harlow turned it down partly because she’d have had to accept second billing to Montgomery and partly because she would have been horribly miscast — which she would have: Harlow would have been utterly unbelievable as a naïve, innocent small-town girl swept up into a whirlwind marriage with a rich young doctor’s son from Boston. MGM then decided to borrow Janet Gaynor from Fox for the female lead — and she’s as right for the part as Harlow would have been wrong, though (as with so many movies from the 1930’s), Robert Taylor’s real-life girlfriend at the time, Barbara Stanwyck, would have been even better — and they also went to an unusual source for the director: William A. Wellman, whom MGM had just hired away from Warner Bros. without a clear idea of what to do with him, who took over the film after originally assigned director Jack Conway was reassigned elsewhere. (According to the American Film Institute Catalog, Robert Z. Leonard shot fill-in for two weeks while Wellman was taken ill.)

Taylor seems to have ended up with the male lead partly because Montgomery was under consideration for the lead in MGM’s 1936 production of Romeo and Juliet (Leslie Howard ultimately played that role) and also because Taylor had just returned to MGM following his star-making loanout to Universal for Magnificent Obsession and this gave him virtually the same sort of part: a young man torn between the life of a wastrel playboy and the medical career his father (Lewis Stone), also a doctor, had groomed him for. The story opens on the day of the big football game between Yale and Harvard, and the long caravan of cars filled with students on their way to see the game passes through the tiny Massachusetts town of Carvel — later the locale of the Hardy family movies and the depiction of Louis B. Mayer’s small-town utopia (Mayer biographer Gary Carey suggests that Mickey Rooney’s childhood in the Hardy movies was the sort Mayer would have liked to have had himself), but here shown as a stultifying small town whose inhabitants have exactly the same dinner conversations night after night.

Kay Brannan (Janet Gaynor) works in the local grocery store, selling exactly the same food orders to the same people day after day, and though she’s got a boyfriend of sorts — electric lineman Elmer (James Stewart — who ironically would end up an even bigger movie star than Gaynor or Taylor!) — she’s as bored with him as with the rest of her existence in Carvel. Salvation arrives in the form of a flashy white car and its owner, Dr. Bob Dakin (Robert Taylor), who whisks her away, ostensibly just to find the local tavern — where he gets both of them drunk — but eventually to a justice of the peace where they’re married. He’s too drunk to know what he’s doing but she’s shown as impaired but still sober enough to realize what’s going on, and eventually they return to the family home in Boston and Dr. Dakin, Sr. (Lewis Stone), his wife (Nella Walker) and Priscilla Hyde (Binnie Barnes), whom Dr. Bob was engaged to and scheduled to marry two weeks hence. To preserve appearances, Dr. Bob agrees to stay married to Kay for six months and even go on a honeymoon of sorts on his private yacht — though without actually having sex with her; then he’ll quietly divorce her, give her a settlement and send her back to Carvel.

On the yacht she overindulges in the rich foods they serve routinely but she’s never had before — caviar and terrapin as entrées and baked Alaska and a wedding cake for dessert — and gets horrendously sick and is attended to by Dr. Bob and his Chinese servant, So-So (Willie Fung). Once they’re back in Boston, Kay attempts to get Dr. Bob to attend more seriously to his medical duties at the clinic run by Dr. Fabre (Charley Grapewin, almost unrecognizable as the same actor who played Uncle Henry in The Wizard of Oz), and in particular befriends Jimmy (Walter Johnson), a boy who shot himself in the head playing with his father’s gun and whom Dr. Bob previously operated on, installing a silver plate in his head and saving his life. Alas, on the night Dr. Bob has sneaked away to spend a hot evening with Priscilla, Jimmy suffers a life-threatening abscess — and when Priscilla hangs up on her phone call, Kay goes over to Priscilla’s place and drags Dr. Bob out of there and to the clinic, where at the climactic moment Dr. Bob realizes he’s too drunk to finish the operation properly and hands off the scalpel to his assistant Dr. Underwood. Feeling like a failure, Dr. Bob decides to go to Reno and get the divorce; he sends Kay back to Carvel, where she reads about Dr. Bob’s impending divorce in the local newspaper — whereupon Dr. Bob, for reasons the ace screenwriters (John Lee Mahin, Frances Goodrich & Albert Hackett, and Edith Fitzgerald) who worked on this film don’t quite explain other than that even an extended (106-minute) running time is drawing to a close and the two leads have to be got back together sometime, drives through Carvel, says he’s lost his way to Reno and the two duly reconcile.

What’s fascinating about Small Town Girl is that, though the story is certainly what would now be called a “RomCom” (today’s unlovely neologism for “romantic comedy”), the writers and director Wellman deliberately play the film as little for comedy and as much for romance as possible. They seem much more interested in creating a psychological story of two people in a modern setting having to reverse the usual progression — getting married and then falling in love -— just as nearly a decade earlier Gaynor had made the greatest film of her career, F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise, playing half of an estranged couple and (despite some pretty intense melodramatics involving an Other Woman and a murder attempt) the focus of Murnau and his writer, Carl Mayer, was on showing two people who are basically in love reconciling and rekindling their affection. Small Town Girl seems slowly and deliberately paced — an oddity from Wellman, a director hitherto known primarily for fast-paced gangster and aviation movies (including the first Academy Award Best Picture winner, Wings; James Cagney’s star-making vehicle, The Public Enemy; and the awesome unsung masterpiece Safe in Hell) — and even such usual sure-fire laugh-getters as the seasickness scenes are deliberately not played for slapstick or farce.

Had the writers invented (or depicted; maybe there was one in Williams’ novel) a stronger basis for the reconciliation of Kay and Dr. Bob Small Town Girl would be an even better movie than the quite good one it is — but as it is Small Town Girl is highly sophisticated entertainment that was a box-office blockbuster in its time (and launched a hit with its the theme song, composed by the film’s background music writers, Herbert Stothart and Ed Ward, with lyrics by Gus Kahn, sung over the credits by Dick Webster at a time when it was still unusual for a movie’s main title theme to have lyrics) and still holds up quite beautifully today.