This post is part of the James Stewart Blogathon hosted by the Classic Film & TV Cafe. You can view the complete blogathon schedule here.
An introverted young botany professor from small-town Old Sharon meets an extroverted nightclub singer while on a trip to New York to retrieve his irresponsible cousin. The professor and the singer fall head over heels overnight and are married before they board the train back to Old Sharon. But the meek professor has to work up the courage to tell his bully father, his kind but supposedly ailing mother and a domineering former fiance that he is now married. That’s the entire movie. Really not much there, but it’s wonderful!
Every so often you want to reach through the screen to grab Jimmy Stewart, playing the timid professor, by the scruff of his neck and demand he just face up to his family already. Or scream at Ginger Rogers, that outgoing singer, to leave this lily-livered wimp at his lectern to drone on about plant life and get herself back to New York, which really seems to fit her personality better anyway. But the magic of Vivacious Lady is that you’re willing to overlook this easily fixed conflict, time and time again.
Perhaps it doesn’t matter because we get to see Jimmy and Ginger, here playing Peter and Francey, when they first meet and are swept right along with them on their whirlwind romance through the New York night into morning. Maybe because Francey is just so darn charming and Peter, despite an initial awkwardness that soon reveals him to be a bit of a doormat, is so kind and thoughtful of others, that we overlook the one thing that has to happen for Vivacious Lady to have a happy ending, or any ending at all: Peter has to tell the world that he and Francey are married. So simple.
Along the way Vivacious Lady contains three gags that would elevate the quality of any movie. Francey’s slap fest turned full-on brawl with Helen (Frances Mercer), Peter’s jealous fiance, best stands the test of time and is enhanced by Ginger’s overall attitude—don’t you love how she gets in two slaps for Helen's one--and a series of maniacal nervous laughs she lets loose when discovered by Peter and his father, an indignant Charles Coburn, with Helen gripped tightly in a headlock.
Speaking of Coburn, also Stewart's boss as President of the University, he helps sell laugh number two by popping the monocle off his eye, not once, but twice. That moment comes when he discovers his wife, who supposedly has a weak heart, dancing the Big Apple with Francey and ne'er-do-well nephew Keith (James Ellison), who Peter had originally been sent down to New York to retrieve. I wouldn’t argue too hard if you said the Big Apple scene is a bit corny, but the sight of Beulah Bondi shaking her rear end along with Ellison’s exclamations of pain as he exits after Ginger alerts him to his Uncle's arrival are priceless.
The final big laugh comes courtesy of a surprising source when African-American character actor Willie Best steals a key scene near the end of the movie with a surprisingly effective comic turn that I thought really transcended race. Minus a couple of Best's trademark mannerisms I could see several white actors in this part (Herman Bing leaps to mind), but when you cast a train porter in 1938 there was no doubt the part was to be filled by a black actor. Best reacts brilliantly to the wild emotional swings of both the Ginger Rogers and Beulah Bondi characters while doing his best to serve a ham sandwich with mustard and hunt down a cigarette for the two women who are alternatively convulsed by tears and uplifted upon discovering each other on board the same train out of Old Sharon. The porter, unaware of the context of the situation, finds himself swept up in the emotion himself and it is hilarious.
These were the big three, but there were several additional comic moments that help keep Vivacious Lady moving fast enough for you to forget how easily Peter could actually fix his and Francey's problem. A few of those: Franklin Pangborn shares a quick moment with each Stewart, Coburn and a hilariously hoarse-voiced Rogers; Rogers earns a Hattie McDaniel double-take with her risque comeback to an innocent comment about finding a new husband; Jack Carson has a small role at the beginning of the movie and shares a funny moment with Ellison; Stewart pulls off a drunken face plant that is so unexpected it earns father Coburn’s sympathy. Beyond that much of the Rogers-Stewart romantic banter is quite funny, especially when Ginger poses as a botany student in Stewart's classroom.
We think of Vivacious Lady today as as Ginger Rogers-Jimmy Stewart movie, and it is, but in 1938 this RKO Radio release was considered a Ginger Rogers vehicle all the way. If you look back at Stewart’s credits up until this time he had been doing supporting work at MGM in titles such as Wife vs. Secretary, Small Town Girl and After the Thin Man (each 1936) and had recently graduated to romantic leading man in The Last Gangster (1937) and Of Human Hearts (1938), though each of those movies was actually headlined by a more experienced actor, Edward G. Robinson and Walter Huston respectively. RKO borrowed Stewart (as well as Coburn and Bondi) for Vivacious Lady and, as so often seems to occur during a ‘30s loan-out, Stewart wound up in his biggest and most successful role to date.
Stewart found success with Vivacious Lady and stardom was just around the corner later that same year when he appeared in Columbia’s Academy Award winning Best Picture You Can’t Take It With You. That was followed by Stewart’s own Best Actor nomination, the first of five, in the 1939 classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and then his lone Oscar victory in a competitive category when he took Best Actor for the following year’s The Philadelphia Story. At that same 1941 Academy Awards show Stewart’s Vivacious Lady co-star, Ginger Rogers, collected her own Oscar for Best Actress in Kitty Foyle. RKO then made the obvious decision to re-release Vivacious Lady, three years old but now starring both of the current Oscar winners. It did brisk business in 1941 just as it had in 1938.
It was a long road to RKO’s original release of Vivacious Lady in May 1938. Film Daily announced the studio’s purchase of I.A.R. Wylie's magazine story in their September 12, 1936 edition. The project was always planned for Ginger Rogers but not until after she completed work on her latest pairing with Fred Astaire, Shall We Dance. Shortly thereafter the trade papers announced that RKO had borrowed Stewart to co-star but then production halted due to a Stewart illness, reported by more than one source as arthritis. Ginger worked on Stage Door while Stewart was recovering but was on vacation when he was ready to return. Shooting on Vivacious Lady did not resume until December 15, 1937 and did not wrap until the following March. The movie did great business upon its general release that June, though it came out only about a week after Warner Bros. blockbuster The Adventures of Robin Hood premiered in most cities. Titles such as Vivacious Lady, Hold That Kiss, Kidnapped and The Adventures of Marco Polo were a bit overshadowed by the classic Errol Flynn adventure despite doing well for themselves.
RKO got behind the title with a massive publicity campaign in the fan magazines. Either Ginger Rogers or James Stewart, or in some cases both, graced the covers of four different June 1938 publications, including Silver Screen and Screen Romances. A pair of Bernarr Macfadden publications, True Story and Movie Mirror, reproduced their Ginger Rogers’ covers on thousands of placards and posters made available for display at chain stores and newsstands throughout the month. Coverage extended to the more general print media with Life carrying a four-page layout focusing on Vivacious Lady in their May 9, 1938 issue and the June edition of Esquire printing a full-page portrait of Rogers as photographed by George Hurrell.
It was a heavy push and though Vivacious Lady did not surpass Robin Hood at the box office it did holdover business at many theaters and also scored with the critics. The June 6, 1938 edition of Motion Picture Daily carried a sampling of positive reviews from the New York newspapers. It was generally agreed that Vivacious Lady was “one of the season’s brightest comedies” (Herald-Tribune), “the brightest and funniest of the season’s comedies” (News) and “just funny, consistently and delightfully” (Sun). In the fan magazines it was cited by Photoplay as one of the top releases of the month in their July 1938 issue with special attention called not only to stars Rogers and Stewart but also Charles Coburn and Beulah Bondi as being among the best performances that month. I think Llewellyn Miller, editor of Hollywood magazine, came closest to my own opinion in writing, “Even if you begin to suspect that the comedy is much ado about nothing before it is half over, you won’t care, because you’ll be having plenty of chuckles and good many loud laughs.”
I count three loud laughs and innumerable chuckles, the latter largely courtesy of Ginger Rogers.
While Rogers takes advantage of having many of the best lines in Vivacious Lady it is Jimmy Stewart who has the tougher job in the movie as overall enjoyment hinges upon his keeping Peter likable enough for us to forget any tension in the movie is due to his lack of nerve. Stewart shows flashes of the vitality he later brought to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), especially in conflict with Coburn as his father. He’s seemingly an agreeable pushover one moment, but once his marriage is threatened he flares to intense defiance and we love him for it.
George Stevens had directed Rogers with Fred Astaire in one of their best, Swing Time (1936), and came away more successfully with this effort for Ginger than he had his previous film, A Damsel in Distress, the first movie starring Astaire to lose money for RKO. Stevens gets top work from all of the key players in Vivacious Lady and manages to keep a pace that keeps us caring about, well, a bit of an artificial story. Up next for Stevens was one of the the most popular films made during his career, Gunga Din in 1939.
Vivacious Lady features one of Ginger Rogers’ best comedic performances plus Jimmy Stewart offers a sample of what was soon to come in what was his most major role to date. The two, who had dated off-screen, display wonderful chemistry with one another throughout. There is superb support from experienced character actors Charles Coburn and Beulah Bondi plus enjoyable work from James Ellison and Frances Mercer. And let’s not forget Willie Best. Ginger sings “You’ll Be Reminded of Me” at the beginning and captivates Stewart’s character while doing so. After the song we have twenty minutes of romance before a collection of almost non-stop gags with the big ones punctuating in the perfect place. Not much of a story, but that’s about the only weakness of Vivacious Lady.
Vivacious Lady is available for purchase as a Made-on-Demand DVD-R from Warner Archive, though my copy and all accompanying screen captures come from a personal recording made off of a Turner Classic Movies’ showing of the film. Notes from trade papers and fan magazines come courtesy of a Vivacious Lady search in the Lantern database.