Who would have thought that Mr. Moto’s creator would ever win a Pulitzer? Back in the ‘20s and ‘30s the newsstands offered so many new magazines each week that a fiction writer could actually make a living writing short stories and serialized novellas. John P. Marquand was one who did so. His Mr. Moto debuted in the Saturday Evening Post in 1935 and was quickly spun into a popular fiction and movie franchise. Marquand had already published three Mr. Moto novels and Peter Lorre was about to start acting the part out for 20th Century Fox by the time the author published The Late George Apley in early 1937. Apley was a bestselling literary novel about an upper class Bostonian who lived from the 1860s into the 1930s. The novel earned Marquand the Pulitzer Prize in 1938, and riding that esteem he published less in magazines to concentrate on producing more book-length fiction. He’d become a writer that I’ve seen best described as a “serious popular novelist” (Teachout).
Largely forgotten today, in his own time he rose well above ever being labeled hack, but his background and the often autobiographical nature of his stories kept him from being considered anything near a top tier novelist by the most elite literary critics. Marquand published H.M. Pulham, Esquire in 1941. It is generally considered equal to or even better than his prizewinner, and is often cited as his best novel by those who fail to appreciate his Point of No Return, published 1949.
Marquand is the starting point because if you already know Harry Pulham, it’s more likely you met him in the movies at this late date, than on the page where he was born. If that’s the case then the natural temptation is to associate the story more with film director King Vidor than with poor John P. Marquand, whose status has shrunk quite a bit from then to now. In addition to directing, Vidor and his wife, Elizabeth Hill, also wrote the screenplay, with input from Marquand on dialogue. Much of the story that we see on the screen, two-thirds or better, is told close to how Marquand wrote it. Vidor changed some of the action near the end, completely excising scenes of Harry’s classmates gathering together (including a meeting between Harry and Marvin’s husband, John Ransome), presumably because it made for a better movie. He also chose not to include an affair between Harry’s wife, Kay, and his best friend, Bill King, which is obvious to the reader, even if Harry never totally grasps it. I suppose Vidor left that out because of potential censor issues, though Marquand handled it so tactfully, that there’s a good chance Vidor just didn’t need to use it.
None of this is mentioned to discredit Vidor, but with hopes of helping to elevate Marquand back from relative obscurity. Vidor’s accomplishment was in bringing a near perfectly realized adaptation of Marquand’s fiction to the screen, at least for the first 90 minutes or so before he began to tinker with the story, while seeming to stay out the way while doing so. What makes the movie so good is that Vidor usually leaves out the right details, while consistently retaining all of the voices that Marquand invented, even adding a few nods to the story when they didn’t quite fit into his overall picture.
Bosley Crowther’s review in the New York Times, in keeping with his overall negative opinion of the film, wrote that Robert Young, “plays the name role with a stiffness resembling that of the bowler hat set squarely on his head.” I suspect Crowther did not bother reading the book that hundreds of thousands of others had, because Robert Young made for a perfect Harry Pulham. While Hedy Lamarr gets most of the modern accolades for her performance as Marvin Myles, I thought Young provided the best performance in H.M. Pulham, Esq.. Young’s “stiffness” is suitable, a compliment even as he brings flesh and blood to a character who internalizes the world around him in order to continue to meet the expectations of the dying world from which he emerged.
The different threads of the story play more equally in Marquand’s novel, whereas the film puts more stress on its romantic elements. This allows the movie to retain Marquand’s clash of cultures, specifically old Boston versus new New York, though I thought Vidor came up a little short when it came to capturing the changing times that best showed who Harry Pulham was.
Harry’s relationship with Marvin was doomed because of their backgrounds. One bit of criticism that the film originally engendered came in the casting of Viennese born Hedy Lamarr in the part of Marvin Myles, who came from Chicago as Marquand wrote her. This turns out not to be relevant because Lamarr gave a great performance and Marvin’s background isn’t of any great importance—she is New York, as much as Harry is old Boston. When Harry returns to New York hoping to claim Marvin as his wife and have her leave Manhattan behind, Vidor’s Marvin echoes that of Marquand: “Up there you become someone else,” she says in the movie. In the book: “We only belong to each other here. You’ve got to come back to me here” (241). New York is where they met, where they became familiar with each other, and where they fell in love. Even if Harry realizes his greatest comfort back home, Marvin’s visit to Boston reveals that he is also uncomfortable transporting their relationship to a different setting, even if he cannot admit this to himself.
While King Vidor completely captures the differences in background that doom Harry and Marvin from the very start, he somehow fails to evoke the social evolution that accompanied the history of Harry’s times. He shows the passing of time, Harry’s boyhood and youth, and more specific scenes, such as war and Prohibition, but it all passes as quickly as it is shown. He attempts to inject the idea of changing times, mostly through Harry’s father (Charles Coburn), but this winds up feeling like the natural and obvious unwillingness of the old to cope with the new. The elder Pulham’s inability to grasp the changing world around him is what happens to anybody who manages to survive six or seven decades and witness the world change around him. Haven’t we all said, things ain’t what they used to be? at one time or another. Marquand’s greatest accomplishment was illustrating the changing world around Harry, a specific individual’s perspective, yes, but one that revealed a more universally felt change born in the years just prior to World War I and stretching through the post-War years, leading up to the time the book was written (and the movie was made), just prior to America’s entry into World War II.
Harry Pulham of the novel was defined by more than being of the old elite. He was the old elite intermingled with the uncertainties of the Lost Generation. Harry’s thoughts just before the war: “There was no way of telling then that a world was ended or that a page was turning” (108). A plate his daughter smashed reminds him of, “the way the war smashed everything” (115). During the war, despite the often radically different background of the men he served with there was a “common point of view then” — and makes him realize: “a common something which you might call decency” (122), an idea not quite as potent in the film when attributed to his father. Those smashed bits of plate make him recall: “I was always picking up pieces of things after the war” (115). After practically sleepwalking his way to Bill King and New York after leaving the service, Bill gleefully tells him: “This war has taught a lot people that it isn’t worth while living if you can’t do what you want” (126). Harry, reflecting upon himself in those years just after the war: “My whole generation, except me, seemed to be happy and sure of itself” (259). Harry in present day, remembering himself in that time after the war: “I was struggling, as I have a good deal since, to get my relationship straight with the world around me” (59).
The movie hints at this Harry, but the novel lays him bare, or at least as bare as our narrator, one Harry Pulham, can ever willingly manage to reveal himself. William McFee, literary critic for the New York Sun at that time, described H.M. Pulham as “a non-literary character who obviously could never write a book of any kind,” who, “wrote a complicated autobiography,” adding that Marquand’s method was “justified” in this case. His novel is a dissection of a very specific man in a time shared by all who were reading. It’s hard not to identify with many of Harry’s thoughts even reading H.M. Pulham, Esquire over seventy years after its original publication. Since reading it I’ve come to suspect that King Vidor abbreviated the Esquire portion of Marquand’s title to hint that bits are left out, though I realize H.M. Pulham, Esq. probably just fit better on the marquee.
One of those little nods that Vidor includes is having Harry’s daughter, Gladys (Mary Lou Harrington), drop a box of spiders when she is running down the stairs. It’s just a casual, quirky reference in the film. In the novel, Gladys’s spiders are used to illustrate the faint remaining pull Harry’s discarded New York life still holds over him years later in Boston. Kay, who is every bit as old Boston as he, discourages Gladys’s interest in bugs, going so far as to say, “I don’t think it’s normal.” Harry suggests, jokingly, that maybe their daughter is a genius. Moments later Harry feeds his own curiosity as much as his daughter's, by getting down into the grass with her to look at a spider. He cannot add much to his daughter’s intellectual quest and on the surface is only sharing in her childlike fascination, but he’s also feeding a curiosity that his rigid upbringing restrained and that has been back under wraps ever since his return from New York. “I felt embarrassed that Kay had found us there” (299). Harry never is sure who he is. Another literary critic, Blair Fraser, writing of Harry’s split personality between the two different locales, commented, “It merely made him out of place in both worlds, seeing each through the eyes of the other.”
Given the length of the film, a full two hours, it’s surprising that Vidor didn’t better specify the War as the main cause of Harry’s personal conflict. He includes a brief scene of Harry in combat, though mostly for humor and irony as Marquand had written it. In the book Harry’s war experience is almost always present somewhere in his thoughts. It’s just another event in the movie.
But what’s in the movie is still wonderful. Harry’s wife, Kay (Ruth Hussey), is probably even more shrill than she is in the book, but by making her a bit more insufferable, Vidor doesn’t need to include her infidelity, which the movie wouldn’t have been able to dedicate enough time to for a crowd unfamiliar with the book to understand. While the movie can’t be big enough to make us completely understand Harry, it is phenomenal in showing us Harry’s struggle in choosing his mate and deciding, years later, whether he is happy with choosing Kay over Marvin. Without being fully invested in Harry, it would seem that he chose wrong. He was a more complete man, maybe even a better one, when he was with Marvin. He undoubtedly had more passion for Marvin. But to stay with Marvin would have been a rejection of who he really was. Would that sacrifice have been worth it?
In the film the answer ultimately comes down to the idea that “We can’t go back.” The passage of years are too much for Harry and Marvin to overcome. Vidor is subtle in showing us Harry make peace with his present. It comes when he finally meets with Marvin in present day and she is interrupted by a business call where Harry hears her turn hard. Harry’s face drops. He says he’s been happy and, analytically, has always considered himself happy enough. Now he can finally be sure that a life with Marvin would not have made him any happier than he already is. Vidor gives Harry absolute happiness at the end of the movie, when Kay is waiting for him. It’s a more obvious ending than the book, but without as much of Harry to dwell upon, it is a good ending that resolves the complications of his romantic life.
While the novel must tie up the loose ends of Kay’s affair with Bill King, and her own realizations about her marriage and her husband, as seen through Harry’s eyes, Marquand allows Harry to come to grips with his own life and times when he departs from his rendezvous with Marvin, a scene told similarly in book and movie. Harry had thought of his life between New York and now, from the time he left Marvin until present day, as a blur. Those years, “were telescoped together … What happened later may have been important, but it did not seem to matter, because I had grown used to all of it” (292). The time between the two wars, he told Kay, were “like an accordion ... all squashed up between the two wars” (298). But after his final meeting with Marvin, Harry felt peaceful. Live had moved on and, “I was not sorry that I was changed, because the change had been worth while.” The seemingly empty passage of years, that time he was forever skipping over in his mind, now had definition. He loved his wife, concluding perhaps that was what love really was — not passion or wish, but days and years …” (421). The idea of all of the “days and years” makes its way into the movie, but the words are Kay’s, not Harry’s. Instead of thinking them, as he does in the novel, we’re left to accept that Harry believes them.
I had seen the movie, H.M. Pulham, Esq. several times before recently reading the John Marquand novel that it is based upon. Hedy Lamarr was the only bit of casting that didn’t fit neatly into my mind while reading. This turns out to be yet another compliment, even if sounds like a criticism, for I watched the movie again after completing the novel and appreciated her performance anew. She made Marvin her own. But I can understand any problem that contemporary readers and viewers may have had with the choice, because she doesn’t fit the puzzle as perfectly as do Robert Young as Harry Pulham, Ruth Hussey as his wife, Kay, and Van Heflin as Bill King, or even more minor casting choices, such as Douglas Wood as the ad agency boss J.T. Bullard, Phil Brown as Joe Bingham, and, most especially, Leif Erickson, who is Bojo Brown incarnate. The actor’s faces and performances came alive inside Marquand’s pages without effort. In fact, I could not keep them out. While I wouldn’t say the same of the rest of the cast, especially Harry’s family, Charles Coburn and Fay Holden as his parents, and Bonita Granville as his sister, Mary, each of those actors fit the film well and in the case of Coburn, even excelled.
The structure of Marquand’s novel made Vidor’s use of flashbacks as natural as they were well-executed. He also adds several visual details that help define Harry’s character, such as the galoshes he pulls on over his shoes for work, even on sunny days, and the two peanuts he carries along to feed the squirrels each morning. The director also plays with voiceover throughout H.M. Pulham, Esq., especially during phone calls, though most memorably when Harry reads a letter from Marvin as business associates try to summarize his late father’s assets for him. The mundane catalog of stocks continuously fades under Marvin’s voice, but a secretary keeps interrupting Marvin to distract Harry with messages from those who are waiting to see him. Under the circumstances, Harry can’t quite give himself over entirely to Marvin.
Another of my favorite scenes comes when Harry and Kay are married. Is it possible to make a wedding scene interesting? They’re almost always the same, only there to try to choke you up or play some other cheap trick with your emotions. My favorite stories simply skip over them. In H.M. Pulham, Esq., Vidor makes his wedding scene unique in having the couple begin to say their vows simultaneously to one another and the preacher. They don’t get very far before Robert Young and Ruth Hussey are simply spouting nonsense words, dialogue that try as I may, I cannot even transcribe. It shows their state of mind, yes, but while there are nerves at play for the characters, the director seems to be taking a swipe at the institution, even if that swipe is only intended to show the overall lack of importance of this one specific marriage. These vows are motivated by fear and confusion and, as Harry remembers them, represent a milestone event whose specifics have faded from memory.
The MGM film premiered in two theaters in Boston, December 3, 1941, before opening nationwide that December 18. The timing was as bad as it is fascinating. The movie deals with World War II through a few headlines (”Roosevelt Warns Nazis” at the start, “Nazis Warn Roosevelt” much later), but with the attack on Pearl Harbor followed by America’s entry into the war taking place between the two dates, it makes me wish all the more that Vidor had placed a greater emphasis on time as it affected Harry. A lot is implied, and perhaps even more for a viewer in 1941, who would have been more likely to have read the novel, a top ten bestseller that year. Those passing years were their own years, so they would have more clearly understood Harry’s disillusionment in the time since his return from the first World War. H.M. Pulham, Esq. is said to have lost money at the box office, but despite the real world chaos accompanying its opening, it did get out of the gates well.
After it’s national opening it continued to pull crowds in Boston, no surprise, but the film also did strong business in New York, earning $62,000 at Radio City Music Hall just before Christmas, and serving as Motion Picture Daily’s foremost example of Broadway theaters regaining their strength. That same journal reported Pulham’s pulling in $100,000 at that same venue the prior week to December 30, calling the showing, “as big as big can be.”
While a few reviews echoed Crowther of the Times and found H.M. Pulham, Esq. tedious, more thoughtful critics praised the performances, King Vidor’s subtle technique, and the story, with the movie hailed by many as one of the best of the year. Praise from Winsten of the New York Post pointed to what was both liked and disliked about H.M. Pulham, Esq. in stating that it is, “more given to mood, to time and its passage, and to the social milieu than to action.”
H.M. Pulham, Esq. is a wonderful movie and an equally enjoyable book. Neither contains a single fantastic instance, but life sweeps through both. The book better reveals the uncertainties felt between the wars, but the movie trims a few unessential elements in order to give more importance to Harry and Marvin’s relationship. This watering down of Kay and Bill’s characters helps to make Harry’s stronger, even if we’re not allowed quite so deep inside his mind. Love may not conquer all in H.M. Pulham, Esq., but it may still bloom out of the comfort found in shared lives and experiences.
H.M. Pulham, Esq. is available as a manufactured-on-demand DVD-R from Warner Archive. Turner Classic Movies also plays this MGM film every so often. My screen captures are from my copy recorded off of TCM.
Sources and Citations
- “Boston Gross Shows Gains; ‘Pulham’ Best.” Motion Picture Daily 19 December 1941: 8.
- “B’Way Theatres Regain Strength.” Motion Picture Daily 23 December 1941: 8.
- Fraser, Blair. “Portrait of a Fossil.” The Gazette” (Montreal). 1 March 1941: 9. Web. Google News. 11 November 2014.
- ”Hellzapoppin’ On B’Way as Grosses Soar.” Motion Picture Daily 30 December 1941: 4.
- Marquand, John P. H.M. Pulham, Esquire. Chicago: Academy Chicago: 1986.
- McFee, William. “Class Ties and Ties of Caste In Novel of Manners.” New York Sun 19 February 1941: 19. Web. Old Fulton NY Postcards. 11 November 2014.
- Teachout, Terry. “Justice to John P. Marquand.” Commentary 1 October, 1987. Web. Commentary. 11 November 2014.