[28 March 2013]
Two new on-demand releases from Fox Cinema Archives showcase an excellent, magnetic character actor named Edmund Gwenn, best known for playing a certain bearded gentleman in Miracle on 34th Street.
In Apartment for Peggy, Gwenn plays a retired college philosophy professor who calmly announces his intention of committing suicide as soon as he finishes writing his magnum opus in a few months. Fate intervenes in the form of a young pregnant newlywed, allegedly 19, named Peggy (Jeanne Crain), who comes on as a breathless mile-a-minute chatterbox and scatterbrain, until you begin listening to what she says. She wangles living space for herself and her struggling student husband (William Holden) in Gwenn’s attic.
This movie is special for many reasons. First, it’s rare for an ordinary contemporary comedy-drama of 1948 to be shot in Technicolor, since that expensive process was generally reserved for musicals, historical epics, and other fantasies. “Color” signified escapism during this era, while “realism” was black and white.
Apart from this aesthetic surprise, there’s the movie’s determination to fly in the face of studio tradition by frankly addressing two “sensitive” subjects, suicide and pregnancy (which is actually called that, not “expecting” or “having a baby”), and doing so in a breezy manner that seems to embody modern postwar attitudes. The marriage is also very “modern” in its snappy patter, although Holden is directed to adopt a few “right in the kisser” or “papa spank” gestures when wifey gets too frustrating—and this is also supposedly modern and tongue-in-cheek.
Writer/director George Seaton and producer William Perlberg had a long partnership of successful pictures including Miracle on 34th Street, to which this was their follow-up. Here they address topical trends: returning vets, the G.I. Bill (paying for college), housing shortages, the democratizing of higher education, the crisis of masculinity, and in its way the strength of women. Peggy’s plan is to raise nine kids, which she’s based on a determined philosophy about improving the world one person at a time, reasoning that seven kids might turn out awful and two pretty good.
Although she thinks of this as her career and the movie is full of male students whose wives do the laundry, Peggy organizes informal lectures and seminars for the wives so their husbands won’t grow apart intellectually. One marvelous setpiece has Gwenn learning that sexist jokes don’t go over with this crowd, and also that the women are hungry to learn and apply philosophical ideas. When one prof approvingly tells another that maybe the wives should be going to classes while the husbands stay home with the kids, it’s less a patronizing joke than a shock of subversive insight.
This movie is full of philosophy, and not just abstractly discussed. It’s constantly examining how to live and what values to have, and it poses the desire to earn good money in consumerist postwar prosperity (embodied by selling used cars) against the desire to have a fulfilling career that won’t pay well—teaching. When Gwenn gives a speech summarizing the drawbacks of the career, he actually uses the word “progressive” while declaring that if you stick with tradition you’ll be called old-fashioned, but if you have any progressive ideas, there’s no telling what they’ll call you. This is a pertinent remark in 1948, as the HUAC hearings were prominent, and it’s still pertinent.
We’re just scratching the surface of an engaging movie with at least one big twist; the film is more thoughtful and surprising than today’s viewers would have any reason to expect from the cover. This is based on a story by Faith Baldwin, a forgotten writer of bestselling romantic fiction about career women, and it’s both revealing of its time and, in some ways, refreshingly undated.
Mister 880 (1950)
Dating from a couple of years later, Mister 880 is a more modest yet worthwhile accomplishment. At first it appears to be part of the new semi-documentary trend in crime procedurals, with an authoritarian narrator extolling the hard work and patriotic success of the U.S. Secret Service in tracking down counterfeiters; in this it’s like the beginning of the same year’s Southside 1-1000.
Then it settles into a human interest story of a classic New York character, and indeed this is based on a New Yorker piece by St. Clair McKelway about a real-life elderly counterfeitor who dealt in small sums, often only a dollar, which he passed to one person at a time in order to subsist in his modest living as a junk dealer. Gwenn embodies this down-at-heels yet dignified old duffer with his typical charisma; he was nominated for an Oscar and won a Golden Globe (which sounds like a neat trick).
Since the viewer knows from the get-go the identity of the endearing oldster who’s been eluding the Service for ten years, the plot becomes an inverted mystery, as in the TV series Columbo, in which we wait to find out how he’ll finally be caught. It happens when hotshot agent Burt Lancaster begins a romance with the gentleman’s neighbor, a woman (Dorothy McGuire) who works as a translater at the United Nations. When apprehended, Mister 880 refuses to excuse himself and explains that he’s saved the government a lot of money by avoiding a naval retirement home. Both of these movies, by the way, have important plot details about the grim experiences of war veterans.
The script is by the illustrious Robert Riskin, famous for his collaborations with Frank Capra; one can easily imagine why the “little guy against the system” motif appealed to him. Director Edmund Goulding, while not especially known for low-key urban realism, is a wonderful stylist who likes to execute scenes in extended takes that follow characters around. An outstanding example here is the scene where Lancaster and another agent engage in a charade to meet McGuire on the sidewalk; the entire thing is presented without audible dialogue from inside a store, as the proprietor watches the event and the screen is bisected horizontally between the interior and the picture window where the action occurs. It’s like a mini silent film within the film; fresh and effective.