Forgotten Films to Remember: ‘Finishing School’

finishposterIn the last 10 years, the popularity of pre-Code movies has soared through the publication of coffee-table books and the release of DVD series. “Pre-Code” refers to those films released before film censorship became mandatory in Hollywood. Though the Motion Picture Production Code was adopted by Hollywood in 1930, it was not enforced until June 1934. Movies released between 1930 and 1934 often surprise viewers with their adult content, double entendres, perverted characters, and independent women. Movie lovers eagerly watch for outrageous characters, suggestive lines of dialogue, and sexual situations that would never have passed the guidelines after 1934.

Status as a pre-Code film has breathed life into some movies that would not have otherwise stood the test of time. Some of them have gained name recognition because of their inclusion in books and DVD series, including A Free Soul, which was part of TCM’s Forbidden Hollywood series. I recently watched this melodrama starring Norma Shearer, Lionel Barrymore, Leslie Howard, and Clark Gable in his break-out role. Shearer went braless in silky gowns; she slept with Gable, who played a ruthless gangster; and, she spoke of marriage and children with disdain: These are characteristics that fans of pre-Code movies embrace. However, I found the characters in A Free Soul unlikable, the scenes between Shearer and Barrymore tedious and dull, and their acting too broad—even for melodrama. They seemed to be competing with each other for who could be the most dramatic, as though they anticipated their nominations for Academy Awards. (Barrymore won; Shearer did not.)

VIRGINIA (FRANCES DEE) MEETS THE GIRLS OF CROCKETT HALL, INCLUDING PONY (GINGER ROGERS, LEFT).

VIRGINIA (FRANCES DEE) MEETS THE GIRLS OF CROCKETT HALL, INCLUDING PONY (GINGER ROGERS, LEFT).

Other pre-Code films have been ignored or buried, yet they are more watchable than high-profile examples  like A Free Soul. One of my favorites is Finishing School, which stars France Dee as Virginia Radcliff, a new student at snobbish Crockett Hall. Billie Burke plays Virginia’s mother, who stashes her daughter at Crockett because she has heard of the school’s lofty reputation in her upper-class social circle. Head mistress Miss Van Alstyne, played by Beulah Bondi, warns Virginia that she will not tolerate smoking, drinking, or bad behavior at her school. Like Mrs. Radcliff, Miss Van Alstyne is concerned with social status, and she is adamant about avoiding scandal. Ginger Rogers costars as Virginia’s roommate, Cecilia Ferris, whom everyone calls Pony. Almost as soon as Virginia moves in, wisecracking Pony offers her a cigarette and a drink. Pony sees through Miss Van Alstyne and shrewdly remarks to Virginia that Crockett students can do anything they like as long as they don’t get caught, which will embarrass the school. Virginia quickly falls in with Pony’s crowd. When the girls sneak away to spend the weekend drinking and carousing at a New York City hotel , Virginia drinks too much and falls into the clutches of a cad. Young intern Dr. Ralph “Mac” McFarland rescues her, and the two embark on a romance, resulting in Virginia’s pregnancy.

PONY TEAHCES VIRGINIA THE KEY TO HAVING FUN.

PONY TEACHES VIRGINIA THE KEY TO HAVING FUN.

Many aspects of the plot and characters in Finishing School did not meet the guidelines of the Code, and the Catholic Legion of Decency condemned the film for its content. Pony and her friends smoke, drink, and cavort sexually in hotel rooms with young men, though the latter is only implied. However, what actually violated the Code was not the behavior itself but the idea that the girls were left unpunished for their high jinks by authority figures or by fate. That was a major part of the “compensating moral values” concept of the Production Code: Films could depict immoral or criminal behavior, because that is the raw material of drama, but the characters had to suffer the consequences for their decisions.

It is the pregnancy of Virginia Radcliff that truly identifies Finishing School as a pre-Code film. Virginia’s relationship with Mac leads to a Christmas tryst that leaves her pregnant, though the “p” word is never used. Virginia feels abandoned by Mac, because his letters to her have been intercepted by Miss Van Alstyne. When the old bat suspects that Virginia is in trouble, she forces the frightened girl to see the school’s doctor to shame her into admitting her indiscretions. Virginia’s mother looks on, whimpering about her social standing. Miss Van Alstyne and Virginia’s mother care only about their reputations, and they are clearly the story’s villains. At the end, Mac rescues Virginia from Crockett Hall and promptly proposes marriage. Instead of being punished for being pregnant out of wedlock, Virginia emerges with her happy ending.

MAC RESCUES VIRGINIA BUT GETS HER IN TROUBLE IN ANOTHER WAY.

MAC RESCUES VIRGINIA BUT GETS HER IN TROUBLE IN ANOTHER WAY.

Another violation of the Production Code in Finishing School is the criticism of certain social mores and institutions represented by the characters of Miss Van Alstyne, who is the authority on proper moral behavior for young women, and the Radcliffs, who embody the nuclear family. The Production Code held that American ideology and traditional values should be exhibited and supported in Hollywood movies through positive depictions of family, religion, law and order, capitalism, education, and other pillars of our society. The “one bad apple” idea could be used to create drama, in which one corrupt cop, one bad parent, or one misguided doctor or educator could create trouble, but when he or she was discovered and defeated, the problem was over. In other words, it wasn’t the institution that was the problem, it was the one bad apple. However, in Finishing School, there are no progressive teachers at Crockett Hall to balance Miss Van Alystyne, and there are no selfless parents to balance the self-centered Radcliffs. It is likely that the producers of Finishing School did not intend to criticize society’s institutions and traditional moral values. Given the time frame of the Depression, the film is merely following the trend of condemning the practices of the rich (the status-seeking Radcliffs and the repressive Crockett Hall) while praising the character of the working man (the honest and true Mac), but such unbalanced depictions of America’s social institutions would not pass the Hays Office after June 13, 1934.

BEULAH BONDI AS THE UPTIGHT MISS VAN ALYDNE

BEULAH BONDI AS THE UPTIGHT MISS VAN ALSTYNE

Though not a lost classic, Finishing School is well worth seeing beyond its identity as a pre-Code film.  (It is available on DVD.) Its primary asset is costar Ginger Rogers who plays a character perfectly suited to her star image and her talents as a comedienne. Attractive, confident, and wise beyond her years, her character, Pony Ferris, disregards the rules to embrace a reckless lifestyle, but she is tough enough to handle it. Though not working class like many of Rogers’s characters, Pony rebels against the stuffy atmosphere of Crockett Hall, which makes her easy to relate to for ordinary viewers. When she hires a former vaudeville actress to pose as her aunt from New York, so the girls can leave school with a “chaperone” for their weekend in the big city, fun-loving Pony is so good at taking charge that their adventure seems harmless despite Virginia’s near-rape by one of the young men at their party. Rogers’s talent for repartee and well-timed quips makes her character memorable and Finishing School highly watchable. When a freshman girl who tags along after the older students asks if she can borrow a brassiere, Pony hands over the garment, remarking that “it’s like putting a saddle on a Pekinese.”

Finishing School is credited with having two directors, which is rare enough for the Golden Age, but one of them is a woman. I thought I knew all of the female directors in classic Hollywood, but I was unfamiliar with Wanda Tuchock, who is credited alongside George Nichols, Jr. As it turned out, Finishing School was Tuchock’s only feature film as a director. She was actually a screenwriter who worked her way up from continuity to penning additional dialogue to writing screenplays. She wrote for several studios before concluding her career writing for television.  Looking at her filmography, I would pull out The Foxes of Harrow—which I will cover at the end of the month when it airs on TCM—as her most recognizable film. Tuchock codirected and cowrote Finishing School, which warns about the pitfalls of falling in love and criticizes traditional expectations for how women should behave. It also shows a clear gap between the old-fashioned mores and values from previous generations and those of contemporary women. I like to think that a woman with some creative control over the material was responsible for a story based on a feminine, if not feminist, perspective.

14 Responses Forgotten Films to Remember: ‘Finishing School’
Posted By Muir Hewitt : August 5, 2013 1:59 pm

Slightly off subject but linked because of censorship : Mae West was one of the reasons that censorship and the Hayes Code was set up after she was signed up by Paramount Studios for her notoriety ( she had been jailed because her play Sex was judged to have outraged public morality and decency ) she was groomed for stardom by a walk on role in a 1932 George Raft movie Night After Night she was a sensation in that movie, and the next year 1933 – Paramount put her in two movies – the box office receipts from her first starring movie She Done Him Wrong 1933 saved the studio from bankruptcy! Her second film I’m No Angel took almost $3 million in 1933 and yet still I don’t see her movies being discussed here on Movie Morlocks why is this?

Posted By Doug : August 5, 2013 3:39 pm

Muir asked about Mae West: “and yet still I don’t see her movies being discussed here on Movie Morlocks why is this?”
I’m no Morlock, but my opinion is that West was a ‘one trick pony’. Apart from her ‘sexy persona’ she really didn’t have much to offer.
I’m always on the lookout for more Ginger Rogers films, and this sounds like a good one.
I have a kinda sorta philosophic/theologic problem with the Hayes Code and the Catholic Legion of Decency AND any other human apparatus concerning ‘setting the moral code’ for OTHER PEOPLE.
That type of censorship always fails, as the ‘other people’ have their own moral yardsticks by which to measure themselves.
Also, I’m guessing that the Catholic LOD and the Hayes Office were the greatest aggregation of sinners of their era. No one gets so steamed up about a subject as those who have problems dealing with that ‘temptation’.
And…
What’s the quickest way to make something desirable? Outlaw it.

Posted By Richard Brandt : August 5, 2013 5:05 pm

I’ll have to watch the climax of A FREE SOUL again; as I recall (SPOILES AHOY), Lionel Barrymore all but leapt into the air as he flopped dead of a heart attack at the end of his summation to the jury. “This won an Oscar?” I remember thinking. And yet brother John was never even nominated, even though as late as 1936 he could still be awesome in ROMEO AND JULIET (Rathbone snagged a Supporting nod instead). And in 1938′s MIDNIGHT he was hilarious, although he was reading his lines off chalkboards by then.

Posted By jojo : August 5, 2013 5:56 pm

I saw A Free Soul last year as part of Leslie Howard month (even though he’s barely in it, and limited to brow-furrowing or wide-eyed reaction shots), and it’s a freaking howler if there ever was one.

All “pre-code” naughtiness is washed away with tidal wave moralizing — even though it’s morals are completely screwed up (Jumping Gable’s bones out of wedlock = unacceptable. Murder = not so bad). And Barrymore’s Oscar acceptance could be construed as a career low. He did better work wearing a girdle in Devil Doll.

Posted By Doug : August 6, 2013 9:57 pm

As this post is about ‘Forgotten Films’ I hope that you don’t mind if I share about the “Half-remembered” film that I just finished watching.
I think it was Swac44 who mentioned here that “The 7 Faces Of Dr Lao” was available on DVD.
The parable I enjoyed as a kid I can appreciate all the more as an adult-it more than lived up to my memories, and Tony Randall was amazing in all of his roles.
A good, solid show.

Posted By Bill : August 7, 2013 9:21 pm

I love pre-code movies. However,there is a film almost forgotten
called “The Last Horseman is Fear” – Czechoslovakia 1968.
It was shown by TCM only once in June, 2008. I would hope
that TCM would show this movie again sometime as a Foreign Import.

Posted By Susan Doll : August 7, 2013 11:21 pm

I am endlessly fascinated with the Motion Picture Production Code. I taught the History of Film Censorship one semester a long time ago, and I did a lot of research on the Code. Later, I took a course from someone who was writing her dissertation on the Code based on access to previously lost papers detailing Code negotiations between studios and the Code office. The Code is about much, much more than one group shoving their moral beliefs down the throats of others. There are a lot of intricacies to it, and there was a lot more to the Hays Office than the Code. Unfortunately, coffee table books that praise the virtues of pre-Code movies are guilty of over-simplification. And, they imply that movies made during the Code do not deal with sexual issues, which is not true. They just do it implicitly as opposed to explicitly. This is not to say that the Code was a terrific idea, or that it should brought back, but there are a lot of misconceptions about it.

Posted By Susan Doll : August 7, 2013 11:27 pm

Muir Hewett: I love Mae West and frequently show one of her films in my film history classes. I have not written about her because I just haven’t come up with a topic related to her.

Even compared to other pre-Code women, who were outrageous and outspoken in general, West was in a category by herself. She was 40 when she broke into movies. The fact that she played an openly sexual, 40-year-old, working class woman who was in control of any given situation was remarkable. You won’t see a star like West today, because all the 13-year-old boys that the studios cater to today would quiver in fear of her.

Posted By Susan Doll : August 7, 2013 11:28 pm

JoJo: DEVIL DOLL is in my pile of movies to watch soon. I usually like Lionel Barrymore, but he was just out of control in A FREE SOUL.

Posted By Cyndi Smith : August 8, 2013 11:47 pm

Don’t recall seeing this one but have always loved anything with Ginger Rogers in it. Frances Dee is a good one too…both ladies were beautiful.

Posted By jbryant : August 10, 2013 4:40 pm

Here’s part of Barrymore’s final scene in A FREE SOUL: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UR9tTFwxRBc

Doesn’t strike me as being so egregiously over the top, considering the date and the fact that he’s playing a lawyer giving a summation. Hardly “a howler,” and he certainly doesn’t “all but [leap] into the air” during his heart attack.

That said, I’d have given the 1931 Best Actor to either Adolphe Menjou, Fredric March or Jackie Cooper among the other nominees.

Posted By jennifromrollamo : August 10, 2013 6:17 pm

Saw part of an interview with Jackie Cooper on TCM, one of those snippets between films. He was retelling sitting at the table with his mother at the 1931 Academy Awards when he was a nominee. Lionel Barrymore won, and as he was walking past Cooper’s table, he told Jackie that the only reason he, Barrymore, won was because he is old and going to die soon!

Posted By swac44 : August 12, 2013 10:09 am

I’ll watch pretty much anything shot between the dawn of sound and the summer of 1934 (and plenty made before and after those points, of course), but as Susan points out, just because a film fits the “pre-code” period doesn’t make it good. I’ve never really warmed to Shearer as an actress, but I might watch A Free Soul next time it pops up on TCM, just for the heck of it. I recently posted here that I had high hopes for Double Harness with William Powell, but that one didn’t really work for me either. But Finishing School really does sound like it has all the right elements. I imagine it’ll appear in the TCM lineup at some point, but the Warner Archive MOD DVD is readily available online for $15 or less, I think I may just have to take the plunge.

Posted By MovieMorlocks.com – On How ‘The Foxes of Harrow’ Is Definitely Not Like ‘Gone With the Wind’ : August 26, 2013 12:02 pm

[…] novel was adapted for the screen by Wanda Tuchock, who codirected Finishing School, the Ginger Rogers pre-Code film that I wrote about a few weeks ago. In contemporary reviews of the […]

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