Monday, October 4, 2010

Mother Didn't Tell Me (1950) ...To Avoid This Movie


I had such high hopes. Naively, I was hoping that I might find a moment or two of gay abandonment in a film, stumble upon a good chick flick, or at least unearth the fun in a turkey. Perhaps, if you are reading this far, you might share my hope that this rarely seen Dorothy McGuire film would turn out to be a lost gem. Mother Didn't Tell Me (1950), has been left on the shelf in the 20th Century Fox vault for over half a century. It is now re-emerging and was broadcast on the Fox Movie Channel on October 12th, 2010 at 6:00 am ET. If you have Time Warner Digital Cable, it is currently part of the Movie Pass On Demand feature. As far as I know, it has never been issued commercially on VHS or DVD.

The elaborate mating rituals depicted in this film might be of more value as a sociological curiosity than as the lesson in comic timing and joyous escapism that I was seeking, though that didn't stop me from watching the entire movie. Yes, dear reader, I am a fool at times...especially when the movie features some appealing actors, but even they cannot completely save a film without some help from the script.


Mother Didn't Tell Me was a confection meant to capture some of the stumbles and triumphs of one couple engaged in the headlong rush toward domestic bliss that returning veterans and their mates plunged into following World War II in America. This movie was based on an epistolary novel by Mary Bard called The Doctor Wears Three Faces, which had some trenchant things to say about the often laughable illusions that each of us harbors about marriage and about the ultimate cost paid by a doctor's family for his commitment to his patients. The book sprang from incidents in the early years of the author's marriage to Dr. Clyde Jensen, an internist and pathologist who had established a practice in Seattle. Bard may have been prompted to write this book by the success of her better known sister, Betty McDonald, who wrote The Egg and I, and other popular books about the lighter side of domestic life. Both sisters wrote several books based on their own home lives with varying degrees of success.

Today these siblings are best known through the films made from their books, but Bard and McDonald were minor celebrities in their Washington State communities and continue to interest readers, some of whom have researched the authors' families and careers here. The sisters each continued to document their often funny and sensitive observations of marriage, parenthood and the social milieu they found themselves in during several periods of their lives. From a 21st century perspective, there is a touching quality to the simple yet resonant experiences found in these books that still echoes today. The forbearance needed to tiptoe through marital and familial compromises,  impending motherhood and social mine fields in communities large and small have changed somewhat, but are still recognizable milestones for many.
Sisters and authors Mary Bard and Betty McDonald viewing the film, Mother Didn't Tell Me (1950). (Photo courtesy of MOHAI)
A casual reader glimpses men and women who seem familiar as they are caught up in the waves of change that swept over their lives during the '30s and '40s. Their struggle to make good while keeping alive their idealized view of what love, marriage and family really meant to them may seem banal to some, but there is a bravery in their effort to mold something out of their often limited circumstances. Both women tried to maintain their own identities in their roles as wives and mothers, though the contrast between reality and hope was often wide, especially when a husband's desire for one kind of life conflicted with their wives' dreams. In Bard's books, in particular, she blends self-deprecating humor with her knowledge of the sometimes tragic path life can take, particularly when viewing the lives of the patients coming to her husband. McDonald wrote about her comical, fish-out-of-water experiences of chicken farming came out of an attempt to subsist during the worst years of The Great Depression and to hold a shaky marriage together. Naturally, when these elements were translated into commercial films, some of that poignancy was inevitably lost, though, at least in the case of The Egg and I (1947), which starred Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert, the presence of Marjorie Main's Ma Kettle made her vivid character's plight both hilarious and moving, earning the veteran character actress a nomination for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress for her performance. (The Kettle's depiction also prompted a law suit in 1951 from people who believed they had been caricatured by McDonald in her fictionalized memoir).

The adaptation of Mary Bard's book seemed ripe material for Hollywood when it started to climb the best-seller lists shortly after publication in 1947, and it was sold to 20th Century Fox for a then whopping $40k, (though the amounts reported in news accounts of such deals are always suspect--especially after they pass through a press agent's hands). The studio originally announced that it was intended as a vehicle for Maureen O'Hara. Later Jeanne Crain was the announced star for the projected film. Between then and the film's release, Dorothy McGuire signed a contract with the studio and was slotted into the leading role as Jane Morgan, a "jingle writer" for a radio station who goes to a new doctor for treatment of her cold, which causes her to cough so loudly that a bellowing walrus would be embarrassed by the sound.

McGuire was an actress with an unusual simplicity and a certain reserve that resisted Hollywood stereotypes. She could play characters who were winsome, vulnerable, selfish and serious and gave resonance to girls and women whose lives and struggles were recognizable to moviegoers, as she had proven in Claudia, The Enchanted Cottage, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Spiral Staircase, and Till the End of Time. Unfortunately, the actress, who had developed under good directors such as Goulding, Kazan, Dmytryk and Siodmak, seemed to approach her role in this film with little more than a new (and frankly, unflattering) hairstyle. The script asked her, at 34, to play a girlish character with little on her mind but nailing a husband, enabling her character to fulfill her vague fantasies of marital communion with a professional man, while enhancing his social and professional life with her hastily acquired familiarity with medical terms about peptic ulcers. All successful actors seem to have this problem--do they wait for the perfect vehicle to come along, or do they just try to keep working in the hopes that a higher profile will lead to a meatier part eventually? In Dorothy McGuire's case, I suspect that she chose the latter, accepting this promising looking, light-hearted part, even though the finished script asked her to reprise the endearing mannerisms of her emblematic screen debut as Claudia (1943), the flighty child-bride made seven years prior to this film.
William Lundigan checks Dorothy McGuire's pulse in Mother Never Told Me (1950).

The brusquely efficient Dr. Wright is played by a young and dimpled William Lundigan, an actor who used his agreeable mien to coast through dozens of forgettable films, beginning in the 1930s, after he was discovered as a radio announcer in his hometown of Syracuse, NY. The affable Lundigan seemed to stumble into an occasional good film, such as Santa Fe Trail (1940) and The Sea Hawk (1940), but since his career momentum was interrupted by his wartime service in the U.S. Navy, the quality and pace of his film career was uneven.

William Lundigan

Signing with 20th Century Fox just after appearing in the stylish "B" noir for RKO, Follow Me Quietly (1948), Lundigan might have been groomed by his new employers for stardom after playing an easy-going doctor in Elia Kazan's racial drama, Pinky (1949), which led copywriters to cry "That 'Pinky' man doesn't have a chance!" in some of the print ads for this domestic comedy. Lundigan's career would eventually include better roles in films such as Robert Wise's The House on Telegraph Hill (1951) and in the effective portrait of a minister in Henry King's I'd Climb the Highest Mountain (1951), but in his role in Mother Didn't Tell Me Lundigan's character of the preoccupied doctor seems so obtuse at times a viewer can't help wondering what motivated Jane Morgan (McGuire) to fall so precipitously for Lundigan's Dr. Wright.

The leads are not alone in being cast adrift in this movie. The talented Jessie Royce Landis, an accomplished actress whose comic gifts graced several classic Hitchcock movies, plays Lundigan's mother, whose disdain for McGuire's "civilian status" (since she doesn't come from a family of medicos) leads her to some inexcusable duplicity and a demonstration of incompetence as a babysitter that borders on the tragic. The cast was rounded out by June Havoc, a good dramatic actress who was too often wasted in "the other woman" parts that were much smaller than her talent. In her underwritten role as a superficially sympathetic veteran doctor's wife, Havoc has the unenviable task of playing the most self-loathing character, whose moods seem to range from catty and cynical to resigned. Her character is not made more appealing when she is given to comments such as "One of the great prices you have to pay for being a woman is having to face other women."

 Gary Merrill, on the cusp of his life-changing role in All About Eve (1950), comes along for the ride in a few brief scenes as a curt obstetrician colleague of Lundigan. Merrill's sawbones, with the bedside manner of a man who should only be doing research and kept away from the humans, tells his pregnant patient that "in the normal course of events, you need me about as much as a rabbit needs a midwife. In approximately six and a half months you can lie down in the nearest field."  The odd presence of the usually stolid Leif Erickson as a visiting psychiatrist who flirts and encourages Havoc and particularly McGuire to let their hair down is preposterous--though seeing Dorothy McGuire sway her hips like a Balinese dancer is one of the few sprightly moments in the script.I don't think that Erickson ever tried a comic role again--and I can see why--though today celebrity shrinks are a dime a dozen, his strange turn as a head doc with too much bedside manner is one of the few dim highlights of this movie. The diminutive actress-dancer Reiko Sato appears in a few brief scenes as an intriguingly sullen household helper for McGuire. This film was the debut film performance for  Sato, who danced with distinction on Broadway, in Las Vegas (with noted dancer-choreographer Jack Cole) and acted in a few films, including Flower Drum Song (1961) and The Ugly American (1963). In Flower Drum Song, the delicate Reiko sang one of the stand-out ballads from that Rodgers and Hammerstein show, rendering "Love Look Away" with exceptional tenderness. (Sato, a close friend of actor Marlon Brando's for two decades, died in her sleep at only age 49.) The ubiquitous (and often uncredited) character actor Frank Jenks has a nice moment as a sarcastic moving man caught in the middle of a couple's dissolving marital union.
Talented Supporting Players Trapped in "Mother Didn't Tell Me": (Top Row) Jessie Royce Landis, Gary Merrill, Leif Erickson, (bottom row) June Havoc, Frank Jenks and Reiko Sato.

All these actors are potentially quite likable, though a viewer might wonder how many ways their characters can be made repellent in this one movie. The doctor's motivation for marrying the pertly manipulative young lady who entices him to her neat little furnished room by feigning a serious illness certainly could not have been appealing because of her original intellect, though of course a flimsy peignoir and a cloying come-hither smile are provided for the occasion. McGuire's young bride decides to have a baby, (twins, yet) because a friend suggested it will help fill the day. Lundigan's Dr. Wright is the sort of paternalistic figure who buys a house sight unseen without consulting his new wife. She expresses rage when her husband becomes a partner with a woman doctor (Joyce Mackenzie), immediately assuming that this is a ploy to steal her mate. He is never on time when she has dinner on the table or guests cooling their heels--though, strangely, the film never allows the audience to see any of the patients that preoccupy him. Perhaps this decision was made to give a fairly shapeless film a narrower and hopefully funnier focus--though it only winds up being oddly truncated instead. 

In the era when marriage was assumed to be the only goal of each woman's life on screen, it was not to surprising to see this single-minded motivation celebrated on screen. What does seem a bit shocking is that Mother Didn't Tell Me was written for the screen and directed by Claude Binyon with the usually exceptional Joseph LaShelle as the cinematographer.  Binyon the filmmaker began his working life in show biz as a writer for Variety, penning the classic headline, "Wall Street Lays Egg" when reporting on the stock market crash of 1929. Soon, he found his way to Hollywood, where the filmmaker's credits as a screenwriter include some of the nimbler comedies of the previous two decades, including The Gilded Lily (1935), True Confession (1937), Sing You Sinners (1938), Take a Letter, Darling (1942) and No Time For Love (1943). His films were rarely characterized by a strong narrative drive, and they may be dated when they spin out of control or strain for effect, as occurred with the depictions of African-Americans in Holiday Inn (1941) and Dixie (1943). Yet, when directed by the capable Wesley Ruggles or the gifted Mitchell Leisen, Binyon's storytelling could also be full of high spirits, romantic wistfulness, and screwball incidents that could prove enchanting still.

A Binyon movie usually featured some engaging skirmishes in the eternal battle of the sexes, giving distinctive actresses such as Claudette Colbert and Carole Lombard a chance to shine on screen, and providing actors such as Fred MacMurray and Bing Crosby with good parts that emphasized their shambling charm.

In 1948, Binyon, who was a fixture at Paramount Pictures for much of his career, took flight by directing and writing a dramatic screenplay based on Frederick Wakeman's novel The Saxon Charm (1948). It was a critically hailed portrait of a stylish show biz hustler (well played by Robert Montgomery, whose character was based on the notoriously quirky Jed Harris), for the screen for Universal-International. I rather wish that he had never tried to be a director, but given the disarray of the studio system during its collapse, perhaps Binyon's desire to peddle himself as a one man band capable of more than "just" writing was inevitable. Mother Didn't Tell Me (1950) marked the beginning of Claude Binyon's new career path as a director, writer and producer in the 1950s. Some of his later films, such as Dreamboat (1952), Woman's World (1954) and North to Alaska (1960) would prove to be a bit better, and a few would be profitable for their makers. Still, if you want to see Binyon at his best--not to mention the actors trapped in this film in sturdier vehicles--please look elsewhere. I suspect that most of them would be glad to see this film, which was released in France with the saucy title Embrassez-moi, docteur, might have been more aptly entitled Embarrasséz-moi, docteur.


Btw, if you'd like to see Dorothy McGuire in a far better film, Claudia (1943) is scheduled to be shown on FMC on November 4th, 2010 at 6:00 am ET.

Update: Laura of Laura's Miscellaneous Musings has posted a review of this film here. Since Laura had more patience with the premise and characters than I, her account may interest anyone thinking of investing their valuable time in Mother Didn't Tell Me.

Cast (Please click here for full cast and crew)
Dorothy McGuire... Jane Morgan
William Lundigan... Doctor William Wright

June Havoc... Maggie Roberts

Gary Merrill... Doctor Peter Roberts
Jessie Royce Landis... Mrs. Wright
Joyce Mackenzie... Helen Porter
Leif Erickson... Doctor Bruce Gordon

4 comments :

Laura said...

I don't know how I missed your review of this film until now! How interesting that Mary Bard was the sister of Betty MacDonald. I had no idea.

I may have had a little more patience with this film (grin), but mostly because I regarded it as such a curiosity...it was strangely fascinating following the characters and all their bad choices. But I think if I were to watch it again my patience would very soon be exhausted...!

Thanks for a terrific review of a disappointing film, and all the interesting info included.

Best wishes,
Laura

Moira Finnie said...

It's dear of you to take the time to post your comment, Laura. I thought that others should see your post as a counter-balance to my uncharacteristically negative take on this movie.

I hardly ever write about films that cause me dismay, but since I find Dorothy McGuire a generally appealing actress, I just had to catch this one. I've read the books by Mary Bard and Betty McDonald long ago,(in my parent's library they were usually kept next to Jean Kerr and Phyllis McGinley's gently barbed books celebrating the domestic life without losing an adult perspective). I might try to find copies soon to re-read them from a broader perspective than I had achieved at the age of 12, (or at least I hope my POV has changed a bit).
Cheers,
moira

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

"All these actors are potentially quite likable, though a viewer might wonder how many ways their characters can be made repellent in this one movie."

Much chuckles. I love the thorough background you've included on the origins of the piece, the writers, and how all these talented people converged at this point in time to make this...movie.

Like you, I was very pleased to find that this film, which I had never seen, had come up to bat on FMC. I recorded it, but haven't gotten around to watching it yet. However, having already heard the Lux Radio Theater version with McGuire reprising her role, I know better than to expect too much. It was pretty dismal as a radio show.

But, I'd be willing watch Dorothy McGuire read aloud the phonebook.

Thanks for the heads up on "Claudia".

Anonymous said...

Jacqueline, I hope that you will comment on this movie once you have had time to peruse it. Maybe I was just in an unreceptive mood when I viewed "Mother Didn't Tell Me," though I have no intention of re-visiting it soon to check it out.

I haven't seen "Claudia" in years so I am eager to see this again. I hope it continues to charm...Thanks for adding your comment here.
Your potentially likable correspondent,
Moira

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