Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Ann Vickers (1933)

Ann Vickers is a 1933 RKO melodrama directed by John Cromwell.

It was based on a novel by Sinclair Lewis. Lewis was a big deal in the literary scene at that time although he is now forgotten.

Ann Vickers (Irene Dunne) is a social worker. She has been involved in every fashionable cause that’s going but she’s always looking for new causes.

Ann has devoted herself to her career as a reformer. The First World War has broken out and she meets a handsome young officer. She imagines that he’s in love with her and will marry her but he finds a woman who is younger and cuter. By this time Ann is pregnant.

She solves that problem by having an abortion. At least we assume she has an abortion - the movie is a little vague on that subject. It probably had to be vague to avoid igniting a firestorm of outrage.

She has by now found a new fashionable cause - prison reform. She throws herself into it with her usual zeal. She ends up running a reformatory for women. She has setbacks. She is set up for blackmail and forced to resign. She then writes a best-selling book on prison reform and becomes a celebrity.

Then she meets Judge Barney Dolphin (Walter Huston). He’s corrupt but she doesn’t mind that as long as his political views are aligned with hers. They fall in love and she has a son by him, out of wedlock. She gets fired yet again.

And Barney Dolphin’s crooked business dealings are about to catch up with him.

There’s lots of obvious pre-code material here - the lead character has (probably) an abortion and later becomes a single mother.

The problem is that this is a social message movie and it bludgeons us relentlessly with that message. Jane Murfin’s clumsy heavy-handed script doesn’t help. This is a movie totally lacking in any trace of subtlety.

John Cromwell manages to do something rather amazing in this movie - he gets a bad performance out of Walter Huston.

Edna May Oliver contributes an annoying performance as Ann’s friend and mentor Malvina Wormser.

The other supporting players and dull and wooden.

The biggest problem is the central character. Ann Vickers is smug and self-righteous and she’s a hypocrite. She poses as a moral crusader but is quite prepared to use her political influence to try to get her crooked boyfriend out of a jam. Irene Dunne’s performance is dull and earnest. It is impossible to care what happens to Ann Vickers. The character never comes to life.

It’s a bad sign when a movie with a modest 76-minute running time feels much too long.

The movie tries to combine preachiness with emotional melodrama but the preachiness is clumsy and the emotional melodrama feels contrived and falls flat. Irene Dunne never gets any kind of handle on her performance. She displays neither genuine emotion nor passion. She just reads her lines. The movie might have worked slightly better with a livelier lead actress but I suspect this film was doomed from the start. I’d avoid this one.

This film is included in the five-movie Spanish Verdice Irene Dunne Pre-Code DVD boxed set, in English as well as Spanish. The transfer is far from pristine but it’s acceptable.

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