I was apprehensive about watching Vivacious Lady, considering my less than stellar relationship with Jimmy Stewart, even though I have come around to him of late after Call Northside 777. Vivacious Lady lives up to its title as an ebullient romance drawn together by the steamy chemistry of its two leads. I’m surprised Ginger Rogers and Stewart didn’t appear in more films together because they certainly bring intensity to their roles.
Buttoned-up botany professor, Peter (Stewart) ends up falling in love with nightclub singer Francey (Rogers) after a one-night courtship. However, Peter believes his conservative family, dominated by his father (Charles Coburn) won’t take to Francey, so the two decide to hide their relationship. When the family comes together, a series of misunderstandings threaten Francey and Peter’s relationship before it has the chance to take flight.
It’d be easy to buy this as B-movie if the stars weren’t Rogers and Stewart. The plot is a formulaic tale of polar opposites coming together and butting up against a conservative family; it’s tried and tested, but entertaining due to the cast and George Stevens’ direction. Stevens became associated with epics such as Giant, and this is a smaller picture focused on a handful of people composed in a few locations. Stevens’ pictures generally focus on discrepancies within generations, and Vivacious Lady is no different, juxtaposing street smarts with book smarts. Peter is the son of a respected professor at a prestigious university, while Francey has grown up in nightclubs, inferior to Peter from an educational standpoint. One of the ways Peter hopes to dupe his parents is by convincing them Francey is a student, a possibility opening up a ton of risque situations still steamy today, but that allow Francey to gain a bump in intellect and be “worthy” of Peter’s affections.
Stevens and the script by P.J. Wolfson and Ernest Pagano remains fresh today because of Rogers and Stewart’s chemistry, on top of a refusal to pander completely to societal norms of the time. Peter takes Francey for who she is and is never ashamed of her. The reason he can’t tell his parents boils down to timing, nothing more, and the fear of upsetting his mother (Beulah Bondi) who has a heart condition, remaining a trope to this day, from Bye Bye Birdie to While You Were Sleeping. Francey attends the college, but only to stay closer to the man she loves. The third act is also a surprise, as it’s revealed Peter’s mother is dissatisfied in her own relationship, leaving her husband and forcing Peter and his father to apologize for their actions. The views are progressive for 1938 and aren’t reliant on punishment for the women (cough Stella Dallas cough). The women take the men back, but only after the male characters realize how lost they are without them. Vivacious Lady tells men the world over to appreciate their women because, by the various suitors vying for Francey’s hand, someone else will take them.
Jimmy Stewart and Ginger Rogers work so well together and both are naturals at comedy. Peter is laced-up and uptight upon introduction, but possesses a looser side stifled by his family. Rogers and Stewart heat up the screen with their continuous touching, cuddling, and canoodling. When Francey surprises Peter during a class by nuzzling his neck, it’s a tender moment for the audience who know they’re married, but a frank exhibition of sexuality to the students in the class. This is the only movie the two starred in together, and it’s a shame because they have the makings of a serious movie pairing. Stewart is such an everyman, but there’s a glint of a side the audience can’t see; a side only Rogers finds access to. The movie soon focuses on Peter’s independence and his demand for respect from his father; Peter’s fear of becoming his father is an unspoken subplot. Rogers is always enjoyable in comedic turns and as Francey she’s spunky, coy, and playful. The pièce de résistance is a knock-down, drag-out brawl between Francey and Peter’s original fiancée, Helen (Frances Mercer). These two ladies let down all their feminine graces, moving from hard slaps to punches, hair-pulling, people flipping, and stabbing each other with pins! There’s nothing demure, it’s equal parts hilarious and shocking considering each woman’s respective glamour.
Vivacious Lady lives up to its vivaciousness, especially with Rogers as the lady in question and Stewart as the man whose won her heart. The two are alluring, particularly Rogers, and director George Stevens gives the audience enough comedy and romance to leave a smile on your face.
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