The Mating Season was my choice during TCM’s Summer Under the Stars tribute to Thelma Ritter. Ritter was one of the best remembered character actresses of the golden era, and The Mating Season wouldn’t work as well as it does without her (the same could be said, in an ensemble sense, with her role in All About Eve). The Mating Season is a tender-hearted tale of mother love without the negativity and melodrama of other films in the genre.
Ellen McNulty (Ritter) has put in several years in a hamburger stand to support her son, Val (John Lund). She finally decides to pull up roots and go live with him, but Val ends up falling in love and marrying the beautiful Maggie Carleton (Gene Tierney). A case of mistaken identity ends up leaving Ellen in the role of cook/housekeeper for Maggie and Val; the complications increase with the arrival of Maggie’s snooty mother, Fran (Miriam Hopkins).
Mitchell Leisen’s received some harsh criticism from me in the past, but The Mating Season is the kind of film he should have stuck with, especially when paired up with scriptwriter Charles Brackett, himself well-regarded for his work with Billy Wilder. Brackett’s script takes the bland, sentimental tale of a mother desperate to spend time with her son as well as be a source of pride to him and elevates it into a drawing-room comedy as Ellen clashes with Fran and the rest of Val’s élite business associates. The wild dialogue Brackett employs feels reminiscent of Wilder’s darker comedies, with a little sex in it; Val says his and Maggie’s wedding vows will have them “obey each other like crazy.” Too often I found myself writing down stray lines of dialogue, all of it sharp and poking at the wealthy characters like a small boy with a stick.
Too often mother-love movies date themselves and come off as moralizing pabulum. As much as I love Barbara Stanwyck, Stella Dallas drives me insane with the idea that a woman of low means must erase herself from her daughter’s life in order to “save” her. The Mating Season sees the error of that avenue, instead drawing Val and Ellen closer together through her infiltration of his domesticity. Val loves his mother, and while Ellen feels she’s unsuited to their lifestyle she would never think of eliminating herself from the equation entirely. Ellen understands sacrifice, but she also realizes the benefit of a family, extended or otherwise. She isn’t the nosy mother-in-law, committed to ruining her child’s happiness – a role reserved for Hopkins’ Fran – nor is she dispensing advice every five minutes. She knows her boundaries and she knows her son, that’s all. The moments between mother and son are warm due to the chemistry between John Lund and Thelma Ritter. In fact, their moments are so sweet it’s easy to understand Fran’s belief they’re having an illicit affair. Someone call up Oedipus!
Outside of the loopy character Hopkins plays, every character possesses flaws and positives. Okay, Ritter’s Ellen is the quintessential perfect mom who’s learned from her mistakes and fails to create conflict with Val, despite conflict following her. The big shock is Gene Tierney’s Maggie, a character who, in another film, would be a rich bitch with little redeeming quality. Instead, Maggie’s considerate nature bonds her closer with Ellen, more so than her own mother, Fran. Maggie’s third-act confrontation with Val makes little sense – she rushes to divorce because she believes he hid his mother from her – but her ultimate reconciliation is genuine, especially coupled with earlier arguments where her love never wavers despite her anger. Audiences don’t immediately recognize Tierney for her comedy, despite her fantastic turn in this and Heaven Can Wait, but she adapts well. It’s hard believing Lund would score a woman as exquisite as Tierney, but he does the best he can. He works better with Ritter, particularly in showing off his facial expressions. When Maggie originally presumes Ellen won’t meet her because “she’s shy,” Lund rolls his eyes; Maggie knows little about his mother.
And don’t forget the scene-stealing Miriam Hopkins whose name became synonymous with theatrical old maids in her later career. Fran is the comic opposite of Ritter’s Ellen. Where Ellen is level-headed and self-reliant, Fran is flighty and meddling, the mother Ellen never wishes to become. And yet this is a role only Hopkins could have tackled. Who else could spout off a line like “You can’t just suddenly marry a man named McNulty you met on a cliff.” The best scene of the film is when Fran relays the conversation she overhears between Ellen and Val. Her assumption that the two are having an affair was so shocking that “I never finished that chicken leg!”
Robert Osborne takes note of movies that are content in their happiness, something he feels modern movies aren’t eager to do. The Mating Season is a movie where everyone gets a happy ending, and I’m completely happy about it. The Mating Season is a delightful comedy with its heart in the right place. Give your own mother a call after you watch it!