Eye For Film >> Movies >> Kitty Foyle (1940) Film Review
Reviewed by: Chris
While Kitty Foyle opens with a musical medley, it isn't a song-and-dance film. We travel swiftly through the emancipation of women in the first five minutes, where “woman climbed down from her pedestal and worked shoulder to shoulder with men - who became so accustomed to her presence during the day that evening brought a new malady to the white collar girl.” This, apparently, was, “That five-thirty feeling.” The film is subtitled, The Natural History Of A Woman, inviting a plethora of assumptions before it begins.
Kitty Foyle is a hard-working white-collar girl from a humble family background in Philadelphia. She meets and falls in love with a young socialite, Wyn Strafford, but his family is opposed to her. In some ways the part reflects Rogers’ perceived persona, which was considered too ‘girl-next-door’ to play more regal parts such as Queen Elizabeth. But this part paid off, winning her an Oscar.
Dialogue kicks in with more challenging ideas than ever we heard in the Fred & Ginger romps. Questions about whether women are happy with new-found freedoms or are really still just interested in nabbing a man. Ginger Rogers called it her first ‘three-dimensional character.’ Plots in her long run of dance films were flimsy, contrived and subservient to the next ballad: but in Kitty Foyle we find real drama, a love triangle intermingled with questions about gender, and uncertainties on the eve of war. The film comes at a time when Europe is in turmoil and America sits uneasily with itself. A year before Pearl Harbour, Kitty Foyle feels more like Casablanca (1942) or Mildred Pierce (1945) than Top Hat. But it is set in 1932, at the start of the Great Depression, a Depression that was over by the time the film came to cinemas. There is some quaint dialogue, in these last days of prohibition, as a waiter offers Kitty and her boss “some nice smooth Scotch, fresh off the boat today!” In the face of an uncertain future, maybe the film is saying, "Don’t worry: you've been through worse!"
Kitty Foyle has been praised for its accurate depiction of women’s lives and American society at this juncture in history. Kitty has to make a choice between the two men in her life, and the choice represents an uneasy conflict between romance and class. (This is a considerable departure from Fred & Ginger plots, where romance was frequently equated with class.) Kitty Foyle is narrated from a non-elite viewpoint and the eponymous character has been called ‘soap’s first heroine.’
It plays on the public's image of Ginger Rogers’ characters, carefully developed over six years by RKO, as if they are aspects of the ‘real’ Rogers. We see her develop from a flighty Thirties child, a plaything of romance, to the more serious-minded woman of the Forties. Pathos replaces the cute pout. A knife-edge appraisal of men in her life replaces the dreamy twinkle of youth. Relatively severe business suits replace impractical ball-gowns (The ‘Kitty Foyle’ look would become a mainstream trend in the real world.) Virginal Ginger – or ‘Feathers’ - has blossomed into a woman who is strong yet fragile. Sensuous, yet still unsure of the sophisticated world into which the fairer sex has only just been welcomed. Kitty learns that if women are now equal in theory, the practice is far from even. While grappling with problems of class structure, gender discrimination in the workplace, and a predatory male culture, the movie skilfully takes a bold and imaginative step to reconcile love and the distraction of common sense. Ahead of its time, Kitty Foyle is a class act in terms of cinema and a powerful vehicle for Rogers.
We see the grace and lightness exhibited in her dance career put to more serious purpose. As Kitty's heart is swept up by her love of an unsuitable married suitor, her steps are as light as on any dance floor, throwing suitcases together with beautiful abandon. Her gaiety shows itself in every movement of her body, and contrasts strongly with the darker side of her character or ‘conscience.’ In flashback, she becomes yet a third Kitty, full of poetry and fantasies, recalling the comedy of her carefree or petulant characters from Flying Down To Rio or Swing Time. The glamorisation of her part and of the times is subtle. We are led gently away from dwelling on day-to-day monotony and the five-thirty feeling that promised such a dark cloud at the beginning. The audience has been manipulated, but in the grandest of styles. Yet the film has plenty of doom, as well as hot passion, some of it toned down for censors.
Rogers, a devout Christian Scientist, says she was shocked at the sex scenes in the first version of the script, even though it had been created especially for her. “It's highly suggestive and too lurid,” she had snapped to Howard Hughes, with whom she was briefly romantically involved. Blatant sexuality and an abortion were taken out of the story all together. Instead, Kitty loses a baby in childbirth and the film takes as its direction a romantic love triangle. In her autobiography, Ginger says she would listen to Tchaikovsky’s Romeo And Juliet in the portable dressing room to get into the mood for the sad parts, to make her eyes swell with tears when returning to do the scene.
Ginger Rogers was more than pleased with the final cut, and won a well-deserved Oscar for Kitty Foyle. Her dress to accept the award caused some ripples – the sophisticated lingerie-style top was quite daring in the day. Sadly, audiences now rarely recall her dramatic roles. It would have been much to her dismay, but she will forever be Ginger of the Fred & Ginger partnership.
Yet of all the Oscar congratulatory letters she received for winning Best Actress, there was one in particular that she treasured:
“Hello Cutie -
Saw ‘Kitty’ last night and must write this note to say ‘That's It!’ Yes - Yes - a thousand times yes! You were superb Ginge - it was such a solid performance - the kind one seldom sees on stage or screen and it should bring you the highest honours anyone can win!!
Hope to see you soon -
As ever your -
Fred"Reviewed on: 22 Feb 2011
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