[dir. George Cukor; scr. Ruth Gordon]
An adaptation of Ruth Gordon’s autobiographical play Years Ago, about a girl who wants to be an actress.
A small story, mostly in small spaces, and Jean Simmons as the girl, with her starry aspirations and bursting emotion, trapped/shielded inside. Spencer Tracy as her grouchy father, Teresa Wright her saintly mother, and Anthony Perkins debuts as her earnest, lovelorn would-be beau.
Setting is Massachusetts c. 1913 (closer to 1953 than 1953 is to today). They’re not a rich family. The father’s worried about losing his job, while young Ruth buys a theatre magazine for 35 cents. When he sees it, she lies, and says she’s borrowed it from one of her friends.
You can look at these friends’ interactions and think about teenage girls in 1913, and in 1953, and today, and the similarities and differences (probably more of the former). When Ruth gets an exciting delivery in the post, she runs to a friend’s house to tell her, then rushes to the next friend’s house. They don’t have a telephone to begin with, and I don’t know whether or not she would be allowed to use it to call them when it does arrive. (Ten years later, in another story of teenage girls with stars in their eyes, Bye Bye Birdie (1963) produced a phantasmagoria of teenage telephone users.)
Ruth’s father, Clinton Jones, doesn’t want the newfangled device, of course; so observe his enjoyment during later phone-calls; observe too how it’s been put into the wall at a height suitable for his use, whilst his wife, Annie, has to tilt her head up (the speaking piece doesn’t move). Here there’s something exciting about just talking to someone else on the phone, or receiving a telegram — Ruth’s never got a telegram before, and when she starts to open it up in the street her mother thinks this likely improper. We find in most cases, though, that love and passion trump propriety — see the comedic set-piece of the gymnastics demonstration, which also features an appearance by Mary Wickes, and which also apparently caused one cinema-goer to write threatening letters to the management re: obscenity (Tracy’s trousers fall down).
(Jean Simmons’ father was actually a PE teacher and a gymnastics medallist at the 1912 Olympics; and, in real life, Tracy had a daughter about the same age as Simmons’ character.)
Mr Clinton Jones was a sailor in his earlier days, and hasn’t entirely divorced himself from this identity. His speech is peppered with nautical phraseology, which is a device I tend to enjoy (the wonderful Cap’n Cuttle in Dombey and Son is of a similar lexical persuasion). His face is scrunched up as if being slapped with sea spray. He sleeps outside in a hammock. He is, indeed, not an ocean away from the eccentricity of Mary Poppins‘ Admiral Boom. He treasures his old spyglass, misses exotic cuisine, regrets all the ports he will never see again. And, like many a body of water, he has surprising depths.
So, yes: the film’s initial conflict comes in the form of Ruth’s wanting to be an actress, and her terror at the prospect of her father discovering this. Her mother is supportive, but also thinks maybe Ruth should settle down with Fred (Perkins). Mr Jones thinks his daughter should be self-reliant, and finish her education. I think he finds out about Ruth’s ambitions somewhere near the halfway mark. She doesn’t want to train as a physical instructress. What does she want to be? She can’t bring herself to tell him. Her mother urges her on. After Ruth does confess, she then tries to convince her parents she’s got what it takes — witness her unchained joy at being able to share her passion, and her despair when they aren’t convinced. But they’re broad-minded, and they believe in her.
Mr Jones promises Ruth $50, to help her get started in New York. He tries a little too hard for his bonus, and ends up firing himself. But there’s his spyglass — it’ll fetch $100, for what’s the use of his souvenir sitting on the shelf with its cap on, when it could be helping his daughter.
Here’s the thing about Ruth, though: she’s selfish. Maybe that’s normal? I don’t know. But she is — terribly so. But she’s also not got it easy, and while doors promise to be flung open for her, they seem always to shut instead — and yet she never gives up. She’s bewitched. Is it worth it? Is it worth it to be that selfish, to upset parents, and reject proposals and wave goodbye to your home — for a dream, or whatever it is, for fame and fortune, or work, or art? Who knows? That’s why you have movie stars. You always want movie stars to have their dreams — to have your dreams, perhaps.
The movie proper opens with an audience watching a performance of The Pink Lady, starring Ruth’s idol, Hazel Dawn. As Ruth gazes upon Ms Dawn, she is entranced. Simmons starts to ever-so-slightly sway with the music, to mouth the words. We inter-cut between the stage and her face, in close-up. And in the next scene, back in their little house, she’s still singing, still in that theatre. Stage magic, screen magic — an intensely personal connection. Some might see a frivolous soul lost in another world; but, if you look more closely, if you look the way young Ruth looks — really look — you can see a person newly fixed, someone for whom the world itself has been transformed, as that new world has come into ours, and has added to it.
What new worlds await us on voyages to come, and what wonders there lie undiscovered? Anchors, as it were, aweigh.