Vivacious Lady Review

The 1938 comedy Vivacious Lady, a screwball of distinction and wit, is so charming in most every way that it's a wonder the film has not attained bona fide canonical status on par with the other great pictures of its ilk from the era. As directed by George Stevens, this is one worth falling for in a dreamy, utterly contented sort of way that matches how its star pairing of Ginger Rogers and James Stewart come to find themselves batting loverly eyelashes almost immediately upon first sight. The duo of Rogers and Stewart show sparkling chemistry together on the screen and were, indeed, an item off it at one point as well. For whatever reason, this would be their only teaming but they did share a nice moment a couple of years later when both won lead Academy Awards for their 1940 performances in, respectively, Kitty Foyle and The Philadelphia Story.

The set-up of and many familial elements in Vivacious Lady are very typical of screwball comedy. Stewart is an uptight college professor, son of the school president and grandson of the earlier one, who's sent to New York City to retrieve his boozing partyhound of a cousin (played delightfully by James Ellison in a departure from the B-westerns he'd done previously and his later starring role in I Walked with a Zombie). He tracks his cousin to a nightclub where Ellison's girl of the moment Ginger Rogers is the singing attraction. After causing a bit of a commotion, Stewart settles in and is soon, understandably, mesmerized by Rogers. They hit it off and - whiz, bang, boom - elope. Ellison is remarkably accepting of his straitlaced cousin having married his girlfriend and even agrees to serve as an accomplice to Stewart's plan of gradually introducing Rogers to the folks at home.

This return to the smaller town of Old Sharon provides just the right formula of complications and absurdity to wring out the humor from what is also a deeply romantic movie. Charles Coburn contributes a stern characterization of Stewart's father, an unlikable man finally humanized a tad at the very end of the picture. The great Beulah Bondi runs away with most every scene she's in as the non-confrontational matriarch with heart problems but not, we find out, an aversion to dancing or smoking. Still, it's the pairing of Rogers and Stewart that feels like lightning caught in a bottle. She was rising with Fred Astaire elsewhere, including in the Stevens-directed Swing Time, yet still out to prove herself as a major comedienne working at a comparatively minor studio in RKO. He was hungry for big things and soon to figure prominently in the year's Best Picture winner You Can't Take It with You (a key film also for its serving as the initial collaboration between Stewart and director Frank Capra).

Rogers and Stewart actually spend much of the film apart from each other, finding time only to steal away little moments together. It's a dynamic that works, partially because both actors are so adept at absorbing the spotlight. They are performers we enjoy watching and ones who sparkle with movie star charisma. They shine separately, as in the memorable scene where Rogers wrestles and pulls the hair of Frances Mercer only to grin sheepishly upon being caught by her new husband and father-in-law or when Stewart summons up the courage to face Coburn with a little help from some alcohol he'd whipped up in the chemistry lab, and certainly together. The moment that first puts Vivacious Lady into the pantheon comes after the newlyweds are driven out of their train compartment and retire to the service car. The way Jimmy Stewart looks at Ginger Rogers feels incredibly genuine and even moving. That the music doesn't swell into romantic hyperbole or the scene isn't underlined in bold by George Stevens goes a long way toward conveying the true emotion of that moment. The film is, of course, primarily a comedy so there's an avoidance of lingering but the impact remains.

Stevens, firmly in the pre-war mode that also saw him direct The More the Merrier and Woman of the Year, consistently opts for restraint instead of heightening the tempo of the picture. This is a somewhat risky and even odd choice for a screwball comedy, but it's successful in this instance. Indeed, the balanced handling by Stevens proves key in adding some degree of believability to what is a farfetched, if satisfyingly so, premise. When the director moved on to more serious works after having experienced World War II up close it was obviously a change he felt to be necessary, maybe even unavoidable. Regardless, the pure enjoyment derived and entertainment gained by the audience, in a Sullivan's Travels sort of way, never again reached the heights of his ostensibly less ambitious comedies, with Vivacious Lady serving as a prime example.


The Disc

Odeon Entertainment brings Vivacious Lady to the UK market with this budget-priced release. At the moment, the film has still not been made available on disc in R1. It would potentially seem destined for the Warner Archive Collection but the quality of the existing materials might be holding up such a release. Both this single-layered disc from Odeon and the earlier Editions Montparnasse option available in France indicate that some restoration work is needed on the film. When TCM has broadcast it here in the states the quality has been pretty much the same.

Those limitations, however, don't really excuse the improper NTSC-PAL transfer Odeon has used here. Combing and motion stuttering are among the deficiencies present as a result. Scratches abound early on, perhaps a dozen or more for each year of the film's age, but damage does settle down after the first reel. The image remains soft throughout, with somewhat muddy contrast. These are generally expected shortcomings excusable given the price being asked but the failure to properly convert NTSC to PAL is a major flaw, and one Odeon seems to keep doing with its RKO releases.

Audio sounds a little distant and exhibits minor hiss but the English mono track allows dialogue to be understood without any major issues. It's an unimpressive though acceptable track that maintains reasonable volume levels throughout the film. No subtitles have been offered.

The Photo Gallery feature is a nice touch and includes stills from the film as well as poster and lobby card advertisements.


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