Sex Conquers All: VIVACIOUS LADY (1938)

George Stevens’ 1938 screwball comedy Vivacious Lady is a shining example of what the Studio System–with all its codes, and censorship and contracts–got right. A rollicking rom-com that is bursting at the seams with everything rom-coms lack today: smarts, sass, and sex. Oh sure, there’s plenty of gratuitous sex in just about every romantic comedy out there today–but it’s rarely ever sexy. There are plenty of sarcastic one-liners–but they’re rarely ever smart. And sass has been mutated into that insufferable step-child known as snark. Vivacious Lady shines, not because it’s so very clever, or its story so very original, but because in the hands of director George Stevens, every last frame of it is full of spark, charm and boundless energy. It is, in every sense of the word, vivacious.

Ginger Rogers gets into one of the greatest cat fights in film history. Jimmy Stewart gets drunk out of his mind and goes timmmmber. Beulah Bondi wiggles her ass, shouting “PRAISE ALLAH!” And … well … Charles Coburn. There is precious little not to love about this film and, finally, it has been released on DVD from the Warner Archive. (No bells, no whistles, but in this case, the film is all you need.)

James Stewart and Ginger Rogers in George Stevens’ screwball gem Vivacious Lady.

The story has been done in countless variations before and since, but here’s the lowdown for this particular incarnation of the wrong-side-of-the-tracks girl meets right-side-of-the-tracks boy. Small-town professor Stewart is on a mission to rescue his fellow colleague–and cousin–from the trappings of a wanton weekend of Big City revelry. His cousin (a lively James Ellison) is enamored with vivacious nightclub singer Rogers and soon Stewart is too. Only, the Stewart-Rogers connection happens to be on the level. They fall in love while eating corn on the cob on a nameless Manhattan bridge, and the Stewart-Rogers whirlwind romance is unpretentious and thoroughly believable. The two are married the next day.

Stewart must break the news of his marriage to his stodgy, position-conscious father (the supreme Charles Coburn) and his catty, highly unlikable so-called fiancé back home in the small University town of Old Sharon–the institution of which Coburn is Dean, and Stewart is expected to one day fill his shoes. You can pretty much guess what happens: Stewart finds himself up against more than he bargains for and Rogers is forced to pretend to be a new student in his class–making for plenty of naughty-but-nice rendez-vous for the two lovers. Her hide-out at Ellison’s pad leads everyone to think that she’s his girl, and complicated Stewart’s being able to explain to his father that “that blonde” is really his wife.

The situation spirals out of control (including one hell of a showdown between Rogers and Stewart’s girlfriend), and when Stewart finally has enough of Coburn’s rude behavior and explains to him that Rogers is not Ellis’ playmate, but is actually his wife, Coburn is obstinately unwilling to ever consider her in the family as it would “blacken” their name. Building to the climax of the film, Stewart decides to get stinking drunk in public to show his father that Rogers isn’t the only one who is capable of “blackening” the family name. Before all 6 feet 3 of him passes out, he tells his father: “You listen to me: There’s nothing that I would rather be than a professor- except a good husband to my wife. You may not understand that and if you don’t, I feel sorry for you. But I refuse to sacrifice one second of my wife’s happiness for this university.”

“All right, put ’em up.” Ginger Rogers and Frances Mercer get their bitch slap on.
Ginger Rogers and Frances Mercer in a head-lock. What more can you ask for?

Stewart finally lets Coburn have it, but not before Rogers (very rightly!) tires of it all and decides to leave Old Sharon and her husband. Rogers’ delightful tonic has likewise had an effect on Stewart’s mother, Beulah Bondi, who’s also had enough of her husband’s stodgy ways. The women unite on a train after both have bid farewell to their fellas, only to be commandeered by the men who, thankfully, have suddenly decided to grow a pair of balls.

A conveniently wrapped-up happy ending with women being rightly put in their place with the man as all-powerful protector? Of course. This was the studio system in the 1930s, after all.

And because it was the studio system, the joke’s on you if you believe for a second that Rogers and Bondi aren’t the ones really wearing the pants.

Of course, few actresses of the 1930s were more vivacious than Ginger Rogers. The woman is an effervescent, natural scene-stealer–and it’s a good thing too because Stewart is ever ounce her equal in this film.

So how did B-list contract player Stewart land a role opposite one of THE top stars in Hollywood? Easy. Rogers asked he be given the part. The two had been previously involved romantically (which accounts for their organic chemistry) and Rogers was eager to establish herself away from the Fred And Ginger label of which she’d been part of for most of the decade. Vivacious Lady was her chance, and a B-list actor was a perfect choice to establish her as the main box-office attraction.

There was just one problem.

In Vivacious Lady, Jimmy Stewart turned into JIMMY STEWART.

Stewart gets drunk during class ... much to the amusement of faculty, and consternatin of his father.
Professor Stewart gets drunk during class … much to the amusement of faculty, and consternation Coburn.
Rendez-vous in the science lab. The fact that chemistry surrounds them on the shelves is far from accidental … it’s sweetly subversive.

According to Stewart’s biographer Marc Elliot, Stewart was so good that George Stevens gave him equal billing with Rogers. (Which didn’t exactly sit well with Rogers.) The film itself did not turn Stewart into an A list leading man–that would happen a few months later, with Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take it With You. Over the next 2 years, Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner and George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story would send Stewart into orbit, but it was George Stevens who first lit the fuse, here in Vivacious Lady. This film truly introduced America to the Stewart charm that would soon become legendary. His awkward, adolescent yawp. His big, round eyes full of innocent wonder. And that droll, flat Midwestern cadence. Stewart here presents himself as one of the most openly sincere presences the screen has ever known–an All American idealist–which fit so perfectly with pre-War America, would continue to resonate with post-War America, and still bears weight even today.

And although Stewart’s homespun charm is better known to general audiences due to Capra’s latter film of 1938, the former, Vivacious Lady, is every bit its equal. The two films mirror each other in that they tell the story of a promising young man from a well-to-do family who falls for a girl outside of his conservative social set. But whereas Capra’s film (being a Capra film) makes its point in repeated monologues of idealistic American virtue, Stevens has a more subversive way of making his point. In point of fact, the class struggle is smashed entirely with a little thing called sex. The results are electric.

The film was nominated for Best Sound Recording and, most notably, Best Cinematography. It’s not a very surprising accolade: a good number of screwball comedies (of which this film certainly is one of the very best) were often given a nod of approval from the Academy for their camerawork. That elegant, soft focus shimmer off-sets the insanity; it softens them, making them fit all the more comfortably into our embrace.

The Warner Archive DVD release does the film justice with a clear, crisp transfer. As mentioned earlier, this DVD release doesn’t contain any special features to speak of, but the grand-slam performances from the leads (as well as cameos from Hattie McDaniel, on the eve of her Oscar-winning turn in Gone With the Wind, and screwball comedy staple Franklin Pangborn) are all the features you need.

The film is a vibrant, dazzling gem of a screwball comedy that, underneath the morality codes of its day, proves once and for all: sex conquers all.




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