‘Vivacious Lady’ or — Collateral Damage of the Sexual Kind?
The plot to George Stevens’ ‘Vivacious Lady’ (1938) is so fluffy, so lightweight it’s a shock it was able to be captured on film and stay printed there. The good news is that that doesn’t really matter as ‘Vivacious Lady’ is a consistently funny, and often very funny, movie executed with an impressively light and breezy comedic touch (was this really by the same director who made the leaden ‘Giant’?).
James Stewart plays an uptight botany professor who falls in love with a nightclub dancer played by Ginger Rogers. They marry immediately. Oh, how delightful! The only problem is Stewart’s strict and stuffy father is head of the university Stewart teaches at and has plans for his son to marry the well-to-do fiancée Stewart has forgotten to tell Rogers, or us for that matter, about. Not only that but Stewart’s mother has a weak heart so the best plan is for Rogers and Stewart to hide the fact they’re married from everyone until they can find the right moment to reveal their secret. More importantly, they also need to find the right moment to consummate their marriage, if you know what I mean. As long as Rogers can behave herself in front of everyone then everything should be okay, although that might prove difficult because she is, after all, a vivacious lady!
So that’s the plot, but what Stevens, the actors and screenwriters do is wring every single ounce of humour out of any and all the possible situations, mistaken identities, sexual conflicts, psychological warfare and outright female-on-female physical violence they can think of. And it’s a blast!
This is, quite possibly, Ginger Rogers’ most full-on comedic performance to the point that she’s almost an animated cartoon character; an explosion of kinetic energy, gurning expressions and high-pitched squeaks, nearly all of which are wonderfully unlady like. There’s a fantastic scene when she and Stewart’s fiancée (Frances Mercer) get into a full on brawl at a swanky party that’s as brutal as it is funny and where decorum is firmly thrown out the window at full force. Indeed, the conflict between Rogers and Mercer is delicious to watch with Rogers getting to fire some real zingers at her rival (Mercer — “I’ll give you a piece of my mind!” Rogers — “Oh, I couldn’t take the last piece”).
There’s a huge variety of humour at play here ranging from the physical, verbal, visual and especially some beautifully crafted sonic gags. There’s an excellent sound-based joke when Rogers and Stewart are having a sexually charged chat with each other over the phone only for Stewart’s disapproving father to walk in on his son. Stewart quickly lies that he’s in the middle of a very serious and important phone call and doesn’t appreciate being disturbed, only for his father (and the audience) to hear the sound of little smacking and sexually driven squeaking noises emanating from the receiver (the film was nominated for an Oscar for best sound recording and I wouldn’t be surprised if this one particular gag, which is based purely on sound, was partly responsible).
This was one of James Stewart’s earliest starring roles but you’d never know it because he comes across as so fully formed in that Stewart persona we all know that you get the feeling he’d been doing this already for years. Charles Coburn is great as always as the typically uptight father who learns to let go and live a little although, for me, it’s the wonderful Beulah Bondi as the feeble and frail mother with a weak heart who steals the show. Bondi does this with her usual ploy of appearing older and more weak than she was in real life meaning she can play pathetic to perfection only to burst forth in a dazzling and display of energetic mischievousness at the most unexpected, and expertly timed, moments.
‘Vivacious Lady’ is one of those lovely films that’s about not letting stuffiness get in the way of life, love or sex. It shows that living is fun although that also means knowing that flirting is a very serious business (you’d better be good at flirting and giving as good as you get to any and all rivals otherwise you’re toast!).
It’s also about the denial of sex and how, sometimes, that’s maybe even more delicious and exciting that the actual act itself. The only problem is that all that back-up libidinal energy has to go somewhere and it very often involves collateral damage. So watch out!