Of all the great movies that aren't out on DVD yet, I think the movie that tops my wish list is 1946's Margie, directed by Henry King and starring Jeanne Crain. The description of the film doesn't sound like anything much: Crain plays a smart but shy high school girl in the '20s who loses her bloomers at inopportune times, wins one for the debate team, and has a crush on her handsome teacher (who, rather creepily, she eventually winds up marrying). Yet the description can't do it justice: as directed by the underrated King and played by the equally underrated Crain, it's one of the most beautiful movies of the '40s and very touching and even a little thought-provoking.
Like many, many, '40s movies, Margie is told in flashback (Citizen Kane made flashbacks into the device of choice for screenwriters and directors for a decade or more). King starts with a spectacular uninterrupted tracking shot from outside a house, through the open window and into the attic, where a middle-aged Margie and her teenage daughter are cleaning out some old things that remind Margie of her youth. She tells her daughter the story of what things were like for her in 1928, when she was a teenager.
It turns out that the teenaged Margie has a somewhat unusual living arrangement. Her father (Hobart Cavanaugh), an undertaker, is a widower who doesn't feel that he's capable of raising a daughter on his own, so Margie lives with her maternal grandmother (Esther Dale) and doesn't see her father very often. Margie is smart but introverted and nervous; she's also sexually frustrated and a little jealous of her trampy friend Marybelle (Barbara Lawrence) and her boyfriend Johnny (Conrad Janis, best known as Mindy's dad on "Mork and Mindy"). The film doesn't have much of a plot; it's a series of sequences in which Margie starts to come into her own as a person, with little triumphs like getting her father to come see her debate, or getting a date for the school dance. At the end, we return to middle-aged Margie with her husband and daughter, and the camera tracks back out of the attic and into the street.
King, the star director at Fox, was a veteran of the silent days with a style similar to John Ford's: he liked long takes, often with the camera placed at a low angle so you can see the ceilings; he didn't move the camera much unless the characters were moving with it; and he was very careful with his framing, making each shot look like a painting. Margie of course has the spectacular Fox Technicolor, but King doesn't over-light the film the way many directors did when working in Technicolor; instead he keeps a lot of scenes quite dark, calling attention to the things or people who really matter in the scene. Here (in not-so-great quality from my taped-from-TV copy) is one such scene in Margie, where Marybelle and Johnny dance to "A Cup of Coffee, a Sandwich and You" while Margie is in her room preparing for her debate. What I love best about King's direction of this movie is that he's not afraid of slowing down: there are moments where Margie does absolutely nothing except sit there and think, and you feel, in those moments, like you're watching a real person, not a character in a movie who always needs to be keeping busy.
The "thought-provoking" part of the film is that, like a lot of post-WWII movies, it's at least in part about the question of what a woman's role should be in a postwar world. The movie takes place in 1928, and it begins in 1946, but the proverbial elephant in the room is the period we don't see in the picture, the period of 1929 to 1945. Margie is exactly the kind of woman who could have done, and perhaps did do, great things in that period; she's intelligent, industrious and idealistic, and the sense of every character in the movie is that she has something great to offer if she'd only be confident enough to show it. Her grandmother is a feminist who tells visitors about her days fighting for the right to vote, and proudly predicts that Margie will be the first female President (Margie berates her grandmother for this, telling her that it scares boys off when she talks like that). Her debate speech inspires her father to become politically active and, in 1946, to become an Ambassador.
But Margie herself winds up as a typical housewife, and we never know for sure how she feels about it: Crain plays the present-day scenes a little wistfully, as though she's not entirely sure this is all she wanted. If film noir is often about fear of independent women in a post-War world, Margie is about the lost promise of women in that same world: after Margie had so much potential for greatness in her, is it really a happy ending for her to wind up standing by while men do the "important" work? Can we ask Margie to settle for that? Should we? The movie doesn't answer these questions one way or the other, but they're there, and that creates a bittersweet, even sad feeling in a movie that could have been nothing but another nostalgic trifle.
Here's one of the key scenes in the movie, the debate where Margie argues the "yes" position on the question "Should the U.S. take the Marines out of Nicaragua?" (The is a reference to the Marines' unsuccessful efforts against the Nicaraguan guerilla leader Sandino.) The clunky debater for the "no" position argues that prosperity is here to stay, the cost of military ventures is negligible, and the U.S. presence in South America will bring prosperity to that country. Margie wins the debate -- and more importantly, wins over her father -- by arguing that liberty is more important than prosperity, and a nation that values liberty cannot go around occupying other countries. The debate intentionally foreshadows all kinds of issues that were central in the world from 1929 through 1946, but more importantly, it's a chance to see Margie at her full potential: clumsy, awkward, a little pretentious, but passionate and idealistic and moving -- the sort of person who has a hint of greatness in her, even if that hint of greatness is mixed with hints of the ridiculous.
Crain, who is wonderful throughout the movie, is especially wonderful here: she has the tough task of showing Margie winning the debate, while simultaneously showing that Margie is relying on gestures and line inflections she learned by rote. Her mechanical gestures and intentionally stiff line readings are funny, and yet she leaves no doubt of why Margie is winning the debate or why her father is so moved to see the potential of his daughter. It's a beautiful performance in a beautiful movie.
Notes: the film was written by F. Hugh Herbert (yes, he printed his name that way because of the way it sounds when you say "F. Hugh"), best known as the writer of The Moon is Blue, and based on a story by "My Sister Eileen" writer Ruth McKinney and her husband Richard Bransten.