June 11, 2006

H.M. Pulham, Esq. (1941)
Grade: 77/100

Director: King Vidor
Stars: Robert Young, Hedy Lamarr, Ruth Hussey

What it's about. Manor-born Robert Young has been managed throughout his life, first by his parents, then by his wife Ruth Hussey. Now middle-aged, he finally examines his comfortable but deadening lifestyle, and remembers Hedy Lamarr, the true love that got away.

How I felt about it. This thoughtful film gets off on the wrong foot. The coincidence of the alumni-prompted achievement letter and the out of the blue phone call from Lamarr is too strong. We know that Young's middle-age crisis is unlikely to go far because of the production code, which ensures that separately married Young and Lamarr cannot have an affair unless both are severely punished for it. Guess they'll have to remain old friends.

Lamarr, an ambitious businesswoman outside of blue-blooded stock, loves Young but is repelled by the prospect of abandoning her career to become a disaffected child-bearing socialite. Yet H.M. Pullman, Esq. is, at it's heart, not a life lesson in how a destiny of conformity cannot be escaped.

The movie is, instead, a romance between two people who have everything in common except their parents' class. But the difference in class makes all the difference, not because the "low class" woman is feral, as in Of Human Bondage, or because she is gauche, as in My Fair Lady. Here, the daughter of working class immigrants won't marry the wealthy scion because she fears becoming a Stepford wife, albeit in a gilded cage.

The old man Charles Coburn was right after all. Ruth Hussey is a less romantic partner than Hedy Lamarr, but that isn't the point. Compatibililty is the key to a peaceable marriage, and people are most compatible when they are from the same class. They have the same set of rules, and not only do they accept them, they do not even consider questioning their worth.

The two classes are remote islands separated by seas of different notions of how to work, socialize, and domesticate. The manor-born sees Madison Avenue as vulgar, mawkish, and guileful. Those who strive to make their own way, without the continual big push from their families, see Madison Avenue as a bridge to success and independence. And designing ads can be fun and challenging. They see the blue-bloods as repressed, and even condescending.

It's odd, then, that Van Heflin, Young's independent-minded friend, has the hots for Hussey, who is admittedly beautiful but something of a good-natured drill sergeant. Well, perhaps even a rebel can have an unconscious desire to be managed by a confident woman.

There is definitely both love and attraction between partners of different classes. Lamarr admires Young's character, which partly comes from attendence in all the right schools. Young, in turn, admires Lamarr's spirit, which comes from her desire to achieve beyond her humble origins. The chemistry is there. But it's a tame version of "Romeo and Juliet." What's missing is not passion, but the mutual family support that greases the slide toward matrimony.