April 21, 2012

Sitting Pretty (1948)
Grade: 64/100

Director: Walter Lang
Stars: Clifton Webb, Maureen O'Hara, Robert Young

What it's about. This family comedy stars Clifton Webb as Mr. Belvedere, a conceited and humorless (but useful and reliable) know-it-all. Belvedere plans to write a satirical novel on suburban life, and for material takes a job as a live-in babysitter for the King family.

The Kings consist of Robert Young, his outspoken wife Maureen O'Hara, and their three bratty sons, a toddler and two of elementary age. The parents are best friends of John Russell and his attractive wife Louise Allbritton. Young and Russell are co-worker lawyers at a firm run by disagreeable Ed Begley.

Despite his eccentricity, his abrupt and cold manner, and his status as a male, stern Mr. Belvedere soon wins over the King family. In short order, the children and Marmaduke-style dog behave like never before. However, Belvedere becomes the subject of malicious gossip spread by the supremely effeminate Richard Haydn and his meddlesome invalid mother Grayce Hampton. This leads to quarrelling between Young and O'Hara, and also threatens Young's position at the law firm.

How others will see it. Sitting Pretty was such a box office success that it led to two sequels starring Clifton Webb, thus fulfilling Belvedere's promise of a "trilogy." Webb, previously Oscar nominated for plum supporting roles in Laura and The Razor's Edge, received his only best actor nod for this film.

Today, at imdb.com, the film is relatively obscure despite its nomination and three A-list leads; Young, O'Hara, and Webb. But though the vote total is low, the user ratings are high. There is a noticeable gender gap, especially among the over 45 crowd, where men give it an 7.5 and women bestow a significantly higher grade of 8.3.

The question, then, is why are women so bemused by Sitting Pretty? Part of the charm comes from Young and O'Hara. Early on, O'Hara is jealous of flirtatious teenager Ginger (Betty Lynn), but the tables are turned in later reels, when Young becomes jealous of the asexual and sixty-ish Webb.

Less clear is why audiences, then and now, enjoy Webb's character. If you met such a man in real life, you'd find him insufferable. Webb never misses the opportunity to make a condescending remark, whether it is about Young's need for modesty or O'Hara's merits as a snowman designer. Young finally does swing a punch at Webb, but because it is a movie, he only manages to hit the door frame.

But viewers are not victims of Webb's chilly observations, only his audience. Free from any desire to conform to social politeness, it is unpredictable what Webb will say, but it certain to be both a rude and amusing "burn." Hence his third-party appeal.

How I felt about it. The first half of the movie is best. True, it isn't quite credible that the Kings would hire a possibly homosexual man as a live-in nanny for their three sons, particularly after he proudly states that he dislikes children. And Young's reaction to Webb dumping a bowl of oatmeal on the toddler is unlike that of any parent I have known.

But the dialogue and situations are undeniably entertaining. We also like Haydn's character, the sissy snoop who makes Webb seem almost manly in comparison. There's no doubt that the three leads are ideally cast.

The second half of the movie, though, loses its way somewhat. O'Hara moves out because Young learns that O'Hara and Webb were dancing at a nightclub. How scandalous! Young fires Webb, leaving him without a sitter, since O'Hara for some reason has left the two older boys behind. Yet Webb is there in the house with a film crew when O'Hara returns to the house months later.

Meanwhile, Begley has fired Young and Russell, leaving him apparently without any lawyers on staff, solely due to inconsequential neighborhood gossip concerning Belvedere. We're also left in limbo regarding the fate of Haydn's mother, who has either fainted from dismay or gone to her greater reward.