Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Hedy Lamarr "Mad Woman"... HM Pulham Esq (1941)

This is an ostensibly gentle mid-life crisis story in which Robert Young as the titular hero wonders whether he’s made the right choices in a life of privilege.  Yet it is also a story in which the more intelligent, decisive and decidedly atypical leading lady choses career over love, position and family… and you didn’t get that too much in 1941.

Hedy Lamarr plays Marvin Miles, two masculine names for a woman who knows her own mind and is definitely “in charge”: a signifier of all she will be through the course of this comedy/drama. I’m not sure if HM Pulham Esq is ahead of its time or not but it is bold in subtle ways. Even the ending, which must seemingly conform to the post-Hays Code rule book may even contain ambiguities.

Directed by King Vidor from a script he co-wrote with wife Elizabeth Hill and based on the popular book by John P Marquand, HM Pulham Esq is nominally the tale of the main character summing up his life and deciding he’s alright. Or does he? And, do we agree?

The expected trajectory is undermined by Harry Pulham’s lack of spark and intelligence as he “easy-goes” his way through life from prep school through Harvard and, following an experimental career in New York advertising, ends up back home in Boston following on with his family traditions… and the path clearly laid for him.

The most likeable character is Lamarr’s who is a woman determined to make life on her own terms and to succeed. She’s also an immigrant whose accent marks her even further apart from Pulham’s snobby family and the New England upper class set she rejects.

Whilst Miles doesn’t end up with possibly the love of her life and maybe never gets over him – her husband even looks like Pulham – she has the satisfaction of having made herself a success. This is the real subversion and one it is difficult to gauge from a modern perspective when all is turned around and Jennifer Anniston always seems to get the guy… Hollywood’s been trying to balance the happiness for a long time.

Harry Moulton Pulham Jnr starts the film in comfortable routine at home and at work. He is shaken from this by two phone calls, one from an ex-Harvard classmate arranging their 25th anniversary reunion and another from a mysterious old flame.

He meets up with the Harvard old boys and is tasked with writing up his life history since graduation. At the same time, he hasn’t the courage to face his old love fearing she’ll still be too beautiful (she is!) and may complicate his otherwise near-dormant emotional life.

He begins to wander back through his life finding little of note to write about from formative years spent in the comfort of private schools, a huge family estate and the cloistered environs of Harvard.

He fights in the First World War showing decency, courage and leadership – a glimpse of what he is actually capable of. After this he ends up in New York with old college chum Bill King (Van Heflin) a man of more blue collar origins who, needless to say, has more drive and wit than most of his contemporaries.

Bill persuades Pulham to work at his ad agency and we slip into 40’s style Mad Men mode and, whilst in the latter show, Peggy exemplifies women struggling to make career headway even 20 years later, the Head of Women’s Copywriting, Marvin Miles, fights the same battles long before her.

Marvin is strong, very intelligent and, of course, very beautiful. She is more than a match for the men around her and seeing the decency and potential in Harry she allows him to get close. The two begin a relationship but even early on Harry is reluctant to mix NYC and Boston. On a return to see his family his father keeps asking him to come home, to “where he belongs” and where his father (the excellent Charles Coburn) wants him.

Harry resists, too excited by the challenges of advertising soap powder (hey, don’t knock it!) and wooing the extraordinary Marvin. But, disaster strikes and Harry’s father falls ill forcing him to return home where, post-mortem, he begins to start filling the vacuum. He meets old friends, has his ear bent by all and sundry and begins to weaken.

But things are sealed by Marvin’s arrival. She is arrogantly interrogated by Harry’s mother  (too upper class to grieve?) and feels smothered by the family, friends and the estate.

In many films - and in life – the prospect of marrying into such wealth and position would be the deal sealer but Marvin is made of sterner stuff. In a great scene, she and Harry talk it out and decide that whilst he must return to where he belongs, she doesn’t want to live a lie. Her career is validation and gives her the feeling of independent accomplishment that she could never have in Boston. Indeed, it’s a feeling Harry will never really have.

She tells Harry that she will always be waiting for him should he change his mind and he returns home to the inevitable. He marries one of his old Boston friends, Kay (Fay Holden) – deciding that they are in the “same boat”… their marriage is a blur as indeed is the next 20 years.

Which is where we find him alone in his office and deciding to meet with Marvin again… This being 1941 we don’t expect the two to run off together and their encounter is flat reminding both perhaps how much they’ve moved on. Marvin is a success though and, whilst we’re not sure how happy she is, it is what she wanted.

We’re no less convinced of Harry’s happiness even after Ruth wakes up and agrees to his “crazy” suggestion to spend a few days together away from the pressures of work, friends and children. The children are only mentioned towards the end and, in the morality of the times, are a clear signal from Vidor that the marriage will not be broken… not even for true love.

It’s an excellent cast and Robert Young holds the main focus with ease – playing a man of upstanding moral quality if not, ultimately, moral courage. He is resigned to his course of least-worst option given the compromise he made between new life and the life he knew. It’s no bad thing to be… just the way it is.

But Lamarr is the surprise standout. She was a controversial casting from Vidor with many, including the author, feeling that there should have been an American in the role and that Hedy wasn’t technically skilled enough. Yet Vidor saw this as a chance for her to act something like herself: an intelligent outsider who wants to follow her own course. She is believable throughout and handles the dramatic moments with truth and the right kind of intensity.  Pulham is justifiably regarded as her best dramatic role and possibly her best film.

HM Pulham Esq is available on Warner Brother on-demand DVD-R through Amazon or direct from WB themselves. Watch it to see a Hedy Lamarr you may not expect and for confirmation that doing the right thing is never easy… both main characters never really get over their relationship but they adapt around the loss. And, maybe, that was as far as Vidor could take things in those times.

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