July 26, 2011
Rebecca Yancey (Kathryn Grayson) taps into popular sentiment with the modernist anti-landscape above. The second daughter of Cap’n Bob Yancey (Frank Morgan), longtime district attorney in Lynchburg, Virginia, Rebecca is trying to escape the role of a proper lady, with the suffragettes’ equal opportunity rhetoric ringing in her ears. Set in 1913, Frank Borzage’s The Vanishing Virginian (1941) is equal parts bittersweet nostalgia and progressive optimism. Just released on DVD from Warner Archive, along with Borzage’s follow-up, Seven Sweethearts (1942), it is a lovely bit of propagandistic Americana, released two months after the U.S.’s entry into WWII.
In the February 1942 issue of Boys’ Life, “Chief Scout Librarian” Franklin Mathiews called The Vanishing Virginian “a model movie in the way of the [sic] diversion for a war-weary world.” An MGM publicity flack couldn’t have made the marketing pitch any clearer. An escape to a mythical American South, screenwriter and Dallas newspaperwoman Jan Fortune adapted the memoirs of Rebecca Yancey Williams into a digressive series of vignettes of the Yancey family’s gentle misadventures . Cap’n Bob is considering running for a 6th term as city prosecutor, while his wife Rosa (Spring Byington) urges him to retire and focus on his family. Bob is modeled after Robert Davis Yancey, a mayor and seven-term commonwealth’s attorney in Lynchburg. Frank Morgan plays him as an endearingly absent-minded old coot, with a dizzying array of Ron Burgundy-esque exlamations: “Bilous Bonaparte!”, “Roaring Romulus!”, “Howling Hades!”, “Naked Neptune”, “Nostalgic Nicodemus!”, et. al. In Men of Mark of Virginia, Yancy is described as politically moderate, “an old-line Democrat, but he opposes the extreme views of Mr. Hearst and his followers.”
In the film he is a paternalistic egalitarian, frequently invoking the Bill of Rights and then going home to his black servants, presumably his former slaves. Then he intentionally botches the only case we see him prosecute, after he determines the all-white jury will not conduct a fair verdict for the black defendant. The servants are characters of Southern wish-fulfillment, slaves happy to stay with their masters, but Borzage and the actors give them a depth and dignity that pushes against their essentialization. Leigh Whipper plays “Uncle Josh Preston”, a sweet old man with beatific eyes whose mild manner masks an iron will. In a film where most of the movement is inside the frame (there are some great choreographed family pratfalls), each tracking shot carries extra force, and the most complex one occurs after Uncle Josh collapses. The camera trails back from Bob carrying his prone figure, and then there is a cut to a movement forward to the church that will forever house him. This latter image contains no human figure, a shock in a film configured around the family. The clapboard church is privileged to hold the frame, and Josh’s spirit with it.
Whipper was the first black member of the Actors’ Equity Association in 1913, making his film debut in Oscar Micheaux’s groundbreaking “race films” Within Our Gates (1920) and Symbol of the Unconquered, and was one of the founding members of the Negro Actors’ Guild of America (1939). The Louise Beavers character, “Aunt Emmeline”, is more stereotypical, a “mammy” type who smiles at her employers’ jokes and scuttles in the background. But at a funeral of one of her friends, Borzage continually cuts to close-ups of Beavers’ face, where Emmeline’s bottled up sadness and rage quivers to the surface.
The eldest Yancey girls, Rebecca and Margaret (Natalie Thompson) push back against their parents’ social conservatism, with Margaret eager to study law, and Rebecca a singer. Rosa responds that a woman lawyer would be as absurd as a female driver. When James Shirley (Johnny Mitchell), a young progressive defense lawyer, comes into town, he attracts both of the girls’ attention. His mother Marcia is one of the leaders in the women’s suffrage movement, and causes Rosa no end of marital and political heartburn, having also been a young love of Bob’s. Marcia is based on Nancy Astor, a Virginia-born lady who became the first woman elected to British Parliament in 1919. These stories slowly weave in and out, with none given pride of place. Borzage gives the film the same lazy rhythm as the lives he’s trying to portray.
In the end, horses and carriages have given way to cars and the women who drive them, including Rebecca. Bob continues to run for election, accepting the new social landscape as it shifts around him. In the final shot, the town gathers ’round him to honor his service, as in the end of another paternalistic dream of Southern community, John Ford’s The Sun Shines Bright (1953). Each profiles a doddering relic holding their towns together with principles that time and politics are rendering obsolete. It is up to the viewer to decide which of their disappearing beliefs is worth mourning.
Seven Sweethearts is a bizarre item, a Hungarian operetta re-staged in Michigan, with the perpetually-smarmy Van Heflin as the ostensibly dashing lead. Kathryon Grayson is his small-town inamorata, and Borzage stages a number of scenes to show off her impressive coloratura soprano vocals. The story goes that Heflin is an entry-level reporter, getting a story on a Tulip festival in the small Michigan town of Little Delft. It’s a Dutch town where the neighbors practice their French horn during work hours and where Viennese composers never pay rent. S.Z. Sakall is the proprietor of the local hotel, and the single father of seven beautiful daughters (all with male names – since he was hoping for boys). It is tradition that no girl can be married until the eldest is hitched, so the younger girls are itching for Reggie (Marsha Hunt) to tie the knot. Creaky wackiness ensues, and Heflin is ill-suited for the thin air of this sub-Lubitsch atmosphere. It just seems to make him queasy. Borzage speeds through it with seemingly little investment, but I enjoyed the too-in-love Honeymoon couple and the broad caricature of the supporting cast, especiall Sakall’s jolly windbag.
At TCM.com, Jeremy Arnold reported an unsavory postscript to this sweetheart tale:
“In 1949, Hungarian playwright Ferenc Herczeg sued MGM, Pasternak, and screenwriters Walter Reich and Leo Townsend for $200,000, claiming they had plagiarized his play Seven Sisters, which he had written in 1903 and which Paramount had adapted into a 1915 movie starring Madge Evans. Herczeg was imprisoned in a concentration camp in Hungary when Seven Sweethearts was produced and released, and consequently he didn’t learn of the film’s existence until years later. The suit was settled out of court.”