Sensible Cinderella: Kitty Foyle (1940)

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A RKO Production ~  Director: Sam Wood,  Screenplay: Dalton Trumbo with additional dialogue by Donald Ogden Stewart, based on a novel by Christopher Morley,  Art Director: Van Nest Polglase,  Costume Designer: Renie

In a year filled with phenomenal films, Kitty Foyle is a good and satisfying movie, but not necessarily a great one.  And yet it was nominated for five Academy Awards, with Ginger Rogers receiving her only nomination and win for this melodramatic woman’s picture, based upon the best-selling 1939 name-sake novel.

The movie begins with an opening sequence that brings us up to date on the state of womanhood in 1939.  Depicted as single, hard-working and man-seeking, the ‘modern ’woman , “a comparative newcomer to the American scene”,  is shown struggling to make her way in a world that does not always make that way easy.  She lacks the protections of a male embrace, her place as a homemaker and the respect that the roles of wife and mother have traditionally bestowed upon her.  Suffragettes, hoping for better, have apparently gotten more than they bargained for now that the Great Depression has thrown them in among the wolves.

This episodic and unfortunately dated opening sets up the quandary of our heroine, Kitty Foyle.  She is strong and independent and yet she struggles.  Seemingly bereft and without family support, she looks to love and finds herself at a crossroads between her desire for the romantic idealized prince of her youth, and the pragmatic considerations of her situation.  Kitty must choose between an adventurous life as an unwed partner to a man she adores, a man who is affectionate and charming but lacking in strength and endurance, and another who is earnest, but frugal, plodding but loyal; he is also definitely not her first choice.

This latter point is brought home by the efficient casting.  Dennis Morgan as Wyn Strafford is dazzling as the man of her heart’s desire.  His smile lights up the screen.   Radiating personal warmth as he sweeps in and out of Kitty’s life, he even takes her out for a night to envy Cinderella’s ball, complete with chimes in the form of an alarm to end the reverie.  Meanwhile, her pragmatic prospect tests her to the point of rudeness, blackmails her into a first date and persists despite her love for another man.  He is patently devoid of charisma.  There is little to no chemistry between Miss Foyle and Dr. Mark Eisen, played woodenly by James Craig.  That is just the point however; it may take better acting than might be first apparent to make a handsome doctor this much of a bland second choice.

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In early scenes, Kitty is supported with a home and wisdom by her father, played with long-suffering pluck, Irish cheer and humor by Ernest Cossart, echoing Thomas Mitchell in his portrayal.  His presence is key to understanding Kitty’s determination and sense of spirit.  Long after his departure his influence upon her choices and ultimate decision is felt.

Her quandary is presented early in the film, and elucidated during a debate Kitty conducts with herself via a talking mirrored image.   This was a unique device at the time and pulls the viewer into the film; her dual personas are intriguing.  Kitty’s impetuous, spirited and fancy-free self has literally come face to face with her mature, and wiser woman; it’s a little harder to fool herself than it once was. Rogers plays this well and immediately gains our sympathy.  This was not the only time she was to play herself at multiple ages and levels of maturity.  Here she has a scene where she is just fifteen years old, and similarly to her work in The Major and The Minor, where she plays just twelve, as well as her own mother, she is able to handle the age range convincingly.

Rogers is warm and heart-breakingly human, yes even flawed in this story.  The many close-ups in the film display the subtlety of her work, as her emotions run the gamut from dizzying happiness to devastating disappointment and grief.  She never fails the audience or the intent of the lovely screenplay. Watch her face as the slow realization of the loss of her son washes over her to see the reason for this nomination. Rogers shines without overshadowing Kitty’s story.

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This story, which is primarily shown in flashback, is told from a woman’s perspective, an interesting point given all the men that were involved in its creation.  In fact the film is subtitled ‘The Natural Story of a Woman’. Imagine the audience of women at the time, still struggling with the shocks of the worst economic crisis this country had known.  And here is Kitty Foyle.  She is portrayed by the beautiful Ginger Rogers, she of all the glamorous RKO fantasy films where she paired with Fred Astaire, dancing his dances and following his choreography, brought down to earth and living in a small two-room apartment with two other young struggling women.  There is no public safety net, no assurance that it might not be your boss who blackmails you to revel in your attractiveness and not the handsome yet unknown stranger, albeit doctor. Kitty’s choices are of course that of a movie star, a bit of a princess. She chooses between the dashing offspring of a wealthy scion of society and a good-looking smitten physician.  Not much less could be expected of anyone as glamorous as Rogers, yet these dilemmas were very much like the choices being made by women everywhere. Pragmatic cautious decisions were more important than ever.  Her dilemma is relatable and understandable.

The script by Dalton Trumbo walks some delicate lines in blurring a novel that was written without a Production Code to abide by.  This makes the film a bit of a puzzle at times.  Kitty has a hasty marriage and an even more impulsive and spontaneous divorce.  Her marriage results in pregnancy and the subsequent loss of this child through stillbirth (a woman’s heartbreak not all that uncommon at times both then and now).  In the book, Kitty has a dalliance with Mr. Dazzling that results in an unwed pregnancy and an abortion.  Trumbo cunningly sticks to the major plot points while adhering to the Code. Of note is a very romantic, moving scene in the Poconos that fades to black and helps us to understand Kitty’s love for Wyn. While the film plays fast and loose with the time frames, audiences were well aware of both the restrictions of the Code as well as the shocking circumstances and sadness that Kitty endures through familiarity with the novel.  Its raciness had done much to make it a best-seller.

It was this very raciness that had first made the project unpalatable to Rogers.  But ultimately she made a shrewd decision.  The public knew that she was a talented entertainer.  She could dance with the absolute best and sing too.  She had shown a wonderful way with comedy and endeared audiences to her as she helped them to escape the dreariness of their everyday realities with music and laughter.  But 1940 was the year she made her first forays into serious roles.  Kitty Foyle was recognized by the industry but Primrose Path, a romantic confection filled with realistic grittiness from director Gregory LaCava, also starring Rogers, and  co-starring Joel MacCrae, was released just nine months ahead of this one.  Kitty Foyle was the bigger film, a hit for RKO and subsequently nominated for Best Picture.

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The field was crowded that year.  There were ten films nominated for the top Oscar, several undeserving and others perhaps that should have won; Hitchcock’s Rebecca beat out a challenging field.  Additionally, there were many others that, in any other year would have been nominated.  Numerous women were also deserving of recognition.  Rogers faced stiff opposition from Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Joan Fontaine and Martha Scott for her award.  This was also the year of Rosalind Russell’s career-defining turn in His Girl Friday, Irene Dunn’s snappy performance in My Favorite Wife and a heartbreaking portrayal by Vivien Leigh in Waterloo Bridge that was a far cry from her Scarlett O’Hara. There has always been a sense of upset, that Kitty Foyle was a minor film and a not particularly worthy performance.  But Rogers, in depicting an everywoman, while remaining her glamorous self, grabbed hold of audiences and apparently Academy members, who not only wished to honor her performance here, which is quite moving, but seemingly the body of her work and the incredible range of her talent. From the time she delivered her famed pig-Latin rendition of “We’re In the Money” to her sashays with Astaire, Ginger Rogers had done her part to help a nation through the tough years of the Great Depression and the Academy and movie-going audiences were grateful.

Recommended for its moving story, the chemistry of Rogers and Morgan and its Oscar winning history.

This post is a part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon 2017 February 17-19, 2017 hosted by Paula’s Cinema Club, Once Upon a Screen and Outspoken and Freckled. For more please click the image below:

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Notes and Extras

  • Bosley Crowther of The New York Times describes this one as “a boy-girl drama which tugs cruelly on the heartstrings but never snaps them.”  He seemed to like it quite a bit, rightly predicted its popularity and noted significant deviation from the novel, some of it necessary to “conform with the moral code”.  He’s kinder to Craig’s doctor who he feels is no less attractive than Morgan and seems to agree with the film that Kitty makes a wise choice, perceiving Strafford as cowardly.  Perhaps….
  • This was a break-out role for Dennis Morgan, cowardly though he might’ve been.  Morgan began his Hollywood career in a favorite of mine, Piccadilly Jim (1936) with a small uncredited part as a nightclub singer.  And a singer he was, having studied voice at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music and the American Conservatory in Chicago.  His lovely singing voice made him useful as both a bit player and singer until he was established.
  • Some of you may recognize Morgan for his role in the holiday perennial Christmas in Connecticut (1945) where he displays beautiful chemistry with Barbara Stanwyck.  He is charming (what else?), commanding and gets to use his golden pipes in that one too. When Stanwyck as housekeeping expert Elizabeth Lane questions his character Jefferson Jones by asking “Are you making love to me?”, we’re pretty sure he is, and that’s exactly how she wants it.
  • Early in his career Morgan appeared in The Great Ziegfeld (1936) in the famous Wedding Cake musical number.  Cast due to his voice, you might assume it’s him singing the famous “A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody”, but you’d be wrong (as I was)!  In fact Morgan himself didn’t find out that his voice in the number was dubbed until he watched it at the premiere.  Imagine that…
  • Morgan made five films in 1936 another of which was Suzy with Jean Harlow, Franchot Tone and Cary Grant.  That’s an awful lot of good looks for one picture.
  • Speaking of good looks, Morgan is a bit of a Prince Chaming in this picture and that’s not the only fairy tale suggestion you’ll get here.  Watch for soothing rhythmic imagery in this film: a snow globe containing a child’s sled, Cinderella references with time-ticking deadlines, a speakeasy with a special bottle of liquor, seemingly bottomless.  Interestingly enough, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane was in production, also at RKO, when this film was released.  For Kitty the snow globe and the sled within represent her “little girl”, ties to her father, childhood and lost innocence.  This snow globe also makes for a unique transitional device during short interludes of voice over-narration, spoken by the much wiser Kitty.  Interesting the way one artistic endeavor can influence another. As well as awards…
  • Rogers was probably pretty happy she accepted this role.  It first went to Katherine Hepburn who turned it down.  Hepburn was subsequently nominated that same year for The Philadelphia Story, which she considered her “comeback vehicle”, in a role she created for the stage, but lost the Oscar to Rogers.  Funny how things turn out…
  • In fact Kitty Foyle was nominated for five Academy Awards:  Best Picture, Best Director for Sam Wood, Best Actress in a Leading Role, Writing – Adapted Screenplay for Dalton Trumbo and Best Sound.  This was Wood’s second nomination; he had three altogether but never won.  But Trumbo, who was also nominated three times, won twice, both times under a pseudonym due to Hollywood blacklisting.  The record was subsequently changed to reflect his unique contributions.  Roman Holiday, a true American classic, is the best known of these two winners.
  • Besides winning Rogers her award, this film has another mark of distinction:  the subsequent donning of little white collars by secretaries and women in the workforce by the droves.  As noted prophetically by film critic John Mosher in The New Yorker, “I am inclined to think that it’s Miss Ginger alone who makes ‘Kitty Foyle’ a better-than-average film and Kitty herself a proper model for those hundreds of thousands of young things who will now be adding a touch of white to their neckline.” What is it with these film critics and their ability to foresee trends?  And so the phrase “White Collar Girl” became a part of the vernacular.  Life magazine did a photo essay on the life and times of such a girl, modeled after Rogers’ Kitty.  One caption reads “The Five p.m. feeling is awful. Finished with work, she is sure of meal and a bed. But she suffers the dreadful loneliness of the White Collar Girl because she has nothing to do between work and bedtime. Here is the five p.m. feeling in Times Square”. Cue dismal-looking  model.  This is pretty heavy stuff and gives some insight into the cultural context of this film.  I’m getting that five p.m. feeling just reading about it.
  • RKO, knowing its audience and the appeal of both the film and the novel, arranged for Rogers’ to attend an annual stenographers’ ball in New York just two weeks after the film’s opening.  Rogers donned her little white collar but ever the movie star, and good PR person, she decorated it with a  generous diamond broach and wore a mink coat, matching mink-trimmed hat and gold earrings. She was met at Grand Central Station by 1,500 cheering fans and was given a special scroll by that year’s Queen of the Stenographers.
  • Ginger Rogers is listed in the AFI’s 50 Greatest Screen Legends, coming in at number 14.

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14 thoughts on “Sensible Cinderella: Kitty Foyle (1940)

  1. I have never attempted to express it, but now I don’t have to – you have beautifully written about Ginger’s award-worthy performance in this film. If the audience doesn’t relate or feel for Ginger as Kitty then the whole thing falls apart. We can’t help but love and root for that girl. I especially like how you pointed out that she supported the script. The best always do.

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    1. Thank you so much Patricia! I appreciate your insightful comments. The film really does work well in emotionally moving us along with Kitty. I believe that may be one of its charms and why it works the way it does. I’ve watched it a number of times and each time she tugs at my heart even more; I’ve really become quite fond of the film.

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  2. Clearly I have to re~visit “Kitty Foyle” after reading your lovely review. I’m a Ginger fan as well and I always thought she had a very natural style. To me she’s always speaking and not reciting.

    It’s something we take for granted now this “career girl” thing. But Ginger plays it off and not in this over-arching way of Roz Russell ( who I love ). I’m glad women who WANT to work and earn their own money, CAN do this. ( Dowery? Dowery? I don’ have no stinkin’ dowery!!” )

    Bland…wooden…JAMES Craig? He makes my heart pitter patter. He’s my Gable-lite guy. I like how you say Ginger, the glamour princess, can totally rock this Every Woman role. ( Think of her in “Tender Comrade” ). Who else…maybe Joan Crawford really kept up with the style of the times. Think of Ginger with that 30’s marcelled Blonde bob and then the soft shoulder length hair of late 30’s. That 40’s pompadour. Hair color change. Comedy, drama. Your essay makes me re-realize what an all~round talent Ginger is. Yep, I must give “Kitty Foyle” another visit…thanks to your very persuasive writing. She goes through all the emotions ev’ry gal has gone through.

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  3. Thanks Theresa! Ginger had quite a career and I know that YOU know it goes far, very far, beyond her work with Astaire. I love seeing her in her later films. She’s so accomplished, such a professional by this point, her confidence only makes her more natural.

    I’ll have to make a point of looking for James Craig in other vehicles to discover his charms. It may be that, for me, he did not hold up well next to Dennis Morgan who if you couldn’t tell, has a bit of my heart; it all goes back to Christmas In Connecticut. It could be Craig’s role too. If he were too wonderful, Kitty wouldn’t have much of a choice! But Craig and Trumbo’s screenplay keep this a tough one for her. This doctor is a bit of a character.

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  4. I agree with your assessment of KITTY FOYLE the film and Ginger as Kitty Foyle. A good movie with a brilliant actress who deserved her Oscar. This may be my favorite Ginger Rogers movie, I don’t know. I especially loved your Notes and Extras, fascinating stuff. Thanks, Molly!

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    1. It’s definitely one of my favorites of hers too. I have a few – Carefree, Bachelor Mother and Primrose Path being others that quickly come to mind. I recently watched The Major and the Minor and I liked that quite a bit too. Sometimes light entertainment is exactly what I need and Ginger can definitely deliver and be very funny. Thank you for your good words. They mean a lot coming from you!

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  5. Great article! Ginger Rogers is consistently underrated as a dramatic actress, perhaps due to her supreme talents as a dancer and comedienne.

    I am curious about the source of the note about Hepburn turning down Kitty Foyle. I’ve read a lot about Ginger and RKO over this period but haven’t come across that before.

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    1. Thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed it. It’s always nice to meet another who appreciates Ginger. I do like her in her dramatic roles and wonder if the Academy didn’t also recognize her work for Primrose Path as well with this Oscar. There’s that possibility…
      I had first read that Hepburn was offered the role on Wikipedia and the source for that was IMDb. But I looked a little further and found that Anne Edwards mentions it in her biography ‘Katharine Hepburn: A Remarkable Woman’. It seems like I recall too in reading about the 1940’s Best Actress Oscar race that Hepburn, having sold the screenplay to MGM, was quite caught up in assisting in the development of The Philadelphia Story. So the timing would not have been good for her and may have been why she turned Kitty Foyle down. Edwards mentions that the pay was less than she would come to receive with the success of The Philadelphia Story. Perhaps that was a factor? Her declining to star in KF is also noted in this nice little review of the film: http://www.filmsdefrance.com/review/kitty-foyle-1940.html

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  6. Thanks for pointing out the reference in the Edwards bio. I’ll look that up. I also found a “private” quote from Hepburn herself (from many decades later) in a bio by A Scott Berg. That is certainly intriguing.

    It confuses me because a comprehensive history of RKO by Richard Jewell, who had access to the corporate archives, claims Ginger was always producer David Hempstead’s first choice. Though he did have to convince the corporate president, who had suggested Carole Lombard or Maureen O’Hara.

    Of course not everything makes it into the written record. But also memories can get mixed up as the years pass.

    The timing seems off, as Hepburn and RKO had parted ways in 1938 after she had several financial flops, including Bringing Up Baby, and she had left Hollywood entirely. Why would they offer her this role that doesn’t even seem to fit her type well?

    So I’m on a quest to find a source for this closer in time to when it actually happened.

    Thanks again!

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    1. Let me know what you find. I would be interested. I do see what you are saying regarding the timing. Of the two actresses you mention, Carole Lombard would’ve been lovely in this role. Maureen O’Hara too would have been able to do a fine job; I’m happy with how it turned out.

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      1. I was just reading a little bit further. The only thing I could see was that with her stage success in The Philadelphia Story that perhaps RKO offered her an olive branch? Perhaps even hoping to ultimately get TPS? But this is all conjecture. Certainly she was quite busy with TPS and then with taking it from stage to screen. I agree that the role of Kitty hardly suits her.

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