' ' Cinema Romantico: Faithful In My Fashion

Monday, June 14, 2010

Faithful In My Fashion

No question, as those who have endured "Leap Year" can attest, the romantic comedy is currently in a state of crisis. Can it survive? Can it recover? Can it progress? Perhaps the answer lies in the romantic comedies of the past, and not just those which garner the most fame, but in those relatively unknown to modern day audiences. It was with these thoughts in mind I sat down to watch to 1946's "Faithful In My Fashion", starring my Iowa homegirl Donna Reed, a post WWII rom com that is by no means brilliant, did not aim to change the rules of the game, but serves up its pleasures modestly and, most importantly, without the chicanery so common to the awful rom coms of now.

Jeff (Tom Drake - or, as he's also known, The Boy Next Door in "Meet Me In St. Louis") is a soldier home in New York City for a two week furlough where he is eager to re-unite with Jean (Reed), employed at the same department store where he worked and with whom he fell head over heels four years ago before he left and to whom he became engaged while he was away. He surprises her at the store as the movie opens but the expression on Jean's face gives away that all is not as it seems. No, in these last four years Jean has fallen for one Walter Medcraft, a man we assume is not as worthy for Jean as Jeff once we learn he works at the same store in (ugh) the accounting department. But Jean cannot bring herself to tell Jeff the truth.

Her gossipy co-workers, realizing she has failed to spill the proverbial beans, express their disappointment and when she decides once and for all that she must confess they all realize she can't. After all, Jeff only has two weeks before he must ship out again. These two weeks must be all happiness, no sadness, and so shall it be.

(Sidenote: Throughout the film Jeff refers to Jean as "Chunky." Yes. Chunky. Donna Reed is not even remotely chunky. Is this supposed to be 1946 irony? I can't say because it's never explained. Who on God's green earth thought that was a good idea? Lionel Houser, screenwriter, I'm looking at you.)

Of course, it won't be that easy. Jean's life is a little different now, like, say, the fact she no longer lives at the apartment where Jeff thinks she lives and where he is set to pick her up later that night which leads to Jean and her boss, Mr. Dilworthy (Edward Everett Horton), convincing the current occupant of the apartment, Professor Boris Riminoffsky (Sig Ruman), to move out for two weeks so she can move in to keep up the charade. Luckily, Riminoffsky is as an apparent romantic and is more than happy to oblige. Of course, Riminoffsky doubles as a music teacher and so after he has departed Jean unwittingly allows a stampede of instrument-wielding children into the apartment moments before Jeff is set to show up. Now....

Here are where the differences between then and now begin to appear. As a modern day viewer I was conditioned to expect Jeff walking in while the kids were making a mighty racket and then Donna Reed feigning that she's a music teacher and hijinks of all sorts ensuing. Not so. She manages to usher the kids out just as Jeff arrives and, sure, she calls one kid Tommy when his name is actually Eddie but that's the extent of the "wacky" misunderstanding and then the scene evolves into something far more affecting as they recall the first time they met and he sits down at the piano and plays a tune and you can in Jean's eyes in that lush black and white (while I'm at it, Donna Reed's beauty was much better served with her hair down than up in that Elaine Benes-y wall) how and why she fell for Jeff way back when and, hey, she might just be falling for him all over again. It is a vivid illustration of characters driving the plot rather than the alternative which is what we here in the 00's are used to having served to us.

Or consider the inevitable confrontation between Jeff and Walter minus the fact it isn't a confrontation at all but two men who don't know they are both engaged to the same woman. In 2010 Walter is a boorish blowhard so the audience can openly root against him even though this makes it implausible that Jean would ever want to be with him in the first place. (See: Bradley Cooper in "Wedding Crashers.") Walter, however, is just as friendly as Jeff but the movie - and this is damn tricky, people, when he only has a single scene - makes him multi-dimensional when he admits in a roundabout way that he is not ready for marriage.

Or consider the conclusion when Jean's good-hearted co-workers (and it's strange to use the phrase good-hearted in conjunction with the Wicked Witch Of The West - Margaret Hamilton) scheme to bring she and Jeff face to face after after the end of the second act, as he must, has appeared to have lost Jean. It might be a little disturbing for modern day viewers to hear these good-hearted co-workers refer to Jeff as the "customer" and Jean as (ahem) the "merchandise" but nonetheless the script shows intelligence in that it doesn't let anyone but Jeff and Jean make the decision for them.

"Faithful In My Fashion" isn't a classic but a competent, professional film without any needless fluff. Today's multitude of wannabe rom coms would be wise to pay attention to it. (Which means they won't.)

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