DVD: Finishing School
Release Date: February 15, 2011
Finishing School is indecent.
That’s not my opinion. I find the 1934 film, released for the first time on DVD from the Warner Archive, to be simply charming. It was the notorious Legion of Decency who condemned the film when it premiered. A few years later the Legion would help strengthen the Hollywood Production code and create a generation of films featuring married couples in twin beds. Most of the things that modern audiences hate about old movies (the goody-two-shows characters, the unrealistic dialogue, the heavy-handed morality) were the result of the production code. Luckily, we have pre-code films like Finishing School to show us a less sanitized version of history.
Finishing School is a slip of a film propelled along more by charm than plot. The story follows society daughter Virginia Radcliff (Frances Dee) as she is sent to the elite Crockett Hall finishing school. Dee is an actress that doesn’t have much name recognition these days. She was Meg in the Katherine Hepburn version of Little Women and Mrs. Joel McCrea in real life. It’s a shame that she isn’t better known since she is truly one of the great beauties of Hollywood history with a lovely expressive face. Even though she was 25 and already married by the time she made Finishing School she looks every bit the naïve and innocent girl. There’s a moment where Virginia is shyly admitting that she’s always wanted to know what it’s like to get drunk that Dee underplays so perfectly that it seems perfectly real.
Virginia is sent to Crockett Hall by her self-absorbed mother (Glenda the Good Witch herself, Billie Burke) where she is told the strict rules of the facility: no smoking, no drinking, no makeup, and you can only bring two horses with you from home. Virginia vows to follow these rules even as the other girls, led by Ginger Rogers’s character Pony, ignore them.
Rogers gets to be a smartass bad girl here and she is great. The movie gives her some of the best lines (on the upper class gentlemen the girls are meant to marry): “If you took all the hair off their combined chest you wouldn’t have enough to make a wig for a grape.”) and she steals every scene she is in. The first half of the film focuses on the girls of Crockett Hall as they learn the important things in life, like how many calling cards to leave if the person you are visiting isn’t home. Crockett’s lessons are absurdly out of touch with reality, but to the depression era audiences who originally saw the movie it must have been especially galling. That’s the point. Finishing School is one of those films that exposes the hypocrisy of the idle rich, a popular genre at the time.
Playing the part of the working man in the film is Bruce Cabot as Mac, a waiter/medical intern. Cabot was fresh off what would turn out to be his most famous part, Jack Driscoll in King Kong. Mac is a 180 from the hyper-masculine Driscoll. He’s kind, sensitive, and not intimidated by Virginia’s wealthy background. Their romance captures the sweet elation of first love. Of course the powers that be at Crockett can’t allow one of their girls to be linked with a working man and so the headmistress starts conspiring to keep the pair separated.
They still find a way to be together when Mac sneaks onto campus during Christmas and the two consummate their relationship. This is the scene that caused the film to be singled out by the Legion of Decency, but the camera fades away after a kiss. The fact that implied pre-marital sex was shown was enough to stir up protesters. The Legion was probably also disappointed that the results of that union play as a deus ex machina to create a happy ending. Virginia ends up pregnant (because in movies whenever a virgin has sex she’ll get pregnant) which delights her and Mac since it means that nobody can oppose their marriage. Finishing School might represent the first time unplanned pregnancy has been shown as a solution to difficult problems, at least outside of the offices of 16 and Pregnant.
Some of the best moments in Finishing School are the slices of life: The shot of a milk truck being pulled by a horse. The amazing wardrobe that includes silk dressing gowns and fur embellished suits. The giddiness of two best friends having a pillow fight or a group of teenage girls in the back of a taxi all putting on their makeup the moment they are out of sight of the chaperone. Finishing School isn’t some essential piece of classic cinema. It will never be studied shot-by-shot in a film school. It’s just one of those great little movies that make you smile.
Finishing School is available from the Warner Archive which has been doing amazing work releasing classic films that have been lost to history. The Archive makes the disc on demand using the best quality video master available currently. There are moments of graininess but nothing that really detracts from the enjoyment of the movie. Those who demand perfectly re-mastered quality will be disappointed, but they would be missing out on a charming pre-code film. That really would be indecent.