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Ginger Rogers moved to Hollywood in 1931 after costarring on Broadway and appearing in a few films on the East Coast. Over the next couple of years, she worked in one film after another for a variety of studios, including Paramount, Warner Bros., and RKO. In 1933 alone, she appeared in nine movies, generally playing secondary roles or cast as part of a large ensemble. During this period, a star image was constructed for Rogers in which she excelled at playing wisecracking, down-to-earth women. Her characters exhibited an appealing balance between glamour, worldliness, and toughness that attracted women viewers. This persona is best remembered in the Warner Bros.'s musicals 42nd Street (1933) and The Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), in which her characters' names, Anytime Annie and Fay Fortune, reflect a preoccupation with landing a sugar daddy, a practical pursuit for a working-class character during the Depression. Other films that made use of Rogers's sassy, tough-talking image include the lesser-known Finishing School (1934).
Rogers received third billing in this romantic drama starring Frances Dee as Virginia Radcliff, a new student at snobbish Crockett Hall. Billie Burke plays Virginia's mother, who is more interested in the Radcliffs' social standing than in the welfare of her daughter. Miss Van Alstyne, the head of Crockett Hall played by Beulah Bondi, warns Virginia that she will not tolerate smoking, drinking, or bad behavior at her school. Like Mrs. Radcliff, Miss Van Alstyne is concerned with social status, and her rules are designed to avoid scandal rather than to protect the students. Rogers costars as Virginia's roommate, Cecilia Ferris, who is nicknamed Pony because of her talent for horseback riding. Almost as soon as Virginia moves in, cynical, wisecracking Pony offers her a cigarette and a drink. Pony sees through Miss Van Alstyne and shrewdly remarks to Virginia that Crockett students can do anything they like as long as they don't get caught, which will embarrass the school. Though resistant at first, Virginia quickly falls in with Pony's crowd. When the girls sneak away to spend the weekend drinking and carousing at a New York City hotel , Virginia ends up drunk and in the clutches of a cad. Young intern Dr. Ralph "Mac" McFarland rescues her, and the two embark on a romance that leads Virginia into trouble.
In Finishing School, directors Wanda Tuchock and George Nichols, Jr. took full advantage of Rogers's star image and her talents as a comedienne. Attractive, confident, and wise beyond her years, Pony disregards the rules and engages in reckless behavior, but she is tough enough to handle it. Though not working class like so many of Rogers's characters, Pony shows distaste for the stuffy atmosphere of Crockett Hall, which makes her easy to relate to for ordinary viewers. When she hires a former vaudeville actress to pose as her aunt from New York, so the girls can leave school for their weekend in the big city, fun-loving Pony is so good at taking charge that their adventure seems harmless despite Virginia's near-rape by one of the young men at their party. Rogers's talent for repartee and well-timed quips adds to the fun of her character, making Pony far more memorable than the other actresses, including Dee. When a freshman who tags along after the girls asks if she can borrow a brassiere, Pony hands over the garment, remarking that "it's like putting a saddle on a Pekinese." Finishing School was not well received by film reviewers, but several did single out Rogers as the movie's best feature, with Variety declaring Rogers the film's "one and only comic."
To audiences today, Rogers is best known as Fred Astaire's partner in a stylish series of romantic musicals for RKO. In the Astaire-Rogers films, her image grew more elegant, refined, and glamorous, though her characters retain a sassy, worldly air and are still quick with a quip. Released in May 1934, Finishing School opened after Flying Down to Rio (1933), the pair's first film together, and before The Gay Divorcee (1934), their second. By the time The Gay Divorcee opened in October 1934, Rogers had become a bona fide leading lady. Finishing School represents the end of the first phase of Rogers's career, with her character Pony Ferris perfectly encapsulating her early 1930s image.
In addition to its place in Rogers's career, Finishing School is notable because its May 1934 release date just skirts the mandatory use of the Motion Picture Production Code for the Hollywood studios. Will Hays had adopted the Production Code in 1930 as a way to control screen content and to avoid the meddling of state censorship boards, which frequently edited out objectionable content from films without consulting the studios. About one-third of America's movie-going citizens lived in areas that had state or local censorship boards, so the problem was widespread. The hatchet jobs of these local censors on controversial films resulted in the circulation of mutilated prints to many states, a practice Hays and the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) deplored. For Hays, the solution was for studios to follow the guidelines of the Code, ensuring that objectionable content was extracted from films at the script stage. However, producers and studios weren't obligated to follow Code rules and guidelines, and in many cases, the advice of Will Hays and his staff went unheeded. The tension between the Hollywood industry and many watchdog groups, which felt the movies were going too far in terms of unsavory content, off-color slang, ethnic slurs, and sexual references, peaked in 1934 at the formation of the Legion of Decency (LOD). The Catholic Church founded the LOD in order to evaluate the content of Hollywood movies, guide Catholic congregations on the moral content of specific films, and monitor the signing of pledges by Catholics who promised to stay away from movies deemed objectionable. Eventually, rumors of widespread boycotts of Hollywood movies in the major urban centers frightened the studios into taking firm action regarding the use of the Production Code, and on June 13, 1934, it became mandatory to follow the Code.
Many elements of the plot and depictions of characters in Finishing School did not meet the guidelines of the Code, and the Legion of Decency condemned the film for its content. Many writers have cited the behavior of the characters as problematic, because Pony and her friends smoke, drink, and cavort in hotel rooms with young men, though the latter is only implied. However, what actually violated the Code was not the behavior itself but the idea that the girls were left unpunished for their high jinks by authority figures or by fate. That was a major part of the "compensating moral values" concept of the Production Code: Films could depict immoral, improper, or anti-social behavior, because that is the material of drama, but the characters had to suffer the consequences for choosing the wrong path.
It is the fate of Virginia Radcliff that truly identifies Finishing School as a pre-Code film. Virginia's relationship with Mac leads to a Christmas tryst that results in her pregnancy, though her condition is never discussed openly by the characters. Virginia feels abandoned by Mac, because his letters to her have been intercepted and destroyed by Miss Van Alstyne. When the tyrannical old woman suspects that Virginia is in trouble, she forces the frightened girl to see the school's doctor to shame her into admitting her indiscretions as a horrified Mrs. Radcliff mumbles and whimpers about her social standing. Both Miss Van Alstyne and Virginia's mother care only about their reputations, and they are clearly presented as the story's villains. At the end, Mac arrives to retrieve Virginia from Crockett Hall and then promptly proposes marriage. Instead of being punished for being pregnant out of wedlock, Virginia emerges with her happy ending.
A more subtle violation of the Production Code in Finishing School is the criticism of certain American social institutions through the characters of Miss Van Alstyne, who espouses a strict moral code, and the Radcliffs, who embody the nuclear family. The Production Code mandated support of American social institutions and traditional values within Hollywood movies through positive depictions of the nuclear family, religion, law and order, capitalism, education, and other pillars of our society. Though the "one bad apple" idea was accepted-in which one corrupt cop, one bad parent, or one misguided doctor or educator could be portrayed-the institution he or she represented had to be upheld via other characters who were proper role models. In Finishing School, there are no good teachers at Crockett Hall to properly model moral behavior, and there are no selfless parents to balance the neglectful, self-centered Radcliffs. It is likely that the producers of Finishing School did not intend to criticize society's institutions and traditional moral values. Given the time frame of the Depression, the film is merely following the convention of condemning the practices of the rich (the status-seeking Radcliffs and the repressive Crockett Hall) while praising the character of the working man (the honest and true Mac), but such unbalanced depictions of both American values and the nuclear family would not have passed the Hays Office after June 13, 1934.
Producer: Kenneth Macgowan
Directors: Wanda Tuchock and George Nichols, Jr.
Screenplay: Wanda Tuchock, based on a story by David Hempstead and a play by Katherine Clugston
Cinematography: J. Roy Hunt
Editor: Arthur Schmidt
Art Director: Van Nest Polglase and Albert S. D'Agostino
Music: Max Steiner
Costume Designer: Walter Plunkett
Cast: Virginia Radcliff (Frances Dee), Mrs. Radcliff (Billie Burke), Cecilia "Pony" Ferris (Ginger Rogers), Dr. Ralph McFarland (Bruce Cabot), Mr. Radcliff (John Halliday), Miss Van Alstyne (Beulah Bondi), Miss Fisher (Sara Haden), Ruth (Marjorie Lytell), Billie (Anne Shirley, credited as Dawn O'Day), Nurse Maud (Jane Darwell).
by Susan Doll