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"I'm as happy as the average man could hope to be"
Robert Young's opening narration in H.M. Pulham, Esq.
The poet laureate of the working class, director King Vidor raised hissights socially for H.M. Pulham, Esq., his 1941 adaptation of J.P Marquand's novel about aBoston blue blood tempted to leave his wife as he looks back on the choicesthat have made him society's idea of a success. Still haunted bymemories of the working-class woman he would have married had his fathernot interfered, he attempts a reunion that could change his life forever.Vidor brought to the story the same trenchant social commentary that hadmarked such classics of his as The Crowd (1928) and Our DailyBread (1934), while also demonstrating a rare grace in penetrating hisleading character's smug exterior.
Vidor had scored a big hit with his adaptation of the historical epicNorthwest Passage (1940) when he and wife Elizabeth Hill took onthis adaptation of Marquand's novel. He was attracted by the idea of mantrying to re-capture a lost love, something he had once attempted himself.The book had been a best seller, a successful serial in McCall'sMagazine and a Reader's Digest condensed book; MGM estimated thatmore than 5 million people had read it. Nonetheless, Vidor had troublecasting the male lead. Both Gary Cooper and James Stewart turned him down,leading him to offer the role to Robert Young, a solid professional buthardly a star. To make the picture's marquee more attractive, studioexecutives insisted he cast Viennese sexpot Hedy Lamarr as Marvin Myles,the Iowa farm girl Young loves and leaves so he can marry within his class.Since Lamarr's accent was far from Iowa, Vidor inserted a line in whichshe explains that her family had emigrated from Europe to the Midwest.Vidor would later state that he should have cast an American actress in therole. His dream choice in retrospect would have been Shirley MacLaine,although she was still more than a decade away from film stardom when hemade the picture.
Marquand came to Hollywood to advise Vidor and Hill on the screenplay,delighting them with his dry wit and keen observation of classdistinctions. One day Vidor took him to lunch in the MGM commissary wherea studio executive interrupted them to ask, "What is this H.M.S.Pulham about, an over-age destroyer?" Nonplussed, Marquand simplyreplied, "Yes, by God, it is."
Vidor's inventiveness with the camera was already legendary when he madeH.M. Pulham, Esq.. For a scene establishing Young's daily routine,he shot a series of close-ups of hands, feet -- everything but the actor'sface. Although the script called for the sequence to play against aclock's ticking, he actually used a metronome to keep the beat perfectly.The film is also the first to present a phone conversation as it would beheard in real life and use undistorted voice-overs while one character isreading another's letter. Previously sound editors had used distortion inboth cases.
For Young and Lamarr's failed reunion Vidor drew on the experience that hadsparked his initial interest in the story. While he had been writing thescript for his silent classic The Big Parade (1925), he looked up awoman he had almost married during his youth in Texas. Years later, sheseemed like a different person -- rough, crude and common; nothing like the girl he once knew. In the film, Young and Lamarr'sreunion is proceeding well until she reveals a side of herself that shows how much the years have hardened her.
H.M. Pulham, Esq. brought Vidor some of his best reviews since hissilent classics. It also won praise for Young and Charles Coburn, whoplayed his father, with both named among the best actors of the year by theNational Board of Review. Lamarr's notices were more mixed. Although somecritics hailed the performance as her most energetic in years, otherscomplained that she was woefully miscast. In later years, she would citeMarvin as her favorite among all her characters. Co-star Ruth Hussey, whoplayed Young's wife, received strong reviews, though some critics thought she was too attractive in the part andthat Lamarr, one of the screen's most glamorous stars, could not pose abelievable threat to her marriage.
Producer-Director: King Vidor
Screenplay: Vidor & Elizabeth Hill
Based on the Novel by John P. Marquand
Cinematography: Ray June
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Malcolm Brown
Music: Bronislau Kaper
Cast: Hedy Lamarr (Marvin Myles), Robert Young (Harry Pulham),Ruth Hussey (Kay Motford), Charles Coburn (Mr. Pulham, Sr.), Van Heflin(Bill King), Fay Holden (Mrs. Pulham), Bonita Granville (Mary Pulham), LeifErickson (Rodney "Bo-Jo" Brown), Sara Haden (Miss Rollo), Connie Gilchrist(Tillie), Frank Faylen (Sergeant), Anne Revere (Miss Redfern), John Raitt(Soldier), Ava Gardner (Girl).BW-120m. Closed captioning.
by Frank Miller