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Over 21 (1945) is based on a hit play by Ruth Gordon which was loosely drawn from her own experience. It's essentially a comedy/drama in which Irene Dunne plays a successful novelist and screenwriter married to Alexander Knox, a newspaper editor. Knox joins the army so that he can experience war himself and become better able to write about it, and Dunne eventually - and surreptitiously - takes over his job of writing editorials under his name, without letting the publisher (Charles Coburn) know that she is doing so. When Knox ultimately realizes what she's done, he pays tribute to her at his boot camp graduation ceremony, in a memorable speech in which he reads Dunne's editorial "The World and Apple Pie," declaring that he could not have come up with anything better himself.
Made during WWII and released just after V-J Day, Over 21 has some insightful things to say about men's and women's roles in society at the time, specifically in an era in which women were taking on so much traditionally male work. Film historian Jeanine Basinger, in her book A Woman's View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women 1930-1960, has expounded on these themes: Dunne is "a career woman who takes over her husband's role in life. [She] becomes both male and female hero to the story." Over 21 shows Dunne as incapable of baking an apple pie, and Knox as unfit for boot camp. "Their gender failures," writes Basinger, "hers as cook and his as athlete, are appropriate to a time in pop-culture history in which audiences were asked to be supertolerant of one another. It was also a time in which women had to do men's jobs...Irene Dunne takes her husband's place, and he is proud of her for it. She is, he says, 'the best newspaperman there is.' She has helped him through school, mothered him, loved him, covered his job for him, and he loves her for it. She has become a man, and the action is welcome. But only in wartime, and only because the play was written by a woman!"
In addition to writing the play, Ruth Gordon also played the Dunne character on Broadway. Of the film version, The New York Times noted that Dunne deliberately performed her part in much the same manner as Gordon had on stage: "the strong urge to ape Miss Gordon, not only in manner but in voice (although it may have been strictly unconscious), becomes monotonous and distracting after a time... The role is (pardon us) over-Dunne." Chances are this was only noticeable to those of the era who had actually seen Gordon play the role.
Supporting player Charles Coburn won high praise from critics, with The Times calling him "comically explosive."
Producer: Sidney Buchman
Director: Charles Vidor
Screenplay: Sidney Buchman, Ruth Gordon (play)
Cinematography: Rudolph Mate
Film Editing: Otto Meyer
Art Direction: Stephen Goosson, Rudolph Sternad
Music: Marlin Skiles
Cast: Irene Dunne (Paula Wharton), Alexander Knox (Max Wharton), Charles Coburn (Robert Gow), Jeff Donnell (Jan Lupton), Loren Tindall (Roy Lupton), Lee Patrick (Mrs. Foley).
by Jeremy Arnold