Cast & Crew
Robert B. Sinclair
Facing eviction from the cottage where he and his wife Angie have lived for thirty years, Abe Peabody, a retired sea captain, resorts to desperate measures to provide for his wife Angie. In order to put his wife in the fancy Pinecliff Home for Retired Ladies, Abe makes an illegal profit on the sale of his boat to Roger Bartlett. Although the ladies at Pinecliff live by strict rules, once Angie moves in, they offer Abe refuge there because they hate to see the elderly couple parted. Abe reluctantly consents to live at Pinecliff, and, because he is the thirty-first resident of the institution, he is soon nicknamed Old Lady Number Thirty-One. Life in the home proves to be quite a challenge for the former seaman, as he unwittingly becomes the subject of attention, gossip, and jealousy among the old ladies. They begin suspecting a tryst between Abe and Nancy Crocker, a "loose cannon" who likes to sneak a nip of liquor with Abe every so often, and later believe he is having an affair with Blossy Stort, with whom he was seen in the garden engaging in a private conversation. In actuality, Abe was merely giving advice to the lonely spinster, suggesting that she meet his friend, Sam Darby. When Abe accidentally crawls into the window of the wrong room and startles Nancy, the ladies discover him and send him away. Despondent, Abe examines his life insurance policy and prepares for suicide, until Abigail Morrow, the Pinecliff director, rescues him. While the old ladies try to figure out how to help Abe, a nearby ship puts in a distress call. Abe redeems himself by rescuing the ship, and returns a hero. In order to help Abe, the ladies corner Bartlett and blackmail him into returning Abe's share of the ship and promising to give back the Peabodys house.
Robert B. Sinclair
Dan Dailey Jr.
Ed J. Brady
Edwin B. Willis
The Captain is a Lady
The story is not an original but, rather, one that had a long pedigree starting off as a popular novel called Old Lady 31 written by Louise Forsslund and published in 1909. Forsslund was a pseudonym for Mary Louise Foster and she came by her storytelling abilities naturally, having heard many a tall tale told by her father, Andrew W. Foster, to the clients of his hotel in Long Island, New York. As a young man, Foster had been a prospector in California during the Gold Rush of '49 and there had teamed up with another young man, Samuel Clemens, to look for gold in the Humboldt Mountains. They did not find any but Foster did strike a mother lode of stories about his partner who would later become world famous as Mark Twain. Foster would entertain his patrons with reminiscences of the great author.
His daughter's novel is set among the seafarers of Long Island and tells of a captain who loses his savings in a business venture. Unable to support his wife any longer, he admits her into an old ladies' home but growing lonely, decides to join her. The only way he can do that, however, is by donning women's clothes and registering as a woman. There he becomes known as "Old Lady 31."
Old Lady 31 was turned into a stage success by Rachel Crothers in 1916 and a British film under the same title in 1920. Perhaps MGM came by the property in a deal because, at the same time, they were filming another Crothers' stage hit, Susan and God (1940), as an A picture with Joan Crawford.
Charles Coburn is the captain forced to don drag and the role is a change of pace from the usual parts this often-used character actor was assigned. Coburn, now best-known as Barbara Stanwyck's card sharp father in The Lady Eve (1941), usually played aristocrats or faux-aristocrats, often wearing a monocle. He would go on to win an Academy Award® for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as a wily matchmaker in The More the Merrier (1943). The Captain's spouse is played by Beulah Bondi, another often-seen character actress, most famous for playing James Stewart's "Ma" in both Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and It's a Wonderful Life (1946). Also featured in the cast is young juvenile Dan Dailey, then billed as Dan Dailey, Jr.
The Captain Is a Lady is another in the long line of Hollywood comedies that would put actors in women's clothing. It is a chance to see how Charles Coburn stacks up against those other famous accidental transvestites, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot (1959) and Tom Hanks in the TV series, Bosom Buddies (1980).
Director: Robert B. Sinclair
Producer: Frederick Stephani
Writer: Henry Clark based on the novel Old Lady 31 by Louise Forsslund and the play by Rachel Crothers
Cinematographer: Leonard Smith
Editor: Frank Hull
Music: Bronislau Kaper
Cast: Charles Coburn (Captain Abe Peabody), Beulah Bondi (Angie Peabody), Virginia Grey (Mary Peabody), Dan Dailey (Perth Nickerson), Billie Burke (Blossy Stort).
by Brian Cady
The Captain is a Lady
Virginia Grey (1917-2004)
She was was born in Los Angeles on March 22, 1917, and was exposed to the film industry at a very young age. Her father, Ray Grey, was a Keystone Cop and acted in several other of Mack Sennett's comedies with the likes of Mabel Normand, Dorothy Gish and Ben Turpin. When her father died when she was still a child, Virginia's mother encouraged her to join the acting game and audition for the role of Eva for Uncle Tom's Cabin, a big budget picture for Universal Studios in the day. She won the role, and acted in a few more pictures at the studio: The Michigan Kid and Heart to Heart (both 1928), before she decided to temporarily leave acting to finish her schooling.
She returned to films after graduating from high school, and after bouncing around Hollywood doing bits for various studios, she hooked up with MGM in 1938. Her roles in her first few films were fairly non-descript: In Test Pilot and Ladies in Distress (both 1938), she did little more than look pretty, but in the following year she had scene-stealing parts in The Women (upstaging Joan Crawford in a delicious scene as a wisecracking perfume counter girl) and as the suffering heroine in Another Thin Man (both 1939).
Despite her versatility (she could handle comedy or drama with equal effectiveness), MGM would cast her in some above-average, but hardly starmaking movies: Whistling in the Dark, The Big Store (both 1941), and Tarzan's New York Adventure (1942). She left MGM in 1943 and became a freelance actress for several studios, but her material as a leading lady throughout the '40s were mediocre: Swamp Fire, House of Horrors (both 1946), and Mexican Hayride (1948) were sadly the more interesting films in her post-MGM period. But by the '50s she was a well-established character actress, appearing in fairly big-budget pictures: All That Heaven Allows, The Rose Tattoo (both 1955), Jeanne Eagels (1957).
In the '60s, Grey turned to television and found work on a variety of hit shows: Wagon Train, Peter Gunn, Bonanza, My Three Sons, I Spy, and several others; plus she also captured a a couple of notable supporting parts in these films: Madame X (1966), and Airport (1970), before retiring completely from acting in the early '70s. She is survived by her sister, Lorraine Grey Heindorf, two nieces and two nephews.
by Michael T. Toole
Virginia Grey (1917-2004)
The working title for this film was Old Lady 31. According to a March 1935 Hollywood Reporter news item, an independent production company called Blue Ribbon decided to drop this picture from production "due to possible legal entanglements over the rights." Another film based on the same source was the 1920 Metro Pictures, Inc. film, Old Lady 31, which starred Emma Dunn and Henry Harmon (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films 1911-20; F1.3220).