Ann Vickers is an odd sort of film. Knowing nothing of it when watched, seeing that it’s based on a Sinclair Lewis novel of the same name was the first clue. Lewis never wrote lightly and is usually remembered as one of literature’s more noted social commentators. With both the novel and the film released in 1933, it would be interesting to see how the pre-code era tackled whatever societal blight that the novel illuminated.
Here’s where it gets a bit sideways from the start. Ann Vickers is a young up and coming woman who wants to make a difference in the world. Firmly situated on the moral high ground, she’s a perfect character for the conservative Irene Dunne to play. However, almost from the get-go, she’s seduced by a doughboy (Bruce Cabot) about to head off to the trenches in France. On learning she’s pregnant he reluctantly marries her, but basically abandons her after he leaves for the front.
To avoid prying eyes and the ‘shame’ of her delicate condition, she heads to Havana with a friend and the situation is resolved with the loss of the baby, though whether she had an abortion (my take) or the child was a stillbirth is never clarified. Coming back home, she decides to make a difference in prison reform, quickly butting heads with the (notably male) management of the facility. Presumably she’s an able reformer, though we see little if any of her work in action, though we do see several instances of pure random prison violence. Regardless, she’s forced out after a short time.
Again, she’s down but nowhere near out, and begins to write a book on prison reform while landing yet another plumb job, but she has difficulties in getting it published. About the same time, she meets Judge Barney Dolphin (Walter Huston), who helps her get the project finished.
Though Dolphin is married, Ann quickly falls for him and together they have a son. Concurrently rumors abound the Dolphin is crooked, taking inside information to amass a personal fortune. She stands by him at the expense of her job and in opposition to the growing evidence against him. Finally he is convicted and sent away, though she promises to wait for him with their newborn.
Now reduced to writing freelance articles on prison reform from a small apartment, Ann continues to pine away for Dolphin. Finally- and now divorced- he is released early and comes home as the curtain falls.
With a short run time all the comings and goings make for a fragmented and convoluted picture. Though director John Cromwell tries to piece it together, it is pretty clear that quite a bit of the book never makes it into the picture- yet there are purely fluff elements of the film as well. Most notably these are the entire roles of Conrad Nagel (as friend Lindsey Atwell) and Edna May Oliver (as mentor and friend Malvina Wormser), which are both more critical in the book, but reduced to mere footnotes on screen.
Though enjoyable, Ann Vickers is troubled by indecision. Is it a social statement picture trying to make a comment on prison reform or merely the saga of a woman who makes personal decisions somewhat at odds with her professional goals. (In addition to her seduction by the soldier and her affair with the married Judge Dolphin, she has another affair in between while she is married.) By trying to cover all the bases the picture sadly misses most all of them. There is a lot of unanswered questions, as in addition to any explanation of the demise of her first child, what happened to her mentor Malvina (who disappears after the first half of the picture)?
More perplexing still is the rather cavalier throwaway element to much of the talent which is on screen. Conrad Nagel is an afterthought meriting only a few short and out of context scenes. Bruce Cabot merits only slightly better, and neither he nor the lost child is ever mentioned again. Though perhaps used to set the tone on Ann’s character, perhaps this first reel of the film (which almost feels as if from an entirely different film), could have been better used to develop the prison angle. Only Walter Huston fares well on the male side of the cast, and even he appears well into the proceedings.
The glue of Ann Vickers is Irene Dunne. She is excellent in the title role, which surely caused her some struggle given her personal mindset. Without her, there is little reason to stop by the theater as her performance does smooth out some of the often disjointed pieces.
Of course the film reflects a bit of the social perspectives of the day, with women limited to either personal or professional success, but never both. It’s only when Ann’s career is basically over that she finds happiness in her relationship with Dolphin. It’s implied that her book was a smashing success only because of her relationship with the Judge and her downfall is tied to his prison sentence.
Max Steiner does the music, or so the title screen says, but there is little to note outside of the opening and closing titles. The title music is clearly his, however, and eerily similar to certain themes used later for the Steiner scored Gone with the Wind.
Ann Vickers is a film with tremendous potential, but sadly with most of the source material left out, the remaining film feels like the disjointed bits and pieces that it truly is. Irene Dunne is the only saving grace, and ever her great talent can’t overcome this type of hurdle.