My latest Warner Archive DVD-made-on-demand acquisition is a doozy, one of those films you’ve never heard of but are still entertaining to watch today. Finishing School is a short (73 minutes) morality tale against snobbery. It’s basically an historical version of Gossip Girl, full of wickedness amongst the upper classes with more money than sense, although with a more ethical ending.
Francis Dee plays Virginia Radcliff (and doesn’t that name say a bundle?), a girl sent off to school at Crockett Hall, a stodgy place full of columns and grand staircases. According to the opening text, “consideration is given only to those families of breeding and inheritance who naturally wish their daughters to be fitted for carrying on the highest social traditions.” Her flighty mother (Billie Burke) went there, so she’s a legacy. The rules are important: no smoking, no drinking, no lipstick, no locked doors, must wear uniforms, and only two horses allowed per student.
Foreshadowing: The school also “provides a high degree of protection from the less desirable associations.” Well, that depends on what you consider undesirable, doesn’t it? Virginia’s roommate “Pony” is played by Ginger Rogers, full of life and scandal. At her instigation, the girls head off to the big city for a weekend party with men, thanks to a hired fake chaperone. Virginia decides to get drunk for the first time, and when one of the boys gets a little too friendly, she’s rescued by Mac (Bruce Cabot). He’s a waiter at a hotel, someone to look down on since he’s a poor employee of the lower classes, but he’s also a medical intern, working to support himself until he becomes a doctor, and he has admirable personal ethics. The conflict between what others think of him, based on social status, and how Virginia respects and comes to love him drives the film.
The movie is not remastered — there are speckles in the image at times — but it’s almost 80 years old, so I’m amazed that it looks as good as it does. The exercise scene is fascinating, where the girls are prancing around striking attitudes in drapey short gowns held on by cords, in some kind of fake-Greek motif. Classes spend more time dwelling on how many calling cards to leave when paying a visit than literature, with one teacher giving the girls summaries of famous novels so they will be able to converse about them without having to waste time actually reading them.
Finishing School is worth watching for its glimpse at such a different time and culture. It doesn’t matter what the girls really do, so long as they keep up appearances as proper young ladies. The school’s reputation is more important than what happens to any of its students — and that hypocrisy has potentially fatal consequences. Virginia’s really the best-behaved of any of the girls, but she gets the harshest punishment — being separated from her heroic young man — because the right people don’t approve of someone who isn’t born to money.
Her selfish mother ignores her to have her own fun at cocktail parties and on vacation trips, while Dad thinks a thousand-dollar check (in the middle of the Depression!) will make up for his absences. The school officials destroy Mac’s letters and telegrams to Virginia, preventing him from contacting her. It’s no wonder the girl gets in trouble, in more ways than one. Mac is a vibrant, self-made young man, someone we can respect but not respectable enough when compared to the wimpy sons of privilege thrown at the girls. He’s clear-eyed, though, in terms of what really matters, telling off the fuddy-duddy matrons as follows: “Maybe you don’t realize the world’s too busy earning its three squares a day to worry about which fork to eat ’em with.”
The last third of the movie relies on hints and suggestions to indicate what’s happening, given the restraint of the time and expectations of the audience. (For example, a pan away to snow falling to cover up footprints indicates a significant amount of time passed with two characters alone together.) The film wound up condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency, I suspect because Virginia doesn’t get punished enough in their eyes for her lapses. By that reaction, the Legion showed how much they misunderstood the message of the film, that our decisions tell more about us than our breeding, a subtle message to ignore class distinctions in favor of integrity.
I’d seen this movie before, and I still looked forward to the DVD, which demonstrates its rewatch value. Francis Dee’s performance is natural, while Ginger Rogers is a blast to see. This under-the-radar romantic drama will be a wonderful discovery for most viewers. (The studio provided a review copy.)