Kitty Foyle

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KITTY FOYLE is barely known today, but it was a big hit in 1940, and deservedly won Ginger Rogers an Oscar for Best Actress.  Like any modern-life story related to the time it was hatched, it’s dated, but it remains enjoyable, and Rogers wonderful performance is a revelation.  Adapted by rising light Dalton Trumbo from the previous year’s bestseller novel by Christopher Morley, it was directed by Sam Wood, one of a string of hits he piloted.*

Ernest Cossart in Kitty Foyle (1940)

Kitty, a 26-year-old “white-collar girl” working in a department store in New York City, has a choice and deadline to make: marry the earnest but dull doctor (James Craig) who’s pursued her despite rejection, or run off—again—with her charming but flighty ex (Dennis Morgan).  Flashbacks trace her earlier days In Philadelphia, from a fifteen year old (Rogers pulls it off) to toiling as a secretary, where she first fell for the Morgan character while she was taking care of her ailing father.  Pop warns her that a blue collar gal and a Main Line scion ( ‘Wynwood Stafford VI’) are an ill-starred match, but how many of us have listened to people who could see we were falling for the wrong person?  Light comedy mixes in with the drama, and both work to effect: the funny stuff is clever and sly, the serious segments handled well enough that they retain charge: despite changed mores, the dilemmas remain current. Morgan and Craig are adequate, though they’re both handicapped by their characters in that one is meant to come off insubstantial and the other less-than-exciting.

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The bland guys and old-time trimmings leave the heavy lifting of the story arc then to be carried by Miss Foyle and Miss Rogers, and they happily run away with every scene.  The smart, sassy and down-to-earth Kitty is a great character, and Ginger, 29, eager to prove her stand-alone drama chops after nine giddy musicals with Fred Astaire, hits every note of mirth or distress with the grace and naturalness she displayed on the dance floor. Her range of expressions and deft line delivery are a total treat.

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The role had been turned down by Katherine Hepburn, who snootily waved off with ” I didn’t want to play a soap opera about a shop girl”.  The actresses had a testy working relationship earlier in Stage Door, with Kate playing foul by offering that “Astaire gave her class. Rogers gave him sex.” Rogers dark horse Oscar win was all the more a victory as she was up against Hepburn (for The Philadelphia Story, playing the sort of snob Kitty Foyle wasn’t) as well as Bette Davis vixen in The Letter and Joan Fontaine’s beset Rebecca (Martha Scott’s lovely work for Our Town was the fifth nominee). Hepburn was a fabulous actress, but her mannerisms would have overwhelmed and bleached someone as ‘ordinary’ as Kitty Foyle.  Ginger Rogers takes it in a walk. Seeing this turned me into a fan.

Ginger Rogers

Along with Rogers win, Academy Award nominations went to Best Picture, Director, Screenplay and Sound. Brought in for $738,000, its $2,385,000 take put it a comfy 8th place for the year (another source says that should be $4,890,000 and #17, such are the variances at play with old-time revenue reporting), It also sparked a fad for the ‘Kitty Foyle dress’, big throughout the 40s, recurring on occasion. With Eduardo Ciannelli (a nice guy for a change), Ernest Cossart, Gladys Cooper, Odette Myrtil, Mary Tween (funny), Katherine Stephens and Florence Bates.

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* Sam Wood helmed another Best Picture nominee that year, Our Town. He had just scored with Goodbye, Mr. Chips and followed rat-a-tat with The Devil And Miss Jones, Kings Row, The Pride Of The Yankees and For Whom The Bell Tolls.  At Roger’s insistence (as well as the Production Code) Kitty’s sexuality in Morley’s novel was toned down by Trumbo (and an abortion became ‘died-in-childbirth’), plus additional dialogue was contributed by Donald Ogden Stewart, who then took the writing Oscar away for The Philadelphia Story.

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Apart from Roger’s sparkle and heart, Kitty Foyle as a film is a weaker sister among 1940s stellar lineup, but it’s a good movie, a shame to overlook, as well as a sociological window on what many women of the day felt.  A quote from Morley’s book: “Molly and me had a talk one time about the White Collar Women, there’s millions of them, getting maybe 15 to 30 a week, they’ve got to dress themselves right up to the hilt, naturally they have a yen for social pleasure, need to be a complete woman with all a woman’s satisfactions and they need a chance to be creating and doing. And the men their own age can’t do much for them, also the girls grow up too damn fast because they absorb the point of view of older people they work for. Their own private life gets to be a rat race. Jesusgod, I read about the guts of the pioneer woman and the woman of the dustbowl and the gingham goddess of the covered wagon. What about the woman of the covered typewriter? What has she got, poor kid, when she leaves the office? … Do you know what we are? we’re sharecroppers.”

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