As soon as you see star Greer Garson hobble down the gigantic staircase of her ornate mansion all decked out in old gal makeup at the very beginning of the film, you immediately realize that you’re in for one of those deals where Old Girl is going to be sitting around flasbacking her way through her tumultuous life.
You don’t actually have to sit through the two-plus hours to know that Greer’s character is probably white trash who was rescued from her Gary, Indiana trailer park by the larger-than-life Clark Gable wannabe Walter Pidgeon and ends up being thrust into high society with all its accoutrements. (You know – stuff like miscarriages, kids getting killed in polo accidents, and dalliances with British royalty.)
And just so there is no mistaking what this movie is, you even get chicks falling down stairs. These movies always involve gals falling down a really big staircase. For rich broads, taking a header down to the ground floor is one of those major life events, kind of like buying a house or getting digital cable for us regular folks.
To set up the flashback to her earlier life, we check in on Susie (Garson) at Christmas time in 1938. Her whole family has gathered at her house and while we’re waiting for Granny to put her teeth in, drain her Depends, and comb her ear hair, we have the chance to meet her descendants.
They’re a sluggish, ungrateful, and downright worthless lot, which confirms all us poor people’s expectations about rich people and their offspring – they’re as cruddy as us, but with a better wardrobe and vocabulary.
You’ve got the drunk daughter, the crooked grandson, a daughter or granddaughter who has been through more husbands than granny has wigs, and a great grandson (Dan Duryea of Criss Cross and Black Angel) who sneers and swings his pocket watch around like some sort of dandified pimp. The always great Duryea doesn’t have much of a part in this one, but he gets off some great lines when given the chance.
Amory Stilham is married to one of the Parkington daughters and he is a fat, oily businessman who wants to discuss his inheritance with Susie. But first he gives her a Christmas present which is a book he commissioned about the history of the Parkington family.
The film then flashes back to her meeting her husband (the Major) for hours on end, then returns back to 1938 where either Amory is whining about needing some money to get out of debt or where Amory’s daughter is threatening to elope with her boyfriend.
Amory has stolen lots of money so Mrs. Parkington convenes a family meeting where she asks everyone if they would mind spending all their inheritance ($31 million!) on paying off what Amory stole and keeping his meaty ass out of jail.
Everyone quickly decides that Amory would be better off owning up to his crime and paying his debt to society. This also has the effect of letting them keep all their money, but I’m sure that was just a coincidence.
Amory asks his son (Duryea) for his opinion on whether they should pay off his debt or just ship him to the big house and he coolly responds, “it’s difficult for me to be impartial – you see I never liked you.”
So you’ve basically got two movies here – the rags to riches story of Susie and the dysfunctional rich family in decline. The latter is the better of the two, but unfortunately we don’t get much of that. The main body of the movie is pretty standard princess-fantasy fluff, where Susie gets whisked off her feet, gets new clothes, new house, battles husband’s infidelity, and ultimately becomes as tough as her husband.
There’s a lot that will leave you raising your eyebrows skeptically such as how the Major brushes off concerns about the safety of his mine, only to have it blow up the next day and kill Susie’s mom and a few days later Susie has no problem running off to New York to marry him.
The movie also tries to get across its questionable American Dream propaganda angle that says the rich, ruthless guy who doesn’t care about worker safety and runs around on his family is somehow better than a guy who got rich through an inheritance.
Garson though holds the film together, convincing in her transformation to rich matriarch, right down to a pretty good make up job when she’s all old and wrinkly.
The snarky and funny (well, funny in the sense that it isn’t happening to you) byplay with the family in 1938 are the movie’s best moments, but jumping back and forth between two storylines with such different tones kind of makes them feel out of place with the movie’s larger storyline set in Susie’s youth.
A second-tier 1940s unhappy rich family movie, below films like The Magnificent Ambersons and Citizen Kane, but it has its moments.
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