mark eisen

Praising Miss Kitty by Susan Doll

Ginger Rogers won an Academy Award as Best Actress for the title role in 1940’s KITTY FOYLE, beating out Katharine Hepburn in THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, Joan Fontaine in REBECCA and Bette Davis in THE LETTER. Film historians, movie critics and other commentators on classic movies often feel the need to qualify her win or make excuses for it, because KITTY FOYLE lacks the critical reputation of the other three films. (Martha Scott was also nominated for OUR TOWN, but, however good she may have been, she lacks the status of the other nominees.) Historians and critics note that Rogers was starring in a drama after a decade of popular musicals with Fred Astaire; thus, industry attention was focused on her. The implications are that as a typical melodrama, KITTY FOYLE was not award material and that Rogers won because she was stretching her star image.

While iconic melodramas such as Douglas Sirk’s 1950s Technicolor masterworks get their due, more typical “women’s weepies” like KITTY FOYLE are looked down on. Even the article on KITTY FOYLE in the TCM database is dismissive in tone, referring to it as “a sterling example of that love-, marriage-, and babies-obsessed genre.” The writer expresses surprise that “a political martyr” like Dalton Trumbo could be responsible for the screenplay. I’ll admit that the depictions of relationships and women’s problems seem out of date, while the dialogue and situations drip with sentiment. But, that is the nature of the genre, which was one of the few to embrace women’s interests and issues. And, Rogers, who is in every scene, drives the film. She deserved her Oscar for infusing every frame of KITTY FOYLE with her energy and charisma, perfectly illustrating a star’s ability to elevate any material. Watch KITTY FOYLE, which is currently streaming on FilmStruck, to judge for yourself.

The narrative revolves around Kitty’s dilemma: Should she marry a doctor from her own class and live a traditional life, or move to another country with the wealthy man she has always loved. The latter comes with a catch—he is married to someone else. The story unfolds in flashback as a young, working-class Kitty lands a job with publisher Wyn Stafford, played by the eternally boyish Dennis Morgan. The pair fall in love, but Stafford does not have the courage to break with his wealthy family. Kitty moves from Philadelphia to New York where she becomes involved with struggling doctor Mark Eisen, played by James Craig. Stafford tracks her down in New York, which begins a pattern for Kitty of pursuing passion with Wyn or stability with Mark. Though packaged in the sentiment and social mores of 1940, Kitty’s dilemma is as familiar to young women now as it was then. Should a woman pursue a personal relationship based on passion and adventure, or one grounded in stability and constancy?

KITTY FOYLE represented Rogers’s first serious starring role, and it elevated her career. However, when she was first offered the script, she did not want to do it because it was too sentimental. The film was based on a novel by Christopher Morley titled Kitty Foyle: The Natural History of a Woman, which included events that would never have made it into a Hollywood movie during the Golden Age. But, in the film, Kitty does face tragedies that make for good melodrama. Rogers’s mother, Lela, recognized the script’s potential and persuaded her that this was an excellent career move. RKO, Rogers’ studio, played a major part in this career move. As the Golden Age fades further and further into the past, the role of the studios in managing the careers of their big stars becomes lost to the history books. While Rogers may have had the luxury of voicing her concerns about the role, she was under contract to RKO and subject to their decisions. If the studio really wanted her to do the film, she would have had to do it.

As was typical of the era, RKO handled the shift in Rogers’s career brilliantly through publicity and promotion. Studio execs determined the story was about the typical American girl so that it would appeal to a variety of women, and that idea drove the publicity. The copy on some posters asserted, “If there isn’t one in your family, there’s one across the street, or facing you across the desk, or in the subway or streetcar.” To remind movie fans of the working-class connotations of Rogers’s star image, RKO sent her to Grand Central Station to receive an award from 2,000 New York secretaries. Likely prompted by the studio’s press agents, Time magazine declared, “Miss Rogers, with her shoulder-length tresses, her trim figure, her full lips, her prancing feet and honest-to-goodness manner, is the flesh-and-blood symbol of the all-American working girl.”

Even Rogers’s personal life could be spun to parallel the character of Kitty Foyle. Recently divorced from Lew Ayres, she was shown in newspapers and magazines with several eligible actors, as though she were trying to make up her mind.

Despite her iconic Depression-era movies with Fred Astaire, I believe Rogers’s career peak was post-Astaire. Beginning with BACHELOR MOTHER in 1939, she did her best work in the 1940s. While retaining a consistent star image as the working-class girl who could take care of herself, she revealed a versatility in comedies, dramas and the occasional musical.

I love Hepburn and Davis, but they couldn’t dance.