Victoria Braymore (Caulfield) is an orphan who was raised by the board of Braymore College, and she is now the college's youngest professor. On a trip to New York she meets George Petty (Cummings), a former "cheesecake" artist whose "patroness" (Audrey Long) has been pushing him into serious art.
Victoria and George have a series of misadventures, first in New York and then at Braymore College. Victoria's unexpected behavior shocks the college board, but ultimately her time with George frees Victoria from the constraints of a rigid upbringing. In turn, Victoria helps George realize that his true talent isn't high art, but painting beautiful models.
This film was, perhaps a bit unexpectedly, quite delightful. The actors are charming, and the low-key story moves along nicely. I thought the plot was reminiscent of an earlier Columbia film, THEODORA GOES WILD (1936), particularly in the sequences where George appears in Victoria's small town, as well as later on when Victoria shows up at George's apartment and is determined to "free" him. Sure enough, when I checked I discovered both films were based on a story by Mary McCarthy.
THE PETTY GIRL has an additional advantage, a four-song Mercer-Arlen score which includes the lovely "Fancy Free." Victoria sings "Fancy Free" in her first scene, which shows the audience the "real" Victoria under the professorial exterior; the song is later is heard as background music. Caulfield is dubbed by Carole Richards, who later sang for Cyd Charisse and Vera-Ellen.
THE PETTY GIRL has a fine cast. Cummings is both amusing and romantic as the artist, and he has a laugh-out-loud funny scene late in the film when he's attempting to escape from a stage.
My previous familiarity with Joan Caulfield was in one of her first films, BLUE SKIES (1946), with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. I didn't care for her very much in BLUE SKIES, finding her quite bland, but she was utterly charming and quite funny in THE PETTY GIRL, not to mention absolutely lovely. I haven't seen BLUE SKIES in a number of years, so perhaps I should take another look and re-evaluate. I'd like the opportunity to see more of Caulfield's films, including DEAR RUTH (1947) and DEAR WIFE (1949) with William Holden.
The supporting cast is led by Elsa Lanchester, in a scene-stealing performance as the most sympathetic -- and somewhat daffy -- professor at Braymore College. It's fun to note that Lanchester played a far different professor two years later in another film about a straight-laced college girl learning to unbend, DREAMBOAT (1952).
Melville Cooper plays George's straight-laced butler, who has an unexpected penchant for champagne. Mary Wickes is cast as a suspicious board member, and Ian Wolfe is one of the father figures on the staff. John Ridgely is a policeman, and Frank Jenks plays the producer of a burlesque show. IMDb credits Tippi Hedren as the "Ice Box Petty Girl" in a musical number; I didn't recognize her, but it was 13 years before THE BIRDS.
THE PETTY GIRL has a beautiful look, from the set designs (I love the pastel colors in Petty's apartment), to Caulfield's gorgeous dresses by Jean Louis, to the stunning bright blues of the scenes filmed at Lake Arrowhead. The movie would be worth seeing just to enjoy the visuals, but happily there's much more to it than that.
THE PETTY GIRL was directed by Henry Levin. It runs 88 minutes.
THE PETTY GIRL is a Columbia film which isn't available on VHS or DVD. Perhaps it will soon be part of the new Columbia Classics By Request program.
It's been shown in a very nice print on Turner Classic Movies.
THE PETTY GIRL is very enjoyable light entertainment. Like Petty's paintings, it's not serious art, but it's great to look at -- crafted by some of Hollywood's very best.