Sunday, April 26, 2020

Tonight's Movie: Vagabond Lady (1935) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

Robert Young, Evelyn Venable, and Reginald Denny star in VAGABOND LADY (1935), available on DVD from the Warner Archive.

Jo (Venable) works for a large department store, where her alcoholic father (Frank Craven), who knew the store owner (Berton Churchill) in college, heads the janitorial department.

Jo has thus long known the owner's son Johnny (Denny). Johnny is a stuffed shirt but wants to marry pretty Jo, believing that in time he can mold her into enjoying the "finer things" he appreciates such as opera and lectures.

Jo is delighted when Johnny's irresponsible brother Tony (Young) returns from a long trip sailing on his boat, the Vagabond Lady. Tony's lighthearted personality -- he takes her to the circus! -- appeals to Jo, but she also struggles with his immaturity. Which brother should she marry?

Honestly, the answer should have been "neither"! It's a cute enough 71 minutes, but surely there must be a happy medium between a control freak driven mad by a woman eating "low class" gumdrops and a ne'er-do-well who shows every indication he'll end up as much of a drunk as Jo's father. Just as it seems unlikely Johnny can mold Jo into what he wants, why should Jo's love make Tony into a more responsible person?

Venable's Jo is bright-eyed, intelligent...and far too good for either brother. There should have been a nice young Norman Foster or George Brent type working in the mail room who could rescue lovely Jo from the entire family...but alas, there wasn't.

This film struck me as sort of a low-rent variation on the themes of the 1928 Philip Barry play HOLIDAY, which had already been filmed in 1930 and would be remade in a better known 1938 version with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn; VAGABOND LADY just flips genders on the original story of the man deciding between a pair of wealthy sisters. Like HOLIDAY, it straddles a sometimes odd line between heavy drama and screwball comedy.

I've always liked Robert Young and feel his performance in CLAUDIA (1943), in particular, is an overlooked gem. That said, I've come to realize of late just how many unlikeable characters he played early in his career! I think some of it was the roles and scripts Young was assigned, and I'm also thinking that his acting improved and became more nuanced over the years.

Young was excellent in later movies such as JOURNEY FOR MARGARET (1942) and THE ENCHANTED COTTAGE (1945) -- and also really interesting as the homme fatale discarding women right and left in THEY WON'T BELIEVE ME (1947). Here his Tony is ostensibly the romantic hero but his gaiety seems forced, and I was as disturbed as Jo when he got drunk and jumped in the swimming pool in his tux; it seems like the issue is a combination of an unappealing character and the actor not being the genuinely relaxed and friendly persona he communicated in later roles.

Denny is another actor I enjoy; I especially loved him in the previous year's THE RICHEST GIRL IN THE WORLD (1934). He has some amusing scenes, and though he would have been miserable married to Jo, I almost felt sorry for him, trapped in his own rigidity.

I really liked Venable in this; she's quite personable, even if she has poor taste in men. There's a lovely piece on her at the University of Cincinnati website which I recommend. It includes many wonderful photos.

In the end, VAGABOND LADY holds the attention and is somewhat worth seeing, being interesting to analyze, though the drama didn't evoke much sympathy and the comedy didn't make me laugh. I appreciated that it gave greater context to my understanding of the careers of the three lead actors, all of whom I enjoy, and it's also interesting as Depression-era wish fulfillment, with the heroine choosing between two wealthy men.

The movie was produced by Hal Roach Studios for release by MGM. The script was by Frank Butler, with direction by Sam Taylor. The movie was filmed by Jack MacKenzie.

The print is quite good for a mid '30s film. I found myself adjusting the volume up and down at times due to variable sound levels, but that's my only complaint regarding sound quality. The DVD includes the trailer.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered from the Warner Archive Collection at the WBShop or from any online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays are sold.


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