Warren William Under the Stars, Part 5: The First 100 Years

Here is the 5th of 16 reviews covering TCM’s August 30th Warren William marathon:

THE FIRST HUNDRED YEARS (1938) **

Starring: Robert Montgomery, Virginia Bruce, Warren William, Binnie Barnes

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“Nobody has ever discovered a way of yawning politely. If somebody had we would certainly infringe his copyright today on behalf of ‘The First 100 Years’…”

 

This was Bosley Crowther’s gentle critique upon the 1938 release of this dignified little MGM comedy starring Robert Montgomery, Virginia Bruce and Warren William. Fortunately, nothing much has changed in 75 years; there is still no copyright on yawning politely, so have no fear – you’ll be able to watch The First 100 Years without the possibility of legal complications.

The scenario of The First 100 Years is now largely outdated, but was reasonably unique in pre-war Hollywood. David Conway (Robert Montgomery) is an unemployed shipbuilder whose wife Lynn (Virginia Bruce) is keeping the marriage solvent with her salary as a successful theatrical agent in New York. When Montgomery secures a prestigious job with a Massachusetts shipyard, he immediately expects his wife to dump her career aspirations and become the dutiful housewife of the American Dream, model 1938. Miss Bruce objects to such hopelessly old-fashioned ideas, and refuses to give up her life and career. The couple separate and soon decide to divorce, leading to the meager complications of what slim plot there is: Montgomery and Bruce become targets of opportunistic suitors, Lynn’s boss Harry Borden (Warren William) uses some underhanded efforts to keep her at the firm, and there suddenly appears a kindly old uncle (Harry Davenport) to sagely nudge those crazy kids toward reconciliation. At this point there’s nothing left but for the Deus Ex Machina to appear, and arbitrary it is: Lynn is pregnant. Instantly, the social order is righted: Lynn gives up her job and is put happily back in her place. In the battle between career and children, women of 1938 have no chance; those babies might just as well be brandishing firearms.

Typical of the downside of the MGM gloss, The First 100 Years is too mannered for its own good: there are no seams or frayed edges, just a smooth, dull line to follow to the inevitable neatly-tied bow. In spite of the modern premise, the film finds humor primarily in the idea that Bruce is wrong in her desires for self-empowerment, as when she is ordered to (gasp!) pay court ordered alimony, and Montgomery spitefully opts to accept it. Here, the audience is expected to be amused when she is upbraided by the judge, and take some satisfaction in her role-reversing humiliation. The best screwball comedies of the period work with women who are portrayed as equal, and often superior to the men with whom they spar. Here, neither is worthy of the other: they’re both inconsequential and downright dull. Director Richard Thorpe does yeoman’s work in staging dialogue sequences (including one where Bruce carries on a conversation with an off-screen Montgomery as he exits camera left and re-enters camera right), but he’s severely undermined by a script heavily laden with arbitrary contrivances, as well as romantic leads that do not gel. It is left largely to Warren William and Binnie Barnes (as Montgomery’s post break-up vamp, Claudia Westin) to provide some spark, and their limited scenes shine as among the best in the film.

The First 100 Years toys with the idea of something special for 1938 – that women are of equal value to men in a marriage – then proceeds to undermine that very notion by playing an unassailable trump card that will bring the woman back to her “senses:” children. Nestled amidst Hollywood’s golden age of strong women (Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyk, et al) it delivered nothing to be excited about in content or execution. And in 2012 it is merely an odd curio, indeed.

© John Stangeland 2012

The First 100 Years will be broadcast on Turner Classic Movies, August 30th at 7:45 AM (EST) as part of the Summer Under the Stars tribute to Warren William.

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About magnificentscoundrel
John Stangeland is the biographer of 1930's film icon Warren William, a lazy business owner and a washed-up comic book artist. He's not bitter, though.

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