If I told you I was going to recommend a funny 1951 movie about class differences, you would naturally expect something British. But The Mating Season shows that post-war Americans too could also mine the comic possibilities of people from different economic strata rubbing shoulders.
The plot of this mistitled little gem: Ellen McNulty (Thelma Ritter) is a widow whose hamburger stand has gone bankrupt. She embarks on a long journey to visit her son Val, whom she and her hardworking husband were able to put through college. Val is a low level white collar manager (John Lund) trying to impress the big boss so that he can get ahead. After Val meets cute with the ravishing Maggie Carleton (Gene Tierney), daughter of a wealthy ambassador, the two fall in love and a wedding is quickly arranged, coincidentally on the day that Ellen is to arrive. Before you can say “screwball comedy” the young bride mistakes her dowdy, working class new mother-in-law for a maid, and the mother decides to play along, moving in to the new couple’s apartment!
This is a film about how working class people can be both proud of their origins yet ashamed of them at the same time, particularly as conveyed through Lund’s character. Val both loves his mother and is embarrassed of her (His chemistry with Ritter is so natural it’s hard to believe they weren’t actually mother and son). Similarly, he both despises his rich, crummy boss yet also can’t resist the impulse to tug his forelock in front of him.
The movie is also wise about how wealth makes some people generous and turns others into snobs. I don’t know if it was in the filmmaker’s minds or not, but it’s also intriguing to watch in terms of gender roles: Even though Val has little money and Maggie is rich, they both assume he will be the sole provider and the couple end up in debt as a result.
But despite all that, this isn’t A Place in the Sun; the film’s accent is on laughs rather than dark drama and The Mating Season is delightful on those terms. Miriam Hopkins is hilariously over-dramatic as Tierney’s pampered and entitled mother, and Ritter, as she showed in so many other films (including my recommendation Pickup on South Street), can deliver a wisecrack out of the side of her mouth with the best of them. She was so good at being a character actor that Hollywood didn’t seem able to see her in any other light: Despite being the star here, she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.
Roger Ebert used to point out how few Hollywood films take work and household budgets seriously. In the movies, single mom cocktail waitresses have huge apartments in Manhattan, architects are obligated only to look at a drafting board in their den in the evening rather than go into an office, and no one is ever shown paying their electric bill or doing their taxes. The Mating Season is a welcome exception to this rule, as Ellen works out how to deal with her failing hamburger stand, hitchhikes to save on travel expenses, scrambles for the money to pay her bills (including having to work for two days as an office temp for “Mr. Pinchbottom”), finds affordable-but-tatty lodgings and otherwise scrimps and saves. Throughout Ellen’s struggles, the film appropriately portrays as noble her and her husband’s ability to have afforded college for their son despite their modest means, rather than being condescending toward the aspirations that millions of post-war working class Americans shared.
Director Mitchell Leisen was not a consistently strong artist, but he was good enough when, as here, he had a strong script from which to work. The Mating Season’s is by Walter Reisch, Richard Breen and Charles Brackett (Billy Wilder’s frequent collaborator). In addition to some memorable zingers, the trio’s script also has some funny 1950s style sexual innuendo. This team went on to win an Academy Award for screenwriting together two years later for Titanic, but they could just as deservedly won for The Mating Season.
The Mating Season is American in style, but stands shoulder to shoulder with all the Ealing Studio comedies that alternated between having the audience laugh about class differences and nod their heads in recognition of the truths we so often don’t openly discuss.