Categories
Comedy Romance

The Mating Season

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.

Categories
Drama Mystery/Noir

Pickup on South Street

Many films have been set in seamy settings where everyone is on the make, believing in nothing and exuding cynicism until something comes along to drive one person into moral behavior (e.g., The Third Man, Casablanca, The Mission). Sometimes what makes the worm turn is romance, sometimes it’s an attack of conscience, sometimes it’s religious faith, but in Pickup on South Street, it’s hatred of Commies!

Samuel Fuller’s 1952 hard-boiled masterpiece is set in the urban world of schemers, grifters, prostitutes, cops and robbers that he knew so well. The film’s perfect opening sequence, which is dialogue, backstory and exposition-free, shows cool as a cucumber pickpocket Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) lifting the wallet from the kind of woman a respectable young man’s parents hope he never brings home (Jean Peters). The theft is observed by two men who turn out to be federal agents. They’ve been trailing the woman because she has been unknowingly passing military secrets to the Reds at the behest of her lover/co-conspirator (Richard Kiley). Meanwhile, the clever Skip soon figures out that the piece of microfilm he found in the stolen wallet is extremely valuable. Skip decides to sell it to the highest bidder, politics notwithstanding, thereby throwing himself into conflict and intrigue with the cops, the feds and the Reds.

The entire cast is on fire here, and all of them are well-matched to Fuller’s pulpy tone and visuals. Even though she hated playing the sexy bad girl, Jean Peters electrified a generation of men when this film was released, which was just before women of her physical type were largely pushed aside by Hollywood producers in favor of curvaceous blondes like Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield. Richard Widmark, who might remind modern audiences of a young Jack Nicholson, exudes cocky charm, which is an ideal foil for Kiley’s more restrained performance as a desperate Communist agent.

But despite all the thespian talent put on display by the leads, this film is nearly stolen by Thelma Ritter in a supporting performance as Moe, an aging, raffish stoolie/ragwoman who just wants to save enough money for a nice funeral. She will sell almost anyone out — even her surrogate son Skip — but she draws the line at helping Reds. And Skip, otherwise amoral, draws his own line in the sand when Moe becomes a target.

Pickup on South Street is a rough, tough tale of the city which features corruption, disloyalty, double-dealing, licentiousness and some savage physical violence (I would not be surprised if both Peters and Kiley got some bruises making this movie). In short, for fans of Fuller and film noir more generally, what’s not to like?

To give you the flavor of this movie, I embed below one of my favorite scenes, which is representative of the whole. Jean Peters’ character is looking for the “cannon” (slang for pickpocket) who stole her wallet and believes that someone named Lightning Louie can facilitate her search.