Kitty Foyle begins as a comedy, and quite a funny one, I must say. But once the title character falls in love, the movie becomes a melodrama. Just like real life, I suppose. Tom, Dick and Harry, on the other hand, is a comedy, pure and simple. Ginger Rogers starred in both, the former being made a year before the latter, and in both movies, she must choose which man she will marry (or at least spend the rest of her life with). In watching these two films, one gets the impression that those in charge of production at RKO were so pleased with the success of Kitty Foyle that they wanted to do something like that again. But in order to avoid simply following the same formula, someone added a joker to the deck. And just for fun, a few elements of the first movie make their way into the second.
Kitty Foyle, which has the subtitle, The Natural History of a Woman, begins with a prologue, announcing that it is the story of a “white collar girl.” It goes on to say that since she is a comparative newcomer to the American scene, it will consider her as she was in 1900. Said 1900 old-fashioned girl has men scrambling to give up their seats on the trolley for her, with one lucky man having the privilege of doing so. Subsequently, we see him sitting with her on her porch, wooing her with a ukulele. He impulsively kisses her on the cheek. She is shocked at the liberty he has taken. Realizing he must do the honorable thing, he proposes marriage. She is delighted, having used her womanly wiles to trap a man, while the man wonders how this could have happened to him. We see them again after they have married. He arrives home from work, turning over his entire paycheck to her, though she hands him back a coin, for the trolley, presumably. Then he discovers that she is going to have a baby, and he kneels beside her, worshipping her now more than ever. This is an amusing depiction of the idea that women had it made in the old days, that it was when they had no rights that they had real power, as expressed in the nineteenth century poem “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle Rules the World.”
This is followed by an intertitle that reads, “But this was not enough.” We see scenes of the women’s suffrage movement, with that same woman now holding a sign that reads, “Let the hand that rocks the cradle guide the state.” However, once she gets her equal rights, men not only ignore her on the trolley, but when one man gets up to leave, another pushes her aside so he can have the seat for himself. Quite frankly, I could have stayed with this woman for the rest of the movie.
Anyway, another intertitle tells us that once women began working “shoulder to shoulder” with men, the men became indifferent to the presence of women, leading, at the end of the day, to that “five thirty feeling,” presumably a woman’s feeling of loneliness at the end of the day on account of not being married. The point of all this is that a woman now has a harder time getting a man to marry her. We see a bunch of women on an elevator discussing men, how much they want one, how much they wish they had one. One woman, however, expresses an independent point of view, saying that a woman can be happy without a man. “What’s the difference,” she asks, “between men bachelors and girl bachelors?” Then we see Ginger Rogers, as the title character, exiting the elevator, making her entrance into this movie by answering, “Men bachelors are that way because they want to be.”
This is a critical premise of this movie and many others like it. The idea is that women want to be married. No such assumption is made regarding men. A man may eventually want to marry some woman in particular, but a woman wants to get married as a matter of principle. The corresponding premise for men in the movies is that they are perfectly happy being bachelors. They typically do get married, of course, and for no better reason than they are in love. But for women in these movies, things are not so simple. Women want to get married even before they have some particular man in mind, and when there is some man in particular for them to think about marrying, considerations other than love enter in.
One consideration in particular is the man’s socio-economic status. From the time she was a young girl, Kitty has been fascinated with a Main Line social function in Philadelphia, known as the Assembly. By chance, she meets Wyn Strafford, and as soon as she finds out that he is one of the elite, she falls in love with him. He falls in love with her too. But their class differences keep them apart, especially after they get married. When she meets his family, she finds out about their expectations for her, which apparently include sending her to finishing school so that she can comport herself properly at social functions. And she learns of the hold they have on Wyn. Kitty wants her and Wyn to move to New York, where they won’t have to bother about all this Main Line stuff, but the Strafford money is in a trust that would require them to live in Philadelphia at Darby Mill house, otherwise Wyn will lose his inheritance. Kitty is offended, saying she will not go to school to get her rough edges polished off. She announces disdainfully that she didn’t marry Wyn for his money, that she married a man, not a trust fund.
That’s a fine speech coming from her. After seeing the way she was awed by those attending the Philadelphia Assembly, and after seeing her become enamored with Wyn the minute she found out he was a Main Liner, we are now supposed to believe that she cares nothing about class and money. All she cares about is true love, and she is indignant that Wyn’s family is not egalitarian enough to accept her just the way she is. Well, we all act from mixed motives, and when we do, they don’t stand out as discreet items for our inspection, but blend together into single result, making it easy for us to suppose we have acted from the best of intentions while suppressing those we would rather forget.
When she realizes that Wyn would never be happy if he had to forgo his inheritance, the two of them trying to make a go of it as a working-class couple in New York, she leaves him and gets a divorce.
Kitty has a baby and it dies. So, what’s the point? Her pregnancy was not inevitable, especially since she and Wyn were only together as a married couple for less than a week. Well, in one sense, it was inevitable. When a woman in a movie has sex with a man just one time, she gets pregnant. (This rule does not apply to prostitutes or women that regularly have one-night stands, of course.) Presumably, Kitty and Wyn had sex more than once in the few days they were together, but that’s close enough to practically guarantee pregnancy in a movie. In any event, given the pregnancy, the death of the baby was not inevitable, since healthy babies are born every day. But in another sense, the baby’s death was inevitable, because the plot required it, as we shall see.
On the rebound, she starts dating Mark Eisen, a doctor who is more concerned with helping the poor and needy than in making money. Still, he wants to marry her, and she could be comfortable with him. She accepts his proposal. But as she is preparing to meet him later to get married, Wyn shows up, and it is clear they truly love each other. He says he has left his wife and is going to South America. And he wants Kitty to come with him, even though he has no intention of getting a divorce.
I’m not sure what the significance of South America is in these movies about the upper class. In Stella Dallas (1937), the title character tells her daughter she is going to get married and move to South America to get away from it all. Isn’t that a little extreme? I understand wanting to get away from one’s family, because they can be a nuisance, but is it necessary to run that far? Can’t they just move to Kansas or something, some place where everyone speaks English?
And I don’t mean to overthink this thing, but what will they live on? Wyn will be disinherited, just as he would have had they moved to New York. So, instead of his getting a job in New York, and, as Kitty put it at the time, living in a small apartment with a pull-down bed, eating meals in drugstores, going to a movie once a week, and trying to save a dollar or two against the day he may lose his job, now they can do all that in South America.
In any event, Kitty must choose: have a respectable, comfortable life with Mark or be Wyn’s mistress. And herein lies the answer to the twofold question, why did Kitty have a baby, and why did it die? It is easy to understand why the baby had to die. Kitty would not have been able even to consider living illicitly with a man if she had a child to raise. It is one thing for her to live in sin with only herself to consider, but to make her child have to bear the disgrace as well would have been unthinkable in this movie. But that only answers half the question. Why was it necessary for her to be pregnant in the first place, aside from the reason given above?
When Kitty reflects on Wyn’s proposition, she thinks about how she will be regarded in society, and she wonders how their arrangement will fare as they get older. But one thing she never wonders about is what will happen if she gets pregnant. In fact, we don’t wonder about that either as we watch this movie. Why not? Because once a woman in a movie has a baby that dies, she never has another baby. Sometimes, after breaking the news to the mother that the baby was stillborn, the doctor then goes on to tell her that she cannot have another. But that scene is not necessary. Movie logic precludes another baby regardless. So the death of Kitty’s baby allows her to consider living with Wyn without worrying about the possibility of getting pregnant again. Kitty doesn’t know she is in a movie, of course, but we do. And if we are not worried about her getting pregnant again, why should she?
Still, her life with Wyn would not be easy. Normally in the movies, the woman chooses the man she loves, but since life with Wyn would be disreputable, she chooses a respectable life with Mark. Or rather, I should say, by having Wyn’s proposition be an immoral one (by 1940 standards), the movie allows her to choose Mark, the man she does not love. We are glad that Kitty makes the morally acceptable choice, but we are also glad the she is marrying within her class. We don’t hold it against women in the movies for wanting to marry into the upper class, but it makes us uncomfortable nevertheless.
This is another difference in the movies between men and women. A man like Wyn might have to choose between marrying within his class and marrying down, but we seldom see a movie about a man having to choose between marrying within his class and marrying up. When we do see such a movie, the man’s desire to marry up is felt to be wrong. But when a woman has a desire to marry up, we are more understanding. We have misgivings, wondering as we do in this movie whether she can find happiness in a family worried about her lack of polish and refinement, and we may be relieved, as we are here, when she settles for someone in her own class. But we don’t really think the less of her for wanting to marry into the upper class as we do with a man.
In Tom, Dick and Harry there are three men that Janie (Ginger Rogers) must choose among. Tom (George Murphy) is a car salesman, and he corresponds to Mark: he and Janie are in the same class, and he can provide her with a comfortable life. Dick is a millionaire playboy, and he corresponds to Wyn: he is a member of the elite, and Janie wonders if she would fit in. Finally, Harry (Burgess Meredith) is a trickster figure, who throws the formula out of whack. He is an auto mechanic who cares nothing about getting ahead or making a lot of money.
In Kitty Foyle, the characters occasionally reflect on their situation. In fact, Kitty literally does so when her image in the mirror tells her just how things will be in South America. But Tom, Dick and Harry seems to take this to a whole new level, especially when she is with Harry, who waxes philosophical on Janie’s unrealistic dream of marrying into the upper class. But we meet him later. When the movie begins, Tom and Janie are in a movie theater, which is a reflexive device right there. We don’t see the screen. We only hear the voices of the actors. It doesn’t sound like any movie that ever actually existed, but rather a parody of one we have already seen. It is the final scene of the movie, and a man, who is rich and upper class, is telling a working-class woman that he wants her to come away with him, to someplace where they can get away from it all, to South America. She is reluctant, thinking that he just wants her to be his mistress. But no, he wants to marry her. She is so happy, she cries. They kiss. The End.
It is a cloying variation on Wyn’s offer to Kitty, but it is just the kind of ending that Janie likes, for she too dreams of marrying someone rich and upper class. After the movie, she and Tom discuss whether the movie was true to life, whether a rich, upper-class man would marry a poor, working-class girl. Janie says it is, because he loved her. Tom doesn’t think so, but that is because he doesn’t want it to be true to life. He plans on proposing to Janie, and he doesn’t want her head full of foolish notions about marrying up.
The next day after work, Janie is standing on the sidewalk, waiting for the bus, when Harry pulls up in front of her driving an expensive car. Not realizing that Harry is just a mechanic, and that he is delivering the car to a rich customer, who turns out to be Dick, Janie flirts with him and eventually becomes so brazen as to get in the car with him. After taking her home, Harry makes a date with her for later that evening. He shows up with what looks like two small bunches of violets, which is, perhaps, just a minor quotation of Kitty Foyle, where Wyn takes Kitty to New York, and just before entering an exclusive speakeasy, he buys her two bunches of violets. More importantly, when they are seated at a table, she asks Wyn why he brought her to New York. She explains: “When I was going to high school in Manito, Illinois, it’s quite a small town and everybody knew everybody else’s business. So, when a man wanted to take somebody out, he didn’t care particularly about being seen with her, he’d always take her up to Chicago.” He says it’s nothing like that, although we suspect it is just like that when we see how cowed Wyn is by his family and their expectations. In Tom, Dick and Harry, when Janie finally manages to meet Dick, he asks her to go on a date with him to Chicago, which Janie gleefully accepts, unencumbered as she is by Kitty’s worldliness.
All three men want to marry Janie, and she dreams of marrying each of them and then all of them at once. As for that last dream, on their wedding night, we see the bedroom, and it is of the Production Code sort, with its respectable twin beds. But then, with Janie sitting in one bed, all three men get in the other. She wakes up and realizes she must choose. The next morning, she chooses Dick because he is the man she has dreamed of marrying all her life. She kisses Tom goodbye. And then she kisses Harry. Earlier in the movie, every time she kissed Harry, they would hear bells chiming, something that never happens when she kisses Tom or Dick. And now, in kissing Harry goodbye, she hears them again.
In Kitty Foyle, we knew that Kitty liked Mark, but it was Wyn she loved. In Tom, Dick and Harry, it is not love, but sexual arousal that clinches the deal. Janie tells Dick goodbye, hops on the back of Harry’s three-wheel motorcycle, and off they go.