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, one 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 RKO was 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. In other words, 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 so much 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 woman’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. 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 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 Kitty Foyle 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. Other considerations besides love often 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 social function in Philadelphia for the elite, known as the Assembly. By chance, she meets Wyn Strafford, one of the elite, and she falls in love with him. He falls in love with her too. But their class differences keep them apart. Even when they get married, she leaves him soon after meeting his family and gets a divorce.
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 really 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. She must choose: have a respectable, comfortable life with Mark or be Wyn’s mistress. Normally in such movies, the woman chooses the man she loves, but since life with Wyn would be morally disreputable, she chooses a respectable life with Mark. Or rather, I should say, this allows the movie to have her choose to marry Mark. If Wyn were divorced and wanted to remarry her, I think Mark would have been left standing at the altar.
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, as in A Place in the Sun (1951), where he got the death penalty. 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 up 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 usual 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 seem to take this to a whole new level, especially when she is with Harry. 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 a certain kind of romantic melodrama. 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, they make a date. The next night, 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 cynicism.
All three men want to marry Janie, and she dreams of marrying each of them and then all of them. 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 an 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 whom she truly loved. In Tom, Dick and Harry, it is not so much love, but passion that clinches the deal. Janie tells Dick goodbye, hops on the back of Harry’s three-wheel motorcycle, and off they go.