Film: Kitty Foyle: The Natural History of a Woman (December 27, 1940)
“There’s a lot of living to do in this world. And if you’re worthwhile, you get hurt.”
A working class girl from Philadelphia reflects on her life when she finds herself forced to choose between a wealthy suitor from back home or a respectable doctor from New York.
The movie opens with a look back at women throughout the years which suggests that although women have progressed from waiting around for a marriage proposal to being allowed to vote and hold jobs alongside men, it may not be all fun and games. With more opportunities come more inconveniences–like suffering through crowded mass transit on the way to the daily grind. It’s an interesting beginning to the movie, particularly because the movie never again seems to address something quite so universal or interesting. The movie was subtitled “The Natural History of a Woman,” but it positions itself solely around one woman’s love life and a choice that seems clear from the outset, regardless of how charming Mr. Wynneford Strafford VI may turn out to be.
There are some sweet moments and some amusing ones (Kitty and the doctor’s first date is particularly funny), but at the end of the day it’s simply a fine romantic melodrama. That ends up being quite a bit of a diversion from the book which, as will be discussed later, confronted a problem–which the author believed was “national in scope and of social significance” (and it was not which guy Kitty should marry).
For what it is, it’s a fine movie, and Ms. Rogers gives her all to a role that still has a lot of meat to it, justifying her Oscar win1, I just wish it was for a film that dared shoot a little higher.
Book: Kitty Foyle (1939)
“Molly and me had a talk one time about the White Collar Women, there’s millions of them, getting maybe 15 to 30 a week, they’ve got to dress themselves right up to the hilt, naturally they have a yen for social pleasure, need to be a complete woman with all a woman’s satisfactions and they need a chance to be creating and doing. And the men their own age can’t do much for them, also the girls grow up too damn fast because they absorb the point of view of older people they work for. Their own private life gets to be a rat race. Jesusgod, I read about the guts of the pioneer woman and the woman of the dustbowl and the gingham goddess of the covered wagon. What about the woman of the covered typewriter? What has she got, poor kid, when she leaves the office?”
A working class girl from Philadelphia reflects on her life as she contemplates the future for herself as well as other White Collar Girls as opportunities for and expectations of women continue to shift.
I was somewhat lukewarm about the movie, but I’m so glad I hunted down the book. It took a trip to a used bookstore because the New York Public Library only had it available by request, and while I’m happy to be the odd woman who likes reading 80 year-old forgotten novels, I start feeling self-conscious when I imagine some person–or machine?–having to cater to my whims. Luckily, used bookstores still exist and for $7.50 I became the new owner of a very old book.2
I knew the book had been sanitized for the screen (I had read that pre-marital sex and an abortion both factored into the plot), but I didn’t realize how much much more style the book had. The book is so full of apt metaphors and wise, pithy statements, at times I felt like I was reading an on-point twitter feed from the late 1930s:
“It’s good, seeing things again you’ve been carrying in your mind all the while and didn’t even know you knew.”
“When you think back you can see it don’t matter so much what actually happened as what kind of a pattern it leaves in your mind.”
“If you let your mind go, it certainly takes you places.”
“That’s the kind of thing that will wake you up in the middle of the night. I don’t want to have a night without any middle.”
And my favorite:
“Lots of times you have to pretend to join a parade in which you’re not really interested, in order to get where you’re going.”
There’s also this passage;
“Well sure, I bet history always was temperamental when it was happening. But they lived through it, didn’t they? Some of them always did. So will we, some of us, even if they tear the world in pieces.”
“Everybody has his own way of reaching for [what’s real], it’s a big error to think you’re the only one that’s doing the thinking. I bet everybody has that same feeling, Now I’m alive, how grand it is and it’s passing every moment.
“You don’t mind thinking these things to yourself. Nobody is ashamed when she’s alone. How would you get in the world more of the kind of people that you can feel alone with?”
From the first page Kitty’s voice is strong and specific, and throughout, what matters is not so much the specific story points, but how Kitty processes the events of her life, from the dreams of college, to the responsibility of caring for an ailing father, to her becoming a “white collar girl” after taking up work with a French beautician. All of these stories and memories are haunted by the ghost of Wynnewood Strafford VI, a high-society man whom Kitty falls for, despite her low-class upbringing making their relationship a practical impossibility. Through the telling of her story, Kitty works her relationship with Wynn into the grand narrative of her life, trying to figure out how he fits into it. At times she thought her story would end with him, and as the book progresses she sneaks in increasing references to another man–less passionate, more practical, but even he doesn’t become a lead. Perhaps the most controversial part of the book is not pre-marital sex or abortion or illegal drinking (the last of which didn’t seem to bother the Motion Picture Production Code), but rather how the story which initially seems like a love story, a tale of how a woman finds herself in domestic bliss with a nice, stable man, becomes the story of a woman who understands that her story is hers alone, and regardless of with whom she may share her heart or her bed, she is an independent individual with a voice and a history of her own.
That is perhaps the part of the transition to film that upsets me the most. I understand the need to bend to expectations of the Production Code, but while the film begins with a short blurb about feminism, it’s really just a romantic melodrama about a woman choosing between a troublesome man and a respectable one and the happy ending is achieved with her choosing one–the respectable one, of course. While the book also features two men, the resolution doesn’t revolve around Kitty choosing one or the other, (neither of which are as clearly good or bad as the characters in the film), but rather it’s about what else happens on the way to that Hollywood-style happy ending, and the sacrifices women are always asked to make for it. Of course it would be silly of me to expect such ambiguity from a film released in 1940, but I wish the changes to the story had allowed Kitty to keep a little more of her strength and gumption.
- Before RKO started filming Kitty Foyle, Life Magazine did a photo-essay in which they explored the locations, sights and sounds of Kitty’s life as explored in the novel.3
- Philadelphia as Advertised goes in depth into Philadelphia as Kitty would have experienced it in the 20s and 30s.
- This post from Mildred’s FatBurgers sums up the differences between the book and the film with a little more panache than I did here.
1. I don’t think it’s the best performance of her career, however. Ms. Rogers particularly gifted at comedy, a genre awards have always, unfortunately, had a tendency to overlook.↩
2. The copy I got, published in 1939, was previously owned by a woman named Jacqueline du Rest. Some internet searching suggests she grew up and was educated partly in Philadelphia but then lived for a time on New York’s Upper West Side. I wonder what she thought of Kitty’s adventures. How much did she relate? Did she roll her eyes at Kitty’s views of Philly’s upper-class but sigh in recognition while reading about Kitty’s attempts to live independently in NYC? How long did Ms. du Rest own the book before selling it to a used bookstore? And how long did the book sit, tucked away on a high-up shelf at the Strand before I came along and rescued it from a life of lonely deterioration? I suppose there are some things you can’t learn from a Google search….↩
3. The same issue contains a short spread about the film Ginger did before Kitty Foyle: Primrose Path, Ginger’s first straight dramatic role (and, in my opinion, a very sweet movie).↩