George Apley (Ronald Colman) is from Boston. He believes the world revolves around Boston, and that only Boston manners - as decided on by him, of course - are the proper ones. His life becomes problematic, however when his son John (Richard Ney) falls in love with a "foreigner" from Wooster, MA and his daughter Eleanor (Peggy Cummins) becomes involved with an English professor, Howard Bolder (Charles Russell) who believes that Ralph Waldo Emerson was a radical; he also has the temerity to be a Yale graduate. Welcome to the world of The Late George Apley (1947).
In a sense, one of the biggest problems with the film is the title. The LATE George Apley? George Apley isn't dead! But in the play (which ran for a year on Broadway, and featured Leo G. Carroll as George) from which the film is taken, the story is related by Horatio Willing (here played by Richard Hayden) after George's death in 1924. As a result, you spend much of the movie waiting for George to leave this world. The action of the film instead centers around events in 1912, with George dealing with the romantic relationships of his children. Neither has chosen a potential spouse that fits George's notion of appropriate. The film looks at his ability to accept his children adults, able to make choices about their own futures. It never gets to the end of the play.
Ronald Colman is perhaps the best part of this film; he is able to make George wry and amusing. Mr. Colman had an excellent sense of comedic timing; he also understood character distance - he keeps George ever so slightly removed from the action, until such time that it is imperative that he become deeply involved. It is something Mr. Colman used to superb effect in The Talk of the Town (1942), and it works well in this film. He and screenwriter Philip Dunne are thus able to make George sympathetic, which would not be an easy task with a a lesser actor. (AFI catalog)
Making George and company sympathetic is a tricky task. He adoration of Boston and his disregard of any other part of the world can become trying. Though we never meet Myrtle Dole (John's love), we do meet her father. And while we first accept Julian Dole (Paul Harvey) as being wiser than George, we wondered if we should have done so. Mr. Dole proposes exactly what George's father did to George, and what George wants to do to Ellie - separate her from her lover for an extended period to break up the relationship. Mr. Dole's reasoning certainly seems rational - Myrtle will never be happy in Boston, while John will never be happy outside of it. In the end, we are looking at two fathers who infantilize their children, rather than letting them decide the future for themselves.
Perhaps the most interesting character in the film is Agnes Willing (as portrayed by Vanessa Brown). Agnes sees herself as plain and dull, primarily because John - her intended husband according to the Apley and the Willing seniors - is totally uninterested in her. However, after conversations with Catherine Apley (Edna Best) and Ellie, Agnes begins to see herself and her power differently. We are treated to the growth of this character, as she learns display herself differently and push back when others try to make her a walking mat. A late scene with Howard goes on a bit too long, but it does give Ms. Brown an opportunity to show off the new Agnes.
We were also pleased to see Mildred Natwick (as Amelia Newcombe, George's sister). Though Amelia is, quite frankly, a harridan, Ms. Natwick is always enjoyable in any part she plays. She works well with Mr. Colman, and with Percy Waram, who plays her husband Roger. And it is quite pleasurable to see the always excellent Peggy Cummins in a film. With only 26 film credits, it's a novel experience to be able to see something other than Gun Crazy (1950).
If the The New York Times review is an example of the reception the film received, it did not really wow the critics. The Late George Apley is by no means a bad movie; it's just not one of Ronald Colman's best films, even if his performance is top notch. Certainly consider it if you have a chance to see it.