Friday, October 2, 2015

Thelma Moves to Ohio

Marriage, and the difficulties of dealing with the in-laws, is the subject of The Mating Season  (1951), a wonderful (and underrated) romantic comedy, which stars Gene Tierney and John Lund as newlyweds trying to deal with their respective mothers.

When Maggie Carleton (Gene Tierney) meets Val McNulty (John Lund) after she nearly runs her car off a cliff, love is almost immediately in bloom, much to the consternation of Maggie's wealthy suitor Junior Kalinger (James Lorimer) and Val's secretary, Betsy (Jan Sterling).  But, if the young couple thought life with Junior and Betsy were their only problems, they were mistaken, because in comes trouble in the form of his mother Ellen (Thelma Ritter) and HER mother Fran (Miriam Hopkins).  Problem 1 - Fran is a horror, who thinks her son-in-law is far beneath her (and Maggie's) notice.  Problem 2 - Maggie has mistaken Ellen for a housekeeper who was being sent over by an employment agency, and Ellen doesn't want her to know that she is Val's mother.  So, when both mothers move move in - Ellen as housekeeper, and Fran by taking over the master bedroom, the marriage begins to feel its growing pains.
Though Gene Tierney and John Lund are the official stars of this film, the movie really belongs to Thelma Ritter as the down-to-earth Ellen. Though Miriam Hopkins thinks it is her movie (see this TCM article for Ms. Hopkins hijinks), there is no way even Hopkins, the ultimate scene stealer, can get the film back from Ritter.  As with pretty much everything she does, when Ritter is on the screen, you are looking at HER.  Do you recall Ms. Ritter in Miracle on 34th Street? She has two, very brief scenes, but you will always remember her as the harried mother in Macys.  In 1951, she was nominated for her second Academy Award for her supporting role in The Mating Season; ultimately, she was nominated six times (and never won.  Go figure).  Ellen is the emotional core of the film, with Ritter providing a perfect foil to Hopkins meddling mother, as she carefully tries to maneuver past the dangers that come with two mothers-in-law in the same house.  There are perhaps no scenes more telling than the pair that show each child with his/her mother.  In one, we see Maggie and Fran in the master bedroom - where Fran has not only separated husband and wife, she has even gone so far as to steal Maggie's only pillow; this is followed by a conversation between Val and Ellen, in which Ellen's desire to sacrifice for her son and his wife is so very clear.

Ritter returned to acting in 1947 after a hiatus to raise her two children (she was married to her husband, Joseph Moran, for 42 years).  Her first picture was Miracle on 34th Street (1947), in which she was not credited.  By 1950, however, she had received her first Oscar nomination (for her work as Birdie in All About Eve), and was then nominated again the next four years in succession (for this film, With a Song in My Heart, and Pickup on South Street).  In her 21 year screen career, she appeared in 44 films and television shows.  In 1958, she returned to Broadway, and won a Tony for her role in New Girl in Town (a tie - with her co-star Gwen Verdon).  Ms. Ritter died of a heart attack in 1969, at age 67.
Gene Tierney is also quite wonderful as Maggie.   Badly played, Maggie could be a wimp, but Tierney gives her spunk and integrity.  Her blossoming relationship with Ellen is warm and affectionate.  And when Ellen's real position in the household is revealed, you sympathize with Maggie's fury for the deception that has robbed her of an even better relationship with her new mother.  

Equally wonderful in as very small role is Larry Keating  as George Kalinger, Sr.   The wealthy head of Val's company, Mr. Kalinger, Sr. is impressed by both Val, and especially with Val's mother.  How he got a son like Junior is a puzzle - and one Mr. Kalinger doesn't understand.  The comfortable nature of his relationship with Ellen provides a lovely picture of mature love - placed in juxtaposition to our young lovers, we can almost see the future for Maggie and Val.  Keating, who would eventually go on to a noted television career (as the original Harry Morton in The Burns and Allen Show, and as next-door neighbor Roger Addison in Mr. Ed), died in 1963.
John Lund, on the other hand, is rather banal.  It's hard to understand why Maggie falls for him so quickly, as he often appears stiff and up-tight.  It's not that Val isn't in a precarious position - it's just that, even when he is with Maggie and Ellen,  Lund gives us a Val who doesn't ever seem to become comfortable.  Interestingly, Lund himself was not really taken with his appearance on film.  He is quoted as saying (IMDB):  "Each picture has given me an inferiority complex. I've become face conscious. Projection rooms are torture chambers to me, at this point. When I saw the first day's rushes on To Each His Own (1946), I went home and started packing. I had thought I was smiling tenderly at Olivia de Havilland, but, on screen, I looked as though I were ready to bite her ear off, and I didn't have any eyes at all. After that, I refused to look at myself, but I began enjoying the work."  A competent actor, he might have been better off in character parts - and in fact, in his later years, he switched to radio, voicing the titular detective in Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.  But for the most part, his leading man looks shoved him into the romantic lead.  But when he finally got to turn that model on its head - as the uptight George Kittredge in High Society (1956) - he was at his best..  Eventually, he left acting to become a successful businessman.  He died in 1992, after a battle with heart disease, aged 81.

Filmed under the working title of A Relative Stranger (AFI Notes), the film was given okay reviews (though Bosley Crowther of the New York Times was not particularly amused).  Regardless, this is a film that has aged remarkably well, and is just a delight from start to finish. We'll leave you with the arrival of Ellen in Ohio - she was SUPPOSED to take the bus...

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