16 January 2015

A Romantic Comedy I Missed: The Reformer and the Redhead

I will frankly admit that I've become a much bigger June Allyson fan since I found out about her doomed romance with Alan Ladd. And I've always liked Dick Powell; I admire a person who commits to hard work and ambition and he demonstrates both -- starting with his fine singing. It's easy to make fun of the boy tenor, but serious vocal training is no picnic; it takes discipline and dedication. As he grew older, he changed his image more successfully than anyone else I can think of. And, with real foresight, he moved into producing and directing in the late 40s, and was an important early television producer. He and June Allyson were married for eighteen years.
What this is leading up to is that I recently saw a very charming movie the two of them made together which had somehow escaped me over the years. Rather prosaically entitled "The Reformer and the Redhead", this is a well-written, funny but thoughtful movie with progressive views on two things that are still current -- corrupt politics and animal rights. (This last is particularly welcome because, lets face it, the attitude towards animals in many classic-era films is pretty cringe-worthy). 
David Wayne, June Allyson, and Marvin Kaplan
Powell is Andrew Hale, an up-and-coming attorney contemplating a run for mayor of a small Californian city, and Allyson is Kathleen Maguire, a hot-tempered animal specialist who assists her father (Cecil Kellaway), a distinguished zoologist, in running the reputable city zoo.  
They meet when Kathleen looses her temper with a lady big-game-hunter (Kathleen Freeman) and gets into a knock-down, drag-out fight with her (yes, June Allyson!). Unfortunately, her opponent is the niece of the local political boss, played by the great Ray Collins, who retaliates by causing her father to be dismissed from his position. Needing a lawyer, she picks Andrew.
There follows the traditional back and forth of a movie courtship, but it’s at once quite tenderly romantic and witty. It also becomes clear that Kathleen is no ordinary redhead, and Andrew is not exactly a reformer, but is rather putting forward that image as an election ploy. The film is blunt about the behind-the-scenes jostling for power that a campaign involves; Andrew is quite willing make a deal to get ahead. He takes Kathleen and her father’s case because it appears that he might gain some leverage over the boss.
When he visits them his attitude is wary and a bit disdainful; but Kathleen and her father display such devotion to their calling that he is won over. The proper running of the zoo and the keepers’ respect and kindness towards the animals is presented as the ideal. From an initial skepticism Andrew ends up involved, and is soon seen completely absorbed in gently bottle-feeding some newborn goats. 
Cecil Kellaway, June Allyson, and an expectant goat
 Naturally, Kathleen and Andrew fall in love; she believes his claim to be a reformer, and enthusiastically joins in his campaign, leading to several other cute bits, such as his speech before an ethnic association — Andrew has given so many speeches that he’s forgotten what country his audience proudly identifies with. So Kathleen and his campaign manager (David Wayne) try to remind him with mime.
Andrew makes a speech to ...? David Wayne, June Allyson, Tor Johnson, Dick Powell
Then Andrew makes a deal with the big boss, and Kathleen furiously breaks up with him; then he really does reform, and helps to capture an escaped lion, too. He wins the election, and everyone lives happily ever after.
No one acts like an idiot here, even the bad guys — or the animals. There is a funny running gag with a chimp that is understated and not at all demeaning — every time Kathleen and Andrew sit down for a snack or a drink, they end up canoodling instead, at which point a chimp strolls in, picks up the sandwich or glass of milk, and walks off with it. 
Plot really isn’t the point of this movie. The point is telling a nice story with intelligence, wit, and respect for the audience and the performers, human or not. That is pretty unusual even today.
Mr. and Mrs. Powell