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Irene Dunne’s Unfinished Business

By: Megan McGurk

Robert Montgomery usually trades upon breezy gin-marinated smarm in his romantic roles, such as the louse he plays in The Divorcee (1930), a man who takes advantage of Norma Shearer’s marriage trouble to wheedle sex, or the department shop heir who watches Joan Crawford undress after she appears in a fashion show in Our Blushing Brides from the same year. Rich boy with entitlement issues was his character pigeon-hole throughout the 1930s. He wore a groove in celluloid as louche playboys more comfortable handling a cocktail shaker than a leading lady. He’s a bit of a surprise in Gregory La Cava’s Unfinished Business (1941), because for the first time, he drops the detached bravado long enough to register empathy for a woman. Montgomery’s Tommy Duncan observes what escapes everyone else in the room: Irene Dunne’s humiliation. For a man who has enough privilege to buffer any acknowledgement of human suffering, he nonetheless catches Dunne’s emotional agony. And he applies a balm of comfort.

What leads Irene Dunne’s Nancy Andrews to table side humiliation begins when she joins the ranks of screen heroines who leave domestic obligations and claim a right to their own adventure. Garbo in Susan Lenox, Crawford in Possessed, Lombard in No Man of Her Own, Stanwyck in Baby Face, Crawford in The Damned Don’t Cry, rank among a legion of women in film who exchange traditional family roles for independence.

Once Irene Dunne’s Nancy watches her younger sister marry, she’s free from her mothering role, and able to leap headlong into a plan to become ‘unsettled’. Although the newlyweds extend a room for her in their house, by way of compensation for her sacrificed youth, Nancy decides to become a professional singer in Manhattan. At 43 years-old, Irene Dunne looks at least ten years younger, so we understand her reluctance to occupy a rocking chair and sexless doom. Viewers may regard La Cava’s picture as an updated version of John Stahl’s Back Street (1932), where this time around, Irene Dunne’s character need not scurry around the margins of a man’s life for two decades.

On the train to New York, the likelihood of romance Nancy had wished for dissipates with the grim bargain struck between Preston Foster’s Steve Duncan and his friend Frank (played by Dick Foran) to find the prettiest girl on the train. Once they fan out at opposites ends to inspect the women to win the $100 stakes, there’s no possibility for human connection. Their pact somehow resists age or reason. You could stage the same exact wager between men today without losing a shred of plausibility. Yes, this is how some men pass the time, by hunting women, just short of bagging and tagging their prey.  La Cava underscores their creepiness, and spares us any degree of glossy boys-will-be-boys treacle.

Unabashed, the men indulge in bouts of howling catch calls, heads thrown back, yearning for cave fires and dragging women by the hair. Steve and Frank consider themselves heroic Casanovas, except they appear more recognisable for what they are–spoilt middle-aged lechers with an empathy deficit.

Not only does La Cava resist glorifying the men on the prowl, he restrains our impulse to read small town Irene Dunne’s Nancy as a witless rube. La Cava made his business popping the ego balloons of the names in society pages. He wastes no time revealing the crap so-called respectable people get away with, from including forgotten men on scavenger hunts in My Man Godfrey (1936) to Frank’s ‘where’d you get her—off a mail hook?’ when he sees that Steve won the bet. La Cava had folks who make sport of the unfortunate or innocent in his cross hairs.

Nancy begins to wobble as soon as Steve swoops into her personal space. He calls her a thoroughbred although she looks more like a foal, unsteady on her feet in her newfound freedom. She struggles to gain purchase while the rollicking train knocks around the rails, and on her way to the club car, as he hangs over her shoulder, Nancy falls and twists her ankle. Surefooted Steve, so intent on his wager that he has no trouble striking a smooth gait along the length of the train, seizes an opportunity to get her alone in his private compartment. Steve wastes no time manoeuvring her inside and pretending that he’s concerned with her injury. He puts her foot up, places a pillow under it, and takes her shoe off, while he delivers a steady stream of flattery.

Nancy stays alert and on the defence during his big-rescue ministrations. Her clothing may announce a small-town provenance, along with a necklace that cost $1.97, a price tag she confesses to halt his ability to laugh her off as a hick.

A persistent barrage of compliments soften her resolve, until he’s distracted by the porter at the door, whom he bribes to leave them alone. Nancy removes the necklace while he’s busy, the first sign that she’s decided his advances will continue. Contrary to what some reviewers argue, Steve does not trick Nancy or lull her into submission with his phony gallantry. When he tells her ‘you’re the first girl who ever got wise to me’ it’s supposed to be another line, only, starved for sexual experience, Nancy concludes that it doesn’t matter. As she had said to him earlier

Some of the things you said were not unpleasant, even if you didn’t mean them.

She’s fully aware that he’s putting the moves on overdrive. Nancy says yes to him because the train has always figured in her fantasy life. In a previous scene, when she rejects the proposal of a suitor in Messina, she had envisaged the train whistle as the sound of a romantic knight, who promises bigger vistas and adventure. On the train with Steve, she falls into a lustful account of her train fantasy, of the lights from small towns flashing by, the speed, the whistle, while confessing twice that

It does something to me.

Nancy’s seated across from Steve, but she’s miles away, lost in the pleasure of her own sexual reverie. It’s really not about Steve, his pick-up lines, or flattery. He just happens to be there, convenient for her own desire. Had they met in the theatre, park, or on the bus, she probably would have frozen him out altogether. He could be any man. He’s there to put flesh to her fantasy, a prospect too tempting to refuse.

She may not have direct experience with a seduction scene, but every woman by Nancy’s age cobbles together enough scraps from books, magazines, film, advice manuals, and gossip about the beast with two backs. Rather than fit the stereotype of some delicate maiden from the corn belt, Nancy has been preparing for this moment throughout her adult life. Her fantasy, worry and preoccupation with personal freedom, which put her on the train in the first place, has imagined some version of how men proposition and succeed with women. Nancy may not know intimate details about what happens during sex, but she has no doubt read plenty about what transpires before sex. She knows full well what destination the figurative train heads and her signal lights up in green.

Why should she wait to arrive in New York before waging a campaign to ‘unsettle’ and repay lost years? Women in the audience understand why she swoons for the first attractive man who makes a pass on the train. Nancy decides she’s ready to let his seduction happen once she removes the faux pearl necklace he objects to when the porter calls in, so that Steve may kiss her throat without obstruction. She wants those kisses she’s waited for.

What viewers find less comprehensible is why Nancy declares her love for him as they part in the station the next morning. It seems inconsistent with her emotional acumen that she label her feelings ‘love’ and expect him to feel the same or ring her soon. I’d like to chalk this plot detail up to the Production Code. The only thing that allowed this film to pass the censors was that good-girl Irene Dunne can have a one night stand with a random because she loves him, rather than just a once-off fling. For most other women of her star magnitude, you could not imagine a heroine without a moral compass trained on true north. Irene Dunne elevates a tawdry encounter to something justifiably pure or blameless. She’s just not the casual sex type, so she gets away with it.

Somehow, Irene’s Nancy falls hard for pick up artist. When he extricates himself at the station the morning after with no intention of seeing her again, we know they will meet as surely as Chekhov’s promise about a gun on the wall. Less a matter of true love, since he’s a total stranger, what earns Nancy’s devotion is how Steve made her feel in a fantasy come alive. She always wanted to be a woman on a train watching the lights pass, and now she was a woman of experience. She didn’t burst into flames or any other untoward result from leaping into the blind thrill of the moment. Nancy’s roommate Katy (Kathryn Adams), voices the audience’s estimation of Steve Duncan and counsels reason

You could draw a number out of a hat and get a nicer fellow than he is.

Nancy ignores the advice. Instead of interpreting her steadfast desire for Steve as evidence of a lack of expertise, perhaps once more, it’s less about Steve and more to the point about herself. Acknowledging his loathsome character means admitting that he does not share the degree of importance she assigns to their rendezvous.

Nancy nonetheless crumbles when they meet again. Any woman who has earned her stripes working the front lines of a nightclub knows the particular sting of having an ex-lover show up with another woman. Nancy doesn’t have to wait on their table, but she presents a cake while singing happy birthday to Steve. She may have imagined singing for him (she with the lovely voice) but not under such circumstances. Preston Foster’s Steve recognises her, but proffers a blank ‘thank you’ that was meant to deny their previous association.

Nancy’s cool composure disappears when Steve bids a hasty exit to another table with the woman he plans to marry. As Steve, Foster plays a rich society man, but his accent retains no element of overly mannered society. He sounds like a man who has known more than a few back streets himself, even if only in terms of a gambling saloon. Foster isn’t as attractive or strong a leading man as he was with Carole Lombard in Love Before Breakfast (1936), but he’s still good looking with broad shoulders. His character has far more self-command and confidence than his younger brother. You can see why Irene hangs on.

Robert Montgomery, as Steve’s brother Tommy, plays a reckless inebriate, a man with a string of breach-of-promise cases in his wake. He leads women to believe he’s interested in marriage when he only wants a good time, or else he lacks clarity to determine if ladies are only interested in a pay-off.

Unlike his older brother, he has the decency to pay women for their trouble. As I said in the opening, he abandons the security of playing a remote lush, closed off from connection or consequence. Tommy’s reputation shares none of his older brother’s gravitas or authority—he’s the disreputable clown destined for embarrassment or ruin. Yet his aloof persona melts with the milk of human kindness he extends when he understands Nancy.

Tommy appears suddenly awakened from a booze-drip somnambulism.  Nancy’s anguish sobers him. He halts barfly quips and witnesses Irene Dunne’s devastation. He sweeps her out of the room for privacy, instructing her to have a good cry in the corner while he sits in front of the nightclub switchboard. For an over-indulged man who glides from one cocktail to another, even five minutes as a switchboard operator merits undue stress. Lines buzz, patrons corral at the doorway to ask for their numbers, or demand to know what booth to take, all of which could rattle even someone fortified by a few drinks. Guys like Tommy don’t volunteer for demanding tasks that will prove themselves inept and incapable, even if only for five minutes. When he does, it elevates his character more than the standard checklist of gallantries such as placing a pillow under her ankle. Spare a woman public collapse. Give her the ability to collect herself in private before she returns to brave-face the public.

Nancy falls for Tommy slowly, without the fantasy life of trains or throwing bread sticks at head waiters. When she tells Tommy that in the lives of all women, there’s unfinished business, she claims the right to have a past, to own her story apart from him, even if it’s with a man whose idea of the highest compliment lands in calling her a thoroughbred.

You can find Unfinished Business on YouTube.