Watching With Warner: H.M. PULHAM ESQ (1941)

Sometimes I just want to watch a good story.  You know the kind, the sort of story that you can just get lost in.  So after reading the description of H.M PULHAM ESQ, I was intrigued.  A movie about a man looking over his life as he writes his biography for his Harvard class 25 year reunion sounded promising, and was certainly a good story.  The fact that it featured Hedy Lamarr and Robert Young, and was directed by King Vidor only heightened my interest.

Harry Moulton Pulham Jr. (Robert Young) is a man of habits.  He has the same thing for breakfast every morning, reads his same newspaper, kisses his wife, Kay (Ruth Hussey), on the same cheek, takes two peanuts for the squirrels, and walks to his office.  He arrives precisely at the same time every morning and begins answering letters with his secretary.  One such morning he receives a phone call from Bo Jo Jones, an old classmate from Harvard.  Bo Jo is loud and overbearing, if friendly, and has soon cajoled Harry into coming out to lunch with him and several other old classmates.  At lunch Bo Jo reveals that he is planning their class 25 year reunion and tasks the other men to write their biographies, giving Harry the assignment of compiling them.  That evening Harry begins writing his own biography, beginning of course with his birth.  He recalls that as soon as he was born in Back Bay in Boston, his father enrolled him in Saint Swithen’s School.  It was at this school that he first met Kay, a bossy young girl who Harry accidentally was paired with at a school dance.  Even at that young age Kay was particular, directing Harry on how he should dance with her.  Harry’s memories are interrupted by Kay, who is much the same as she was as a child.

The next day Harry receives a phone call from a woman named Marvin Myles (Hedy Lamarr), now Mrs. John Ransome.  She asks to meet him for lunch and Harry agrees.  That afternoon Harry makes his way to the restaurant to meet Marvin.  He arrives and checks his coat, and looking out into the dining room he sees Marvin.  In that moment he has a change of heart and hurries out, ending up at a florist not far away.  He orders some roses to be sent to Marvin, along with a card apologizing for standing her up, and a gardenia for Kay.  It seems that Marvin was a woman who Harry loved years ago, and now he cannot bear to meet with her agin.  He returns home and finds Kay on the phone, gossiping with her friends.  Leaving the gardenia unnoticed, Harry goes to walk the dog.  As they walk, Harry wonders if he has ever really been happy in his life and begins to think back on his past.

At this point flashbacks of Harry’s life become the majority of plot, so in an effort to not forget any important points I will recount Harry’s life chronologically here.

While at Harvard, Harry befriends the more worldly Bill King (Van Heflin) and the bespectacled Joe Bingham (Phil Brown).  After his college days, Harry joins the army and enters World War I.  During his time in service Harry displays extreme bravery and is decorated for holding off a squadron of Germans with his men.  Once he returns to civilian life, Harry finds that he has no desire to return home to Boston and so travels on to New York City where he meets up again with Bill.  Bill offers to help Harry get a job at the advertising firm where he works.  Harry gets a job and it is here that he meets Marvin.  Marvin, who works as a copywriter, is very different from any of the women that Harry knew in Boston.  Her independence and ambition puzzle Harry, and at first the two do not get along well.  But after working together on a soap campaign they grow closer and soon the two are in love.  Harry travels home one weekend to visit his mother, who is in poor health, and while there he and his father talk about life.  Harry’s father cannot understand why Harry enjoys his life in New York City, and urges him to consider coming back home and taking over the family business.  Harry returns to New York and Marvin, and the two enjoy their time together.  However, Marvin has no desire to get married quickly and is concerned about the difference in their backgrounds.

One night Harry gets a phone call, telling him to hurry home because his father is dying.  Harry rushes back and is able to say goodbye to his father, who again urges him to come back home.  After his father’s death, Harry remains in Boston to take care of business matters but soon sends for Marvin and Bill to come visit.  Harry tries to help Marvin feel at home but she is unsettled and uncomfortable with the formal Bostonian living, especially when she realizes that Harry’s mother has not been told about their relationship.  While visiting Harry also runs into Kay, who is now engaged to Joe, much to Bill’s delight.  Bill has always had a thing for Kay and now he takes advantage of his close proximity, the two of them flirting shamelessly.  Several days later Joe comes to see Harry with terrible news.  Kay has suddenly broken their engagement and he has no idea why!  Harry encourages him to have a “showdown” with Kay, and realizes that he needs to do the same with Marvin who has since returned to New York.  However, when Harry confronts Marvin about getting married she reveals that she felt stifled in Boston and that she could never be happy there.  The two realize that they cannot get married, and Harry returns to Boston as Marvin promises to wait for him if he every wants to come back.

Some time later Kay, whose engagement has also fallen through, calls Harry and the two go sailing together.  While out on the boat they discover that they have had very similar problems in life and that they are very alike.  Kay notes that they have always been in each other’s life somehow, and the two eventually fall in love and get married.

Coming back to the present, Harry awakes the next day to find his life in disarray.  He feels out of sorts and rejects his usual morning paper.  Kay notices the change and asks if everything is alright.  Harry begs Kay to go away with him in the car right away, no schedules or appointments.  Kay refuses, citing her many social engagements, and Harry leaves for work.  Once there he picks up the phone to  call Marvin once again.

This film is based on a novel by John P. Marquand, which started life as a serial called GONE TOMORROW in McCall’s magazine in early 1940. It is a story that might seem familiar but is much more than what it might first appear to be.  Even though there are plenty of movies made today about people and their lives, even people looking back over their lives, I don’t think that this sort of story is told that much today.  The point of this film is to look back over Harry’s life and to ask the question, can a man be happy if he lives the life that he should live or the life that he wants to live.  The life that Harry has lived is not particularly remarkable, even for the time, nor is it particularly glamorous.  In fact he is fairly average for what he is, a Back Bay Boston son born into an “old money” family with all the responsibilities and expectations that come with that.  But that is what makes the story so strong, as well as the movie.  This is a story of a normal man, a man that could be anyone’s father, brother, son, or husband.  I think that is one of the things I enjoy so much about King Vidor.  He often seems to tell the stories of ordinary people, but he does it in such a way as to make it feel extraordinary.  He co-wrote this screenplay with his wife, Elizabeth Hill Vidor, and I think that makes the movie and especially the ending even stronger.  The conversations and relationships between the characters feels real and honest, and these are conversations that you can picture people having in their own homes.  It also makes the ending more impactful, realizing that it came from the minds of a husband and wife.

Without spoiling too much, I think that the ending of this movie is what makes it special.  Some people watching it today might think that it is a poor ending, or one that doesn’t ring true but I disagree.  There is something quite lovely in the way that it ends, and the place that Harry, Kay, and Marvin are in when it does.  It is a very different ending then would be made today, in much the same way that the ending of A BRIEF ENCOUNTER would most likely be changed today, but I do think that it is the right ending for these characters.

Hedy Lamarr counted this as her favorite film and many critics called out her performance as the best of her career.  This is my first time seeing her, so I can’t compare, but she is fantastic.  Marvin could easily be a very one-dimensional character but she manages to make her into a complex woman.  Her scenes with Robert Young are charming and natural, and you feel the attraction between these two people.  Harry is completely bewildered by her and she cannot understand his stuffiness.  Together they help improve the other, Harry coming out of his shell and Marvin blossoming under the love of a good man.  Also, and this is a small thing, the “old people” makeup in this film is great!  It is by far the most natural and believable makeup that I have seen in an older film.  Subtly done, you really feel like you are seeing a natural progression of age rather than two younger actors put into makeup.  It is a little thing, but it is nice not to watch a movie noticing how much makeup is put on the younger actors to make them look old.

All in all this is a lovely movie that I highly recommend!  The performances are natural and effortless, and the characters are ones that you don’t mind investing two hours of your time in.  King Vidor has given us a window into the life of Harry Pulham and the journey we take with him is quite enjoyable.

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