Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Girls' Dormitory

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed “Girls’ Dormitory” (1936). I liked that it didn’t follow a formula and the conclusion surprised me, as it didn’t turn out as pat as I was expecting. It also clocked in at a trim 66 minutes, packing a lot of character and incident in the short running time.

The film is best remembered today as Tyrone Power’s film debut, but he’s only in the film for one or two brief scenes towards the end.

Ironically, Power was barely an afterthought to the film, showing up as the cousin of Marie Claudel (Simone Simon) at her graduation. Following his short appearance here, he received a ton of fan mail, which led to 20th Century Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck taking a gamble and casting him that year in the lead role in “Lloyds of London”, a look at the famous insurance company’s founding. He became Fox’s leading male attraction for the next 20 years.

Which must have pleased, yet irked, Zanuck, as he planned “Girls’ Dormitory” as a showpiece for his newest star, the French import Simone Simon. Showpiece is an accurate description for this film, as the shimmering black and white photography captures Simon’s sex kittenish aspect at its most desirable. She’s absolutely adorable here, but Fox didn’t handle her very well and she gained greater fame at RKO in the 1940s in her role as Belle, the devil’s emissary in “All that Money Can Buy” (1941), also known as “The Devil and Daniel Webster”, and the tragic Irina in the classic horror movie “Cat People.” (1942).

If you ever get the chance to see “All that Money Can Buy” do so, because its one of the greatest films ever made, equal parts haunting and poetic. Belle plays the devil’s helper who makes sure victim Jabez Stone (James Craig) stays on the wayward path to sin and keeps to his Satanic contract. Belle is most appealing and if someone like her ever came to my door to tempt me to the Dark Side, I’m afraid I would follow in an instant. (If I turn up dead under very mysterious circumstances, please refer this blog to the police. Thank you).

But those roles were in the future. In “Girls’ Dormitory” Simon’s Marie Claudel is a young schoolgirl hopelessly in love with her much older professor Stefan Dominick (Herbert Marshall). Stefan is oblivious to these attentions. A fellow teacher more towards his own age, Professor Anna Mathe, played by the always underrated Ruth Chatterton, has been secretly in love with him for years. Thanks to a wayward love letter, Stefan learns about Marie’s interest in him and succumbs to her. They decide to get married after she graduates, causing great consternation among the very conservative school board.

Marie learns about Anna’s love for Stefan and decides to bow out. Stefan also learns about Anna’s feeling for him. Will he make a fool of himself by going after Marie, or realize how much more companionable he has been with Anna all these years. It didn’t turn out like I expected.

Chatterton is very wise and winning in her portrayal, and Anna is quite sympathetic towards Marie. What could have been played as soap opera is elevated by the sensitivity of the actors. Marshall projects well the ennui of a middle aged man going through the motions until faced with the prospect of love with a young girl.

It could have been smutty, but its not. Two years after the Production Code was put in place, the studios were playing it safe. No lecherous older man and nubile young girls here. Chatterton and Marshall are adults, realizing that real human feelings and thoughts must be made into account.

The beautiful photography, the cast, Simone’s incredible beauty and the brief introduction of one of Hollywood’s greatest stars make this one a winner.

Rating for “Girls’ Dormitory”: Three stars.


Anonymous said...

Simone Simon was quite hot! I would
say that she would be a top draw in our day as well, or at least another Paris Hilton.....evidentally she ended up a total cipher, as I never heard of her at all......funny how vehicles meant for one morph into incubuses for others(T Powers)....

Thats life in the Hollywood Star System, I guess...

Kevin Deany said...

She's really appealing in "Girl's Dormitory" and devilishly so in "All that Money Can Buy."

At least, unlike Paris Hilton, she could act.

Check her out in "Cat People" sometime, she's exceptionally good in that.