|The Late George Apley (1947)
Run time: Approved | 98 min | Comedy
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Writers: Philip Dunne, George S. Kaufman
Stars: Ronald Colman, Vanessa Brown, Richard Haydn
J.P. Marquand’s pungent satire on stuffy Boston society emerges on the screen as a good family comedy, when the children fall in love with “outsiders”.
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The Late George Apley provides Ronald Colman in one of the best roles of his career as the proper Bostonian George Apley in those pre-World War I years. It's funny, but even then Boston had slipped away from the grasp of his kind. Those immigrants, starting with the ones from Ireland had been running the government there for about a generation when this play on which the film is based is set. But don't tell that to George, his kind if they don't outrightly rule, they do set the standards of proper conduct for America. When the Apleys gather for Thanksgiving, they're most mindful of the fact that some of their ancestors originated it.
But even Colman and his insular Boston world can't escape generational problems. Both his son Richard Ney and his daughter Peggy Cummins are having problems with their respective choices as life partners, especially Cummins who wants to marry a man who graduated from of all places, Yale.
Colman, maybe the most civilized leading man ever in screen history captures the essence of the decent, but somewhat fatuous George Apley. A man who thinks all the answers to life's problems can be found in a volume of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Even Emerson didn't think that.
The Late George Apley is based on a Pulitzer Prize winning novel by John P. Marquand who also collaborated with George S. Kaufman on the play. Their creation ran for 384 performances in the 1944-45 season and starred Leo G. Carroll and Janet Beecher on stage. Edna Best takes Beecher's role on screen as the patient wife of Colman.
Some really fine players populate the cast. Richard Haydn plays his usual fuss budget busybody of a cousin, always eager to help Colman maintain the high Apley standards. Mildred Natwick is Colman's even snootier sister and Percy Waram who was the only player to repeat his role from the stage plays her patient husband who talks to Colman like a Dutch uncle, not a brother-in-law.
The Late George Apley is a good American answer to those British comedy of manners even though a lot of this cast is of British origin. Would we had someone of the wit of George S. Kaufman today to write them and an actor with elegant prose of Ronald Colman to speak the lines.
Gene O'Neill set what is arguably his greatest play, Long Day's Journey Into Night, on a day in 1912 in New England. Here we have a piece also set in 1912 and also in New England but Massachussetts rather than Connecticut and the time-span is a tad longer, around six months. That apart the two couldn't be more different and are poles rather than miles apart for where O'Neill doesn't shirk from mild profanity, drug addiction and alcoholism, George P. Marquand's characters balk at a preference for cigarettes rather than cigars. Marquand was a great social historian who was to Boston was Edith Wharton and Louis McNeice were to New York and John O'Hara was to Pennsylvania and Mank, in his third film behind the camera, has caught the nuances perfectly, realizing that the trick is to encourage the actors to speak what to even an audience in 1947 were preposterous lines (I have to use a word I've never had occasion to use in front of you in all our married lives … sex') with completely straight faces. Although perhaps not recommended on a regular basis a film like this, celebrating as it does, the art of graceful acting complementing gracious living, is a genuine delight as a contrast to modern fare and though Mank had still to find his voice he had proved himself fully capable of segueing from historical/Gothic romance (Dragonwyck) through noir (Somewhere In The Night) to the comedy of manners. Ronald Coleman could hardly be bettered as the eponymous character and the support is excellent. Recommended.
Sadly, a lot of modern film watchers can't appreciate a comedy like this that isn't over-the-top, ribald, or in your face. "The Late George Apley" is a refreshing throwback from a long-gone era when subtlety in a comedy and understated performances like Ronald Colman's were more valued and appreciated. Thank heavens there are networks like TCM where you can catch some of these forgotten gems from time to time.
Don't pay attention to reviewers who claim "nothing happens" in this movie, although I imagine those with attention deficit disorder may have trouble with a film like this. For everyone else, there is plenty going on beside the humor, including a lot of charm as well as some surprising depth and unpredictability in the various characters.
John Marquand is another of those authors who were once incredibly popular who now are barely recalled – and sometimes to our loss. If England gave us James Hilton and Joyce Carey, and France the Catholic novelist Georges Bernanos, the U.S. had (among others) John P. Marquand, who was a chronicler of the rich and powerful and prominent, particularly in his native New England (and especially Boston). His novels were frequently made into movies: B.F.'s DAUGHTER, H.M.PULHAM, ESQ., TOP SECRET AFFAIR. His best novel (which won the Pulitzer Prize) was THE LATE GEORGE APLEY. This lovely movie is based on part of the novel.
As mentioned in other of the reviews here, George Apley (Ronald Colman) is a proper Boston Brahmin, home on Beacon Hill, conservative, polished, and gracious. He represents centuries of grand breeding by his Massachusetts ancestors. Occasionally a comment will break through the hard lacquered surface of the Apley household. When he has invited the father of a girl his son is infatuated with (but who lives…horror of horrors…in Worcester, Mass.)for lunch, the girl's father (Paul Harvey) reveals that Apley's great grandfather was involved in the notorious "triangle trade" (the subject of the song sung by John Cullum in 1776). Apley is a trifle thrown by that old fact being revealed (and by a social inferior at that!).
It is 1912 or so, and there is (despite one's inherent feelings that poor George is hopelessly reactionary) a lovely aged sheen of nostalgia on the film. We see people in a quieter and gentler America, having coming out parties and planning to eat a nice dinner at Delmonicos on a visit to New York City. There is also snowball fights near Boston Common. It would not be amiss to run this film with MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS and THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSOMS for an evening of good films dealing with the turn of the century (one can add HEAVEN CAN WAIT to the group too).
But the winds of change are tearing at the fabric of the world of Mr. Apley. He has two children (Richard Ney and Peggy Cummings) who while brought up properly (we later learn that shortly after Ney was born, Colman and his brother-in-law Percy Waram went to sign up the baby for a future class at Groton, the posh private school that leads to Harvard) are now being rebellious. Cummings is romancing a young professor who is lecturing at Harvard (Charles Russell), and Ney (who is supposed to be engaged to his cousin (Vanessa Brown – her father is Richard Haydn) is running around with the girl in Worcester.
Things get into a bad state, as Colman's Apley tries to come to grips with the breaking up of his orderly world of clubs and superiority. I don't think Colman ever played such a placid snob as well in any other film he made. To his credit Apley tries (at times) to meet his children half way, egged on by brother-in-law Ralph (Waram), but at other times he finds his efforts explode and sides with the more reactionary Horatio (Haydn). It becomes a fight to see whether the better side of Colman will triumph over his conservatism. But there is hope – he does find he likes to read Freud.
Boston society is far from dead today. But 1912 was about the last year that the old comic song about "where the Lodges only speak to the Cabots, and the Cabots only speak to God!" was really true. At the time the Senator from Massachusetts was Henry Cabot Lodge Sr. (whose grandson would also be Senator one day). But it was slowly dissolving, first by the onslaughts of Irish into Boston (mentioned several times in the film), and then the other immigrant groups. In the 1920s the Sacco-Vanzetti Case would show the cleavages between the old social elite (represented by the bigoted trial judge and the President of Harvard) and the defendants (two Italian-born anarchists). By the 1930s we have entered the age of Mayor John Michael Curley (the model for Frank Skeffington in THE LAST HURRAH), and the grip of the old guard never totally recovered. It is no accident that the best known "wealthy/socially prominent" family in Massachusetts today are the Kennedys, who built their ways up from the teens of the last century: the date this movie is set in.
Colman and his fellow players make us admire the form and position that old guard once controlled so well. But we welcome the fresh air that blew it all away.