Vivacious Lady is Hollywood Americana at its best. It stars Jimmy Stewart and Ginger Rogers at the height of their youthful beauty and adorability–Stewart lean and gangly, his face all elongated sensual planes, and Rogers lithe and streetwise, with soft blond hair and giant sentimental eyes. They meet at a nightclub. Jimmy’s kind of a square, not there to enjoy himself, but to recover an errant fellow professor (James Ellison) who drinks and likes showgirls. Ginger’s there cause she is a showgirl. With her own specialty number in which she wears a sweetly slinky gown and manages to look both knowing and milk-fed while singing of scrambled eggs.
Jimmy tumbles immediately and literally. He trips over a waiter while gaping at Ginger in the spotlight. After her number, she comes over and introduces herself . She’s his professor friend’s date. And they sit together at the cramped little nightclub table waiting for his friend/her date to return, Ginger tumbles too (but not so literally).They can’t help themselves. Ginger wants Jimmy because he’s tall and wholesome and woos her with wholehearted sweetness, while Jimmy sets on Ginger because he’s never seen anyone quite so glowing and blond and earthy-streetwise. She turns on all his lights. They fall immediately into up-all-night-never-wanna-be-without-you-again love.
So they get married. Like right away. And most of the rest of the plot consists of Jimmy looking for the moment, and the courage, to tell his stuffy parents that he’s married a showgirl. That doesn’t sound like the premise of a great film, but in the hands of this director (Garson Kanin) and these performers, it is. Because the moments between the characters are so lively and lusty and just plain fun. There’s a scene where Ginger cat-fights a stuffy debutante, a scene where the young couple goes down to the lake for some private make-out time and find all his students had the same idea, and a scene where Jimmy gets rip-roaring drunk and makes a beautifully passionate speech about how making one’s wife happy is even more important than being a tenured professor. Magically, throughout it all, the film maintains a tone that is neither high-falutin’ nor winkingly salacious. Instead, the film implies that this America- with its showgirls, intellectuals and hot jazz music-is a country of perfectly healthy, perfectly sexy high-spirits.
The best feature of this zippy little romance is probably it’s portrayal of the female proletariat. Ginger’s working-classness here is, well, classy. She doesn’t snap her gum or wear outré numbers and she’s not bubble-headed or grasping; instead she’s earthy and smart and hep. And not intimidated by Stewart’s university pedigree. After hearing the rundown from Jimmy- “My father is a university president, my grandfather was a university president, someday I hope to be a University president”- Ginger looks impressed but not in the least cowed. She amiably dismisses the news with a wry, “goodnight.” Blue collar girls here are snappy and pragmatic and know how to keep academic types from getting to big for their scholarly britches (In a brief but irresistible turn as a coat-check girl, Dorothy Moore quickly puts the young professor in his place. Jimmy self-importantly tells her that his father is president and he has to get him on the phone, Dorothy casually rejoins, “Oh….and what’s Roosevelt doing these days?”)
Vivacious Lady is pretty fond of its university types too. They aren’t (excepting Charles Coburn as Jimmy’s father, ) high-hatted, down-your-nose, tenure-obsessed bores; they’re just lovers of the arts and sciences. Jimmy the botany professor may start out a little stiff, but as soon as he encounters Ginger’s blue-collar daffodil, he’s a kick. His fellow instructor, James Ellison, is unpretentious, heavy-drinking and fun-loving too. But perhaps the best university-based character is Jimmy’s apparently fragile mother (Beulah Bondi), wife of the dean. Fluttery and faint-hearted at first, you assume she’s a dreary Victorian throwback. Soon, though, she sneaks a smoke and and compliments Ginger’s sexy stockings. It’s not too long before she’s dancing to jazz music and telling off her husband. The film has only two genuinely snooty characters- Jimmy’s fusty university president father and his arid would-be fiance (Frances Mercer) – and these two will get their comeuppance (In one scene, scrappy Ginger gives haughty old Frances a deserved trouncing that’s alone worth the price of the rental). In fact, the whole movie is a push to topple sterile, hidebound attitudes. It believes in a zing-y, scrappy, sharp, romantic, class-hybridizing America
I don’t know if American culture ever felt this open and new and optimistic, but this 1938 RKO movie sure makes you wish is was.
For plot reasons, Ginger is pretending to be a student in Jimmy’s class. He’s totally focused, looking through a microscope with a student, explaining the simple life forms. He doesn’t know Ginger’s there, but she’s sidled up, curious and admiring. She wants to know what he’s up to, but mostly just wants to be close to her handsome young husband. She whispers, “ I love you” in his ear— and his face transforms in boyish delight and sexy-mischief. He’s all hers. The lovebirds’ emotions flood the classroom. It’s that perfect early love state. All they want is closeness. In any room, all they are about is each other and they know it and it just delights them to be anywhere together in their bubble of celebration and desire.
The movie’s only real weakness, and it’s a big one, is that it leans on stereotyped black servant caricatures for a little extra “comedy.” That it’s a common trope of the era doesn’t make it any less disappointing. A film with such a great attitude towards class-division among whites shouldn’t have such a lousy one towards class-division between blacks and whites.