Saturday, June 30, 2012

Unfinished Business

Irene as Nancy Andrews Duncan

Release date 09.12.1941

"You see, Tommy, you just won't understand that in the lifes of all women there's some unfinished business. Don't ask me why. Is that clear?"

After marrying off the sister she raised, Nancy (Irene) decides that's her turn now and that she won't stick to the plans her family made for her. It's about time for some adventure in the big city. Hoping for a singing career, Nancy leaves her hometown Massina, Ohio, for New York. On the train she meets wealthy playboy Steve Duncan (Preston Foster). Steve has a nice little 50-bucks-bet running with his buddy - who will pick up the more beautiful girl on the train - and Nancy just comes in handy. Despite Steve's obvious line she soon surrenders to his kisses ... 

No Little Red Riding Hood but Redhead and the Wolf
(wolf at work)

Well, the next morning Steve hopes that he would get away without having to talk to her but gets trapped.
S: "I'll give you a call..."
N: "You won't forget?"
S: "What do you think?"
N: "I love you!"

The end of the affair...

The next weeks bring two revelations for our small town girl: Steve won't call, and her voice isn't trained enough for an opera career. The only job Nancy lands is as singing telephone operator at a nightclub. An accidental meeting with Steve and his fiancĂ©e at the club ends with tears for Nancy. Not knowing why she is so upset, Steve's brother, Tom (Robert Montgomery) tries to comfort her. Tom is a boozer, a good-for-nothing fellow feeling overshadowed by his older brother but nonetheless a nice guy. At the night of Steve's wedding Tom and Nancy get terribly drunk and not so terribly married with Tom still not knowing about the train fling between his brother and his bride.

Tommie and Nancy on their way to marriage...

 Get this down!

The main occupation of the young couple during the next time is frequenting nightclubs and showing socially not accepted behaviour but one evening they strand at the domiciliary grand piano with Nancy fulfilling Tom's request for "When You and I Were Young, Maggie." Tommy has it bad; despite their original intentions he has fallen in love with his wife. Nancy - though not totally over her feelings for Steve - isn't immune to his confession and starts to show some wifely qualities.

The Duncans - this time sober and happy

All of this could end as a strangely started "nice boy meets nice girl" story if Tommy wouldn't have the idea to invite some family and friends for dinner. Nancy trying to find a sort of closure for her "unfinished business" kisses brother Steve which observed by Tommy's former girlfriend arouses a lot of attention at the party. The unfinished business is still unfinished, and perhaps it never will be finalized ...

Not such a good idea...

"Unfinished Business" is an underestimated little gem - an intelligent, very "adult" movie which switches between different genres. It's not a real comedy but witty and funny in between, and it's too funny and witty to be called a drama. The person who makes this hybrid of a film mainly work is Irene Dunne. Her Nancy is quite a character - naive, a person with an agenda of her own, not exactly flawless, with pathetic moments but in the final analysis blessed with an amiable down-to-earth quality. Nice stuff for an actress who was not only the mistress of the melodrama but also the queen of the comedy timing. Miss Dunne gets the chance to show a lot of facets - including her singing voice - and as you ought to know by now, La Dunne was no diamond in the rough; she knew how to glitter exquisitely.

Fitting background for Li'l Diamond
(publicity from 1941)

The film doesn't beat around the bush - small town girl was seduced in the train. Listening to Irene's "I love you..." the next morning you simply know that this night was not merely about holding hands (btw after the "wedding night" in "Penny Serenade" the second sexual encounter in a train in a row.Of course we don't get to see anything but the stopping down to the moving wheels of the train symbolizes the "forces at work") The plot is unusual for a film of this era because small town girl is not punished for her one night stand; she doesn't get pregnant, doesn't die, doesn't lose her rich husband but she moves on and even gets to terms with the nice guy in the end. Every time when you have the feeling that you are on the steady course of a Hollywood story, "Unfinished Business" steers in an unexpected direction. Or was stupid me the only one thinking that we were heading in the direction of a glamorous career as nightclub singer when Nancy-Irene was invited to audition? Instead she gets to "rehearse" a jingle and stupid me almost died laughing. Of course this hilarious scene only works because Irene Dunne really could sing. "Unfinished Business" boldly takes advantage of Irene's off- and on-screen image; plays around with it and spoofs it which is a lot of fun for folks with some Dunne knowledge.   

La Diva rehearsing a jingle - one of those great LaCava frames
(and look out for what Irene does in the background during this scene... )

But let's talk about the source for some unfinished business in Nancy's life,  the males.
Preston Foster is okay for me - no less, no more. I don't find him overwhelming attractive but that mirrors nicely how desperate Irene's character is for some, any kind of romance in her life. "Steve" is a rather ungrateful part with not much to do except being quite unsympathetic - a not overly interesting "wolf."
Robert Montgomery is another league but I had to acquire a taste for his acting. Considering the fact that he worked frequently with all my favorite MGM gals I just didn't get around the guy and finally developed a real liking for him. Nowadays his presence is a convincing reason to watch a film. "Tom" is a sort of typical Bob Montgomery role - he was always good at portraying frivolousness with an option for seriousness - and he creates a complex character who manages to finish some issues of his own. He and his co-star have some wonderful scenes together which show how impressive underacting can be. Kindly enough, Robert Mongomery has a very competent valet at his side embodied by character actor Eugene Pallette who gives a great performance as "butler Elmer."

La Dunne with Eugene Pallette - this was the last time that Irene smoked on-screen.
(Elmer and me don't like that hat!)

"Unfinished Business" is based on an original story by director Gregory LaCava. He not only leaves room for his story and his actors but manages remarkable staging. Especially the scenes which change between privateness and public - in the restaurant with the silver wedding anniversary in the background, the party at the Duncan's or the nightclub scenery for instance - are very well done. To figure on the player's personality was a typical LaCava method of work which explains the Dunne tailored tidbits. As for Robert Montgomery, they had to start filming earlier because of his commitment to active service in the U.S. Navy; and once again art imitates life! If those tidbits are the "LaCava touch", I certainly appreciate this approach.

Cheers! Almost done! 
(and Mr. Montgomery really deserved another pic...)

An intelligent, unusual story, great actors, remarkable directing, an in all her facets glittering Irene and music - that's the Dunne formula which makes me happy!