Mrs. Parkington
Reviewed in January 2010 / Click Here to Comment
Director: Tay Garnett. Cast: Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, Agnes Moorehead, Edward Arnold, Frances Rafferty, Tom Drake, Gladys Cooper, Lee Patrick, Dan Duryea, Helen Freeman, Cecil Kellaway, Tala Birell, Selena Royle, Harry Cording, Hugh Marlowe, Fortunio Bonanova, Hans Conried, Byron Foulger, Mary Servoss, Alma Kruger, Rod Cameron, Peter Lawford, Kay Medford. Screenplay: Robert Thoeren and Polly James (based on the novel by Louis Bromfield).

Photo © 1944 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Proof that the Academy has always a reserved a certain quota of its major nominations for films for which I doubt even their makers wished profoundly to be remembered. Greer Garson stars as the 84-year-old matriarch of a colorfully brattish and grotesquely rich clan of bullheads and flapping birds, who all have a good time with their evident vulgarity even as none of them can match Gladys Cooper, freed at last from having to play the matriarch and released to be a sensationally spoiled and slurry daughter. This whole plotline is forced, artificial, and empty, even if it's an engaging burlesque of skilled actors playing down to silly material. You'd think the filmmakers would catch on that, even though this turns out not to constitute the main thread of the action, it remains impossible to find any opportune moment or adroit technique for returning to it, and the moments of receding to the flashbacks at the heart of the movie are hilariously forced. In that main thread, Garson is the daughter of a hotel-keeper in a mining town, into whose life enters one of the most off-putting romantic leads I've ever encountered in a Hollywood studio picture: Walter Pidgeon's blustery, bullish, grudge-holding Major Augustus Parkington, who "colorfully" pulls a pistol on his workers when they protest their conditions (and then buys them off with whiskey), and makes offhanded jokes about spousal abuse and about "this dump" that Garson lives in, mere moments after her mother has died in an awful mishap of which Parkington is not entirely innocent. You cannot enforce current values onto storytelling of earlier periods, and yet it's uniquely hard, even by the standards of escapism, to relish Mrs. Parkington's guiding vision of wifedom as a resilient, flexible, only gently chiding bearing-up under the bruteness of an epochally vindictive and money-flouting asshole, the kind of guy who keeps a literal list of people who turned down his dinner invitations and makes it a point to financially ruin them for years afterward. He's unmoved to hear that one of these men has committed suicide, but then Garson's character's ability to look like she, too, is unshaken by this news, even though she reveals afterward in a stalely compulsory scene that she isn't quite so impervious, becomes nearly as discomfiting—a truly unwelcome framework in which to enjoy the actress's all but indomitable effervescence. Even when she gets up the gumption to teach him a lesson, her privately confided rationale runs, "Gus will never give up what he owns, and he owns me," and you just yearn, or at least I did, for Garson to not have to say that.

Your best hope for Mrs. Parkington is that you will giggle rather than groan as Greer thinks of as many bits of arbitrary "business" as possible to get her through her old-age scenes (cleaning her glasses, knocking things imperiously with her cane), and that you'll be so taken with her lovely face that you won't resent her indulgence, whether forced or simply permitted by her frequent director Tay Garnett, of two of her worst habits: imprecise over-expressiveness with her features, and a kind of glacial freeze into the occasional mask of seriousness. The end gets a little pluckier. Not for the first time, Garson seems to enjoy throwing some light on a character's well-concealed potential for pettiness, and her aggressive fending-off of an Englishwoman's designs on Pidgeon has some bitchy flair to it, as abetted by Cecil Kellaway in a very Edmund Gwennish performance as the Prince of Wales, whom Garson just happens to meet while ambling about an estate she's never visited. Agnes Moorehead's juice-dripping mango of a performance as a former mistress of Pidgeon's, the French Baroness Aspasia Conti (a French name if ever I heard one) must have been a delight to any and all proto-snapqueens and drag performers already alive in 1944, and if there weren't all that many, this film and especially its last half-hour surely helped usher them into being. That would be one huge way in which Mrs. Parkington might plausibly have done the world a good turn, as are the two-inch thick, all-cotton pancake that Garson wears as a hat when visiting England from, uh, "Ameddica," and Moorhead's habit of making secretly Sapphic asides about believing "in the superiority of the female." We know, baby. We know. Other emblems of value in Mrs. Parkington are harder to discern, though it could easily be just the thing on a rainy Saturday morning. No matter how much money MGM threw at the production, which is evidently a fair bit, to screen it now is the equivalent of eating too many chocolate-chip pancakes with too much syrup and some powdered sugar thrown on top, and maybe a heinous side garnish of day-old lox, to represent Pidgeon. ("I'll never understand women as long as I live!" he growls. "That's your charm!" she coos in response. Whaaa?) It's the kind of guilty breakfast that makes you actively anticipate eating something nutritious for lunch. C–


Academy Award Nominations:
Best Actress: Greer Garson
Best Supporting Actress: Agnes Moorehead

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Supporting Actress: Agnes Moorehead

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