A Month with Mitchell Leisen: The Mating Season (1951)
Welcome to A Month with Mitchell Leisen! Each week this month I will be reviewing one of Leisen’s films. An underrated director whose specialties were comedies and romances, Leisen is a very "niche" director that only the most devout of film lovers seem to recognize. I am admittedly not one of them (film geek that I am), but the purpose of Mitchell Month is to rectify that. As I pointed out in my review of Swing High, Swing Low, he has a sensitivity to his plots and characters that tends to be lacking, especially in today’s cinema.
To anyone who cares, forgive the delay in the Mitchell Leisen review. It is quite difficult to get a hold of his films: few are available from Netflix (Midnight, one of his most beloved films, has been stuck in "Very Long Wait" purgatory for a dog's age), and I was having difficulty with Amazon Prime streaming. On top of that, I got sidetracked by Douglas Sirk reviews and that pesky thing known as real life (yup, I do have one).
But all is well, and today's Leisen is an amusing trifle that could have been an episode of Frasier… or pretty much any sitcom. Released in 1951, the year that I Love Lucy would debut and change TV forever, The Mating Season opens with a delightfully corny theme song that sounds like a parody of TV themes, complete with cartoony title cards. The song even closes with "the mating season/noooooowww!" Don't you love it when lyricists get creatively bankrupt, so they use old standby closing words like "today", "tonight", or "now"?
But in all seriousness, The Mating Season is a highly enjoyable comedy, made all the more watchable because it stars one of my favorite character actresses of all time, Thelma Ritter. Ritter was a veteran of acting onstage, but a relative newbie in movies. She made her screen debut at age 44 in Miracle on 34th Street as the harried shopper whom Kris Kringle gives store recommendations to find a toy for her son. She was uncredited, but she was so memorable, she was appeared in more movies before being cast as Birdie in All About Eve. This scored her her first Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination, and established the Ritter persona we all know and love: the plain-spoken Noo Yawker who serves as the snarky voice of reason. Every time I see and hear this petite lady with the quirky face and distinctively reedy, twangy voice, I have to smile. She effortlessly stole the show from Doris Day and Rock Hudson in Pillow Talk as Day's perpetually hungover maid, was James Stewart's platitude-spouting nurse in Rear Window (managing to get away with lines such as "nothing has caused the human race so much trouble as intelligence."), and played against type as Burt Lancaster's creepy mother in Birdman of Alcatraz. The Mating Season actually earned Ritter her second of four consecutive Oscar nominations, a record she shares with Jennifer Jones, Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, and Elizabeth Taylor.
The Mating Season stars Gene Tierney (always wonderful) and John Lund (always just there), but this is Ritter's movie, and it galls me they couldn't have given her top billing, for she is definitely the main protagonist. Ritter plays Ellen McNulty, a plucky, blue-collar widow whose days are spent running a hamburger stand and beaming with pride about her college graduate son Val (Lund). Unfortunately, her restaurant, while reasonably popular, isn't profitable enough to satisfy the bank, so Ellen is forced to close down shop. She decides to visit her son and maybe move in; after all, he's been hounding her to retire, so why not?
Well, as it happens, a twist of fate has thrown Val together with the lovely Maggie Carleton (Tierney), and they marry within a day of meeting each other (it's a movie, just roll with it), much to the chagrin of Maggie's wealthy ex-boyfriend "Junior" Kalinger, who is the son of Val's boss (Larry Keating), to whom Val has been gunning for a promotion. Val drops the bomb on Ellen, who is nervous about meeting Val's upper crust new in-laws, so she makes up an excuse to skip the wedding so she can get a job to buy new clothes. She arrives on Val and Maggie's doorstep (wearing her then-pricey $18 hat), hoping to make a good first impression, but is instead mistaken for a new cook the non-domesetic Maggie has hired. Too flustered and embarrassed to correct her (and, again, because it's a movie), Ellen plays along. Val is naturally shocked at this turn of events, but Ellen swears him to secrecy. Not only does she not want to embarrass Maggie, but she gets to have her cake and eat it too by having a job and living with her son and his wife.
But the scheme starts to fall apart as Maggie's insufferably haughty mother (Miriam Hopkins) moves in, Val nearly sacrifices his principles trying to get ahead in his job, Junior keeps putting the moves on Maggie, and Mr. Kalinger begins to take a shine to Ellen. As is the custom of these comedies (especially those directed by Leisen), all is resolved as nice and even as an envelope.
Ellen is one of Ritter's most likable characters, an earthy, vulnerable woman who nonetheless speaks her mind and cares about her family. Best of all, Ellen learns to accept herself and her lower class background, and there's even a hint of future romance for her at the end. Ritter deserves kudos for grounding the frothy material, in a comedy that could have just as easily been made in the 30s (I can imagine Billie Burke playing Miriam Hopkins's part). But, alas, Ritter received a total of six Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actress, and never won. "Now I know what it feels like to be the bridesmaid and never the bride," she was later to say. You're tellin' me, sister.
Tiresome Rant of the Day: I also want to sing the praises of Gene Tierney, who primarily starred in dramas and film noir, rarely getting to stretch her comedic muscles. I got the giggles watching the elegant star of Laura get down on her hands and knees in shorts and sandals, struggling to put out a burning turkey in the oven. It's too bad she didn't get to do more comedies, but nowhere near as unfortunate as the fact that this gorgeous, talented actress isn't better known today. Her star burned brightest during the 40s, but by the 50s, her career faded due to personal problems and changing tastes. For Tierney at her best, I personally recommend The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and Leave Her to Heaven, in which her clingy psychopath Ellen Harland predates Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction by more than four decades.
The rest of the cast is serviceable, though I'm kind of amazed John Lund had any kind of a career. He's one of those unfortunate actors you forget about as soon as the credits roll. He appeared in a number of Leisen's films, so either it was contractual obligation, or maybe they were BFFs and Leisen put him in his films to boost his ego. Either way, the poor man has no presence, and I can't really comment on his performance out of that.
With its themes of family and staying true to yourself, this film could have been grade-A Capra-corn, but Leisen deftly gives it a lighthearted touch so that The Mating Season goes down easily. If you're willing to watch what is essentially a 102 minute sitcom episode, The Mating Season is the movie for you.