“You're supposed to do exactly as you please in this old ladies home for nice young gals. Just don't get caught, that's all”
The first time I ever watched Finishing School was when TCM had Ginger Rogers as the actress of the month back in March. I always know when I love a film because I am left thinking about it and looking all over the place for pictures of it and seeing if I can find it on DVD. With Finishing School I was left with a great admiration for an actress I had never seen before and wanting it on DVD so bad that I hyped it up for myself.
Virginia Radcliff (Frances Dee) is sent to Crocket Hall, a finishing school for girls. The headmistress lays down strict rules which Virginia fully plans on following until she meets her wisecracking, rule breaking roommate Cecilia “Pony” Ferris (Ginger Rogers). Pony’s friends at the school- Ruth and Madeline- follow her around like she is the coolest thing ever. Virginia really does not know any better because she has been sheltered by her overbearing mother (Billie Burke). She winds up getting into some trouble in class one day for passing a note but she never reveals who wrote it.
The girls are not allowed to go to New York City without an escort. One weekend Pony hires an actress to pass off as her aunt and she takes Ruth, Madeline and Virginia into the city to stay at a hotel and party. Virginia feels like she is ready to let loose, she even goes so far as to tell Pony “I always wanted to get tight, you know see how it feels” (gotta love pre-code Hollywood for lines like this). The guy Pony hooks Virginia up with is no good he gets means with her when they are both drunk and he will not leave her alone. Luckily the waiter cleaning the room hears the scuffle and he saves Virginia from being hurt. The waiter’s name is Ralph McFarland (or “Mac” as Virginia calls him). Mac is very nice and Virginia takes to him right away. He takes her back to Crocket Hall where the headmistress is none too pleased.
As time goes by Virginia and Mac see each other here and there when she can get into the city with the school. She invites him to tea one Sunday at the school. When the headmistress sees that Mac is just a regular guy working his way through medical school and not a rich “proper” type she kicks him out. She even goes so far as to throw away his letters he writes to Virginia.
The headmistress tells Virginia that because of her “actions” and “misbehavior” she is not allowed to go home for Christmas which her mother also agrees to. Her mother sends her a fur coat worth $2,500 and her father sends her $1,000 to do whatever she wants. She is totally unfazed like both gifts are nothing because she does not care for them. All of a sudden she hears something against the window and when she turns around it is Mac tapping on the window. Pony got in touch with him and told him that Virginia has had to stay in the school for the holiday. He tells her that he has written her letters which she tells him she never got them otherwise she would have written back.
Virginia takes Mac over to the boathouse where they can be alone without anyone seeing them. Mac gives her a handkerchief with her name stitched into it. She begins to cry because she really cares for the gift and for him and she is beginning to think that the headmistress is right that she is not right. Mac comforts her and as the two kiss the camera pans to the window then to their footprints in the snow.
After that nothing goes exactly right for Virginia. She has to get in touch with Mac but it seems the headmistress really has it out for her and will not let her do anything. Pony gets in touch with Mac and tells him to get to the school as soon as he can. He gets to Crocket Hall just in time for Virginia to see him from the balcony she is standing on.
So this is a pre-code film. This was released in the year the Code was enforced but was made the year before. What makes Finishing School a lovely pre-code film is not the fact that Pony is a bad influence and never punished it is for the fact that Virginia, the main character, winds up pregnant and is not punished for her “sin”. It is never said that she is pregnant but the fact she does not feel well and is a bit jumpy with nerves towards the end and she needs to get in touch with Mac and when they see each other at the end he says they are going to get married you know she definitely is.
As I said at the beginning I watched this because Ginger Rogers was in it. She is in the film for like ten minutes total if that but she has some really witty lines. She tells one of the girls in a scene “Will you keep your nose out of other people’s business and take it in your room and wipe it” (haha). Before this I had never seen Frances Dee in a film or even heard of her name. I was so taken with how unbelievably gorgeous she was. All I kept thinking was Dee looks like an actress that could be around today and how beautiful she looked. I like Dee as an actress I have seen her in several films since this and I enjoy her very much. She was excellent in this film from being an innocent, naïve girl to playing a bit of heavy drama at the end
I am so used to seeing Bruce Cabot as the macho Jack Driscoll from King Kong who tells Fay Wray that a ship and the jungle is no place for a woman that seeing him as the caring Ralph McFarland was actually adorable. Billie Burke will just always be Glinda the Good Witch to me. This was the first time I had ever seen outside of her Wizard of Oz role. Like Dee I have seen Burke in several other roles besides this (and Glinda) and she played the same kind of scatterbrained character in them.
In the credits Crockett Hall is given characterization as “The Snob.” The title is very fitting. The rules are so strict and the headmistress and teachers are so not caring and snobbish. Virginia’s mother went to the school which is why she sent Virginia. All the mother and the headmistress care about is reputation. The mother does not want Virginia to see Mac because he works as a waiter even though he is an intern studying to be a children’s doctor and the headmistress is only concerned about the school’s reputation for girls who behave and go with rich young men. At the end of the film when Virginia needs an ally and someone to help her Pony is the only one who cares and is willing to help because she hates the school herself.
Finishing School is not an earth shattering, life changing film but it is a film where the performances especially by Frances Dee are fantastic. I will admit that I had hyped this film up for myself for so long that I was afraid that when I watched the film again on DVD that I was going to find myself saying “really I liked it this much?” but I never did. I loved it just as much as the first time I saw it. Finishing School is definitely a film and a pre-code worth watching.
I would like to give a HUGE thank you to Courtney from The Golden Age of Hollywood website for making the awesome screencaps for me to use for this post.