MOVIES IN THE CAMPER: H.M. PULHAM, ESQUIRE

What I love about King Vidors H.M. Pulham, Esquire(1941) is that after all the times I’ve seen it the film never seems to lose it’s relevancy. The way the film goes about examining friendships, love, work and the day to day battle of life as seen through the eyes of a guy who grew up with a loving family and who just lives his life trying to be a good person, always inspires me.

Robert Young contemplates the path not taken in H.M.Pulham Esq.

Robert Young plays the title character, born into wealth but with a work ethic and a sense of honor, going with the flow, not quite sure of himself but always a gentlemen in every situation, something that father Charles Coburn teaches him from a very young age. Young has a good relationship with his father and while their communication might seem superficial, there is a deep love and respect held by Young for his father(as is the case with most father/son relationships). It’s heartbreaking when Young’s father Charles Coburn tries to convince Young to stay with the family and work at the family company. We can see Young just feel horrible about it yet he sticks to his guns none the less.

Bonita Granville and Robert Young in H.M.Pulham Esq.

At the beginning of the film we see Young is married and in a comfortable rut with wife Ruth Hussey. Young is called out of the blue by an old college pal who invites Young to a reunion of his fraternity and asks Young to write some bios for some of the group, starting with his own. He’s not quite sure what to write until he gets a call from old flame Hedy Lamarr. That call forces him to examine his life and we see that life in flashbacks. There’s a humorous scene with Young as an officer in WW1 who goes into no mans land to talk to a German officer who offers Young some very honorable terms of surrender. Young is surrounded and out numbered. He politely turns down the German officer’s offer, telling him that, no matter what the outcome, that he’s been very nice about it all and thanks the German. It’s a brilliant scene. He ends up fighting and winning and getting decorated for his troubles.

Robert Young and Hedy Lamarr

He returns to his home where his college friend Van Heflin talks him into breaking away from the family and moving to the big city to go into advertising with Heflin. There he meets co worker Hedy Lamarr. This might be Lamarr’s best performance ever as the daughter of poor immigrants who builds a good career for herself and clings fiercely to her hard earned independence. She’s amused by Young at first, thinking he’s just a green doofus. But she soon sees that he’s anything but that. He’s a good, honest person who tries to be polite and not hurt others. It’s funny to watch Young not really understand the world of marketing and advertising yet shine when he has to promote a laundry soap to a low income housewife by just being honest and sensitive. And by doing her laundry. It’s a funny and charming moment as Lamarr (and the housewife!) falls in love with him for it.

 

Things get a bit difficult for Young when he returns home to visit his family. He returns because his mother is sick but it’s his father who is seriously ill. Heflin and Lamarr come to visit Young at his home and Lamarr is immediately intimidated by his wealth and his family who show each other the kind of love that she‘s never known. It’s an honest and warm kind of family bond that is so foreign to Lamarr it actually makes her recoil from Young. Ultimately this drives a wedge between them. The wedge is pushed in even further when Young’s father dies and he must take over the family business. But it’s a decision that Young makes because of love of family and out of respect for his father, not because he feels pressured. That difference is key because it makes Young’s decision all the more poignant.   

Van Hefflin, Robert Young and Hedy Lamarr

In the aftermath of his break up with Lamarr, Young starts to rekindle an old childhood relationship with Ruth Hussey. As we see in flashbacks, Hussey is both nerdy and forceful. They meet as children at a dance when Young heads for a pretty girl but gets detoured by Hussey. Young never really takes to Hussy growing up but now, as adults, with both having come off of relationships with people who were “opposites”, the normalcy and comfort of their sameness has a strong appeal for both of them. Neither is sure that they love the other but they love the idea that they “match”. But when Lamarr reenters Young’s life, he begins to question the important decisions he’s made through the years.

Ruth Hussey and Robert Young in H.M.Pulham Esq.

The dialogue in the film is smart, quick, subtle and refreshing and still holds up today. The players are all interesting to one degree or another but more importantly, they‘re all likable people. We aren‘t manipulated into not liking someone in order to emphasize the goodness of someone else. There are no villains in the film. We‘re simply given a group of people who are trying hard to live good lives, find self worth in their work and trying to just be happy. Suffering failures and achieving small and large victories along the way. Vidor gives us some amazing direction in this. His camera work is almost Scorsese like. There’s a scene at the very beginning where the camera zooms in on a bunch of mundane little activities that Young does for his morning routine that is evocative of Scorsese’s work in Age Of Innocence. The phone conversations don’t have the static noise to make it sound like a phone but instead sound like the person is in the room talking with them. The photography is beautiful, the pacing of the film is tight, the scenes have a wonderful economy to them.

 
Most enjoyable of all is Robert Young. What a superb performance he gives as the humble, awkward, kind, honest and at times charmingly oblivious Harry Pulham. Bonita Granville also has some fun moments as Young’s kind sister who shocks him by being just a little bit rebellious now and then yet sympathizing with the tough decisions and sacrifices her brother must make after their father dies. Hussey has what might have been a thankless role but she really sinks her teeth into it and manages to give the character a lot of depth. She’s supposed to be a bit abrasive and a bit patronizing but she manages to be both while remaining likable and sympathetic and their scenes together when they meet again after their respective break ups are fun and touching. Van Heflin is also very enjoyable as the college cynic who is repulsed by the obnoxious jock who tells football stories that Young is thoroughly  intrigued by. I’ve always felt the mark of a great movie is when you wish the characters of the film were real and you knew them and you were friends with them. H.M. Pulham Esquire is that kind of film.

Turner Classic Movies will be showing H.M. Pulham Esquire this Saturday at 7:00 AM Eastern time. 

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