Disgusted by having to pass “pinhead” football heroes in order for his college to soar to football victory, Professor John Hathaway (Don Ameche) takes his leave of Digby College. With his wife Julie (Rosalind Russell) in tow, Hathaway sets out to conquer Manhattan’s literary circles, his scholarly manuscript on the subject of “jealousy” tucked under his arm in the romantic comedy The Feminine Touch (1941).
If Hathaway had his hands full with dimwitted football players at Digby, he is even more flummoxed by the oddballs, neurotics and sexual predators of the literary world. Nevertheless, the beautiful executive Nellie Woods (Kay Francis) takes a shine to Hathaway and wants to publish his book while publisher Elliott Morgan (Van Heflin) tries to make time with Julie.
The crux of this romantic comedy is Julie’s efforts to force her scholarly and aloof husband to show even a trace of jealousy at her pursuit by a love-drunk Morgan. Especially amusing is a surreal Salvador Dali-style dream sequence in which Julie imagines her otherwise disinterested husband punching out his romantic rivals including Morgan in a jealous rage.
Van Heflin came to M-G-M after impressing executives with his stage performance alongside Katharine Hepburn in Philip Barry’s 1939 play The Philadelphia Story in a role Barry reputedly wrote for Heflin. After a year at the Yale School of Drama, Heflin would go on to win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar the same year of The Feminine Touch’s release, playing an alcoholic intellectual in Johnny Eager (1942). Van Heflin was pragmatic about his abilities as a Hollywood leading man during his MGM run from 1941-1949. “I just don’t have the looks and if I don’t do a good acting job I look terrible,” he is quoted as saying in The MGM Stock Company: The Golden Era by James Robert Parish and Ronald L. Bowers. Always drawn back to the stage, Heflin appeared in Arthur Miller’s controversial A View from the Bridge, a role which required him to kiss another man on the lips.
Rounding out the well-selected The Feminine Touch cast was Don Ameche, a solid 20th-Century-Fox player who never achieved real movie stardom though he experienced a surprising career rejuvenation in the 1985 Ron Howard extraterrestrial fantasy Cocoon which highlighted a sexual charisma absent from the actor’s earlier roles.
An elegant beauty, Rosalind Russell was the real star of The Feminine Touch displaying her uncanny knack for physical comedy. “Rosalind Russell makes it,” The New York Times opined of Russell in what MGM advertised as its “Ticklish!” comedy.
As Jeanine Basinger noted in A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women 1930-1960 of Russell’s unique comic abilities, “Once she begins to move…something happens. A slightly storkish quality emerges. She’s a big, loosey-goosey kind of woman, exaggerated and inherently comic…She can be both elegant and ridiculous, holding the two qualities together in a single performance.”
In anticipation of contemporary chick flicks, Russell was known for often playing bossy, snappish career women who find their true life’s mission in the film’s final reel. “What I really wanted was to become a dear little housewife,” joked Russell, well aware of the politics of her typecasting as an independent woman operating in a male world, most archetypally as a newspaper reporter in the Howard Hawks screwball classic His Girl Friday (1940). It was during that production that her co-star Cary Grant introduced Russell to her future husband, Frederick Brisson. An actress who extended her career into her forties, Russell may be most remembered for her humorous turn first in the Broadway production and later the 1958 screen version of Auntie Mame which garnered Russell her fourth Oscar® nomination.
Russell was a second-tier star groomed by Irving Thalberg in the Myrna Loy mold to keep that first-tier star in check with a possible replacement waiting in the wings. But Russell created a comic persona all her own and managed to branch out with loanouts to studios besides M-G-M. The middle of seven children, Russell attended the American Academy of Dramatic Art in New York which eventually led to a profitable contract with M-G-M which offered her more money than the $400-a-week contract first offered by Universal. Her big break arrived in the George Cukor ensemble piece The Women (1939) which had a memorable comic role for Russell as the flamboyant chatterbox Sylvia Fowler, a part she wanted so desperately she made five screen tests to get it.
Writing about The Feminine Touch, The New York Times praised Russell “as flip and adept a comedienne as is currently reading lines in Hollywood…and Miss Russell knows how to deliver them mischievously.” Variety was equally filled with praise for Russell, “she handles the sophisticated material equally as well as the frequent excursions into slapstick.” The trade paper applauded the entire production as “another comedy winner. It’s a major laughgetter, at times smart and at times screwball, and box office from the initial marquee draught to the screen fadeout.”
Russell turned out to be well matched to her onscreen rival, Kay Francis, an actress also known for her ability to dish out attitude and bon mots with the best of them. In 1933, notes Basinger, Francis was making $4,000 a week and starred in five movies. Despite a slight lisp that often had her pronouncing “R”s as “W”s, Francis was considered a consummately elegant and stylish film actress who often appeared on many “Best Dressed” lists. She is perhaps best known as the victim of jewel thieves in the effervescent Ernst Lubitsch film Trouble in Paradise (1932).
W.S. Van Dyke, the director of The Feminine Touch, hailed from a distinguished American family. His actress mother, however, was forced to return to the stage after the premature death of her husband and the young Van Dyke often joined his mother as a child actor on the stage. After stints as a grocery store clerk, waiter, gold prospector, electrician and sailor, among many professions, Van Dyke apprenticed under D.W. Griffith of whom he said “I’m still trying to do the things I learned from him,” before beginning a prolific career as a screenwriter and director of films in a variety of genres.
Known for shooting with economy and speed he became known by the nickname “One-Take Woody.” Van Dyke was also known for salvaging the Robert Flaherty film White Shadows in the South Seas (1928) after the director suffered a creative block. Ultimately Van Dyke turned in a highly praised first sound film for M-G-M praised by directors from Luis Bunuel to D.W. Griffith. Often drawn to adventure plots set in authentic locations, Van Dyke later made the highly successful Johnny Weissmuller/Maureen O’Sullivan jungle adventure Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) but demonstrated his flexibility by also helming a sparkling and sophisticated screen adaptation of the Dashiell Hammett novel The Thin Man (1934). Reputedly, Van Dyke, a former Marine Corps. Reserve Major, was the inspiration for King Kong’s (1933) adventurous director Carl Denham.
Director: W.S. Van Dyke
Producer: Joseph L. Mankiewiez
Screenplay: George Oppenheimer, Edmund L. Hartmann, Ogden Nash
Cinematography: Ray June
Production Design: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Franz Waxman
Cast: Rosalind Russell (Julie Hathaway), Don Ameche (John Hathaway), Kay Francis (Nellie Woods), Van Heflin (Elliott Morgan), Donald Meek (Capt. Makepeace Liveright), Gordon Jones (Rubber-Legs Ryan).
BW-98m. Closed captioning.
by Felicia Feaster, TCM