H.M. Pulham, Esq. (1941)

Harry Pulham (Robert Young) has always lived his life by the book.  He came from a wealthy background, went to all the right schools, has a respectable job, has two children, and is married to Kay Motford (Ruth Hussey), an ideal woman for a man of his stature.  Now middle-aged, he meets up with some of his old college friends for lunch one day and is put in charge of getting all their classmates’ biographies together for their 25-year reunion.  Later, he gets a phone call from his ex-girlfriend Marvin Myles (Hedy Lamarr) inviting him out for a drink.  He accepts, but when he gets to the restaurant and sees her again, he can’t bear to talk to her.

He goes home and starts to write his biography, but when he starts looking back on his life, he realizes that he has never lived life on his own terms.  Everything he’s done in life has been because his family expected it of him.  After graduating from Harvard, he fights in World War I, and after the war, his college friend Bill (Van Heflin) gets him a job at an advertising agency in New York City.  Marvin was working at the same agency and was kind of a 1940s Peggy Olson.  Bill had certainly never met an independent girl like Marvin in any of his upper-class schools and they soon fall deeply in love with each other.

However, Harry’s family back home in Boston just doesn’t understand his new life.  His parents (Charles Coburn and Fay Holden) wish he would just come home and settle down with Kay, who he has known since he was a child.  Harry has never had any real interest in Kay and certainly doesn’t want to marry her, but he wants to marry Marvin instead.  But Marvin isn’t ready to get married yet and she realizes she just doesn’t fit in with Harry’s privileged background.  They go their separate ways, but Marvin promises to always be waiting for him if he wants to come back to her.  Harry decides to settle into his predetermined life in Boston and marry Kay, even though he doesn’t really love her.  After looking back on it all, he decides to call Marvin back to see if her offer still stands.  They meet for lunch, but are still things still the same between them?

I loved this movie!  First of all, this is a King Vidor movie through and through.  It reminded me a bit of The Crowd in the sense that both movies deal with men who aren’t satisfied with where they’re at in life and are yearning for something more.  This is the kind of material that King Vidor was best suited to direct.  The cast in general was pretty stellar; Robert Young and Hedy Lamarr had good chemistry together.  Hedy Lamarr may seem like kind of an odd choice to play a free-spirited, independent woman, but she gave a very thoughtful and nuanced performance.  Ruth Hussey, Van Heflin, and Charles Coburn were all excellent supporting players.  My only complaint about it is that it could have stood being about fifteen minutes shorter.  But if you’re in the mood for something bittersweet, I very highly recommend H.M. Pulham, Esq.  It’s another one of those overlooked gems that deserves to be better remembered today.

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2 comments

  1. It’s a little too slow for me in parts, but I agree with you on the whole and count myself as a big fan of this one as well! Nice write-up!

    It’s been awhile since I’ve watched but I recall especially enjoying Ruth Hussey’s performance. I missed it on TCM, but you’ve put it back on my mind now. May need to pull out my copy soon.

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