Among countless so-called “women’s pictures” of the 1930s—those soap operas about unwed mothers, back-street lovers, sacrificial mothers, and women who descend into prostitution—The Life of Vergie Winters, delicately directed by Alfred Santell, is one of the better examples of the genre and also among the lesser-known. Its obscurity can be partially attributed to its forgotten leading lady, Ann Harding, whose stardom faded away, gone by the decade’s end. She would return in the ’40s and ’50s in wife-and-mother character roles in films such as Mission to Moscow (1943) and Two Weeks with Love (1950), far removed from her peak in the early ’30s when she rivaled Norma Shearer as the screen’s sophisticated woman of the world. As with Shearer, most of Harding’s film acting hasn’t aged too well: both ladies had a fashionable penchant for hands-on-hips stances when delivering their lines. Very glamorous, very artificial.
Harding is surprisingly fresh and charming in the first version of Holiday (1930), for which she received her sole Oscar nomination. In The Animal Kingdom (1932) and When Ladies Meet (1933), two of her better vehicles, she is skillful and likable, yet she’s outclassed in both films by Myrna Loy who clearly has the more intuitive feel for living and breathing on the screen. Despite her undeniable warmth as a performer, Harding rarely let go of her staginess, her polished but somewhat mannered approach to being “real.” She might have lasted longer as a star if she had scored in a screwball comedy, a sub-genre that reinvented several early ’30s stars (notably Irene Dunne and Carole Lombard) in the second half of the decade, though Harding always seemed more Helen Hayes than Claudette Colbert.
The Life of Vergie Winters gets points for not being too masochistic, which immediately separates it from so many similar films. Sure, it’s contrived, but it’s restrained, too, acted with honest feeling and evolving into a genuinely affecting movie. Harding was never better than she is here, playing a milliner in a small Midwestern town. Her acting is simple yet full, free from her more stagy and self-conscious acting impulses. The backstory is that she and John Boles split up when her father told Boles that she was pregnant by another man, a lie he was paid to tell by the family of Boles’ eventual bride (Helen Vinson). After the wedding, Boles and Harding learn the truth about what happened and resume their love. Boles becomes a congressman. Harding leaves town for a while to give birth to their daughter (whom Boles and Vinson adopt). Their affair continues for twenty years, guiltlessly because they know they were always supposed to be together. Besides, Vinson doesn’t love him, only his name and position. (Helen Vinson was one of the great bitches of ’30s movies.) Yes, it’s a back-street affair but a surprisingly happy one. When gossip keeps “ladies” away from Harding’s shop, the local madam and her whores keep Harding’s business thriving.
Boles, fresh from Frankenstein (1931) and Back Street (1932) itself, seems far more human than usual. He frequently seemed to be a handsome mannequin barely keeping up his end of his romances. This may be his finest performance, even his only performance. (By the late ’30s and into the ’40s, George Brent got most of the Boles-type roles in female-driven melodramas, but Brent was a far better actor.) The film also boasts some GWTW credentials, with a lovely Max Steiner theme and a beautiful job of evolving fashions (1910 to 1934) in Walter Plunkett’s designs.
The melodrama hits pretty hard with a shooting death, a false confession, even jail, but there’s a moving conclusion between Harding and Betty Furness (as the grown-up daughter), especially because it isn’t milked for tears. It’s a gentle ending, even a subtle one, which is rather unexpected. Soaps are, by nature, plot-driven, but through the simplicity of its effects, plus the rapport between Harding and Boles, the textured feeling of time and place, and that touching fade-out, The Life of Vergie Winters feels intimately concerned with its characters as people not pawns.