Henry King’s camera rests outside a pretty house in the opening shot of Margie, as the Twenties song of the title spills out of an open window on the top floor. Slowly, gracefully, we’re carried up and through that window, into the attic room where Margie (Jeanne Crain), fitted with glasses to designate approaching middle age, is going through an old trunk. Daughter Joyce (Ann E. Todd) plays with her mother’s Victrola. There’s a pause at the window, with both of them framed by the slant of the ceiling. And then we move in, to settle on the floor with the two women while Joyce peppers her mother with questions: about Rudy Vallee, about “the crazy idiotic things you did when you were my age,” and about a “hideous” pair of bloomers—the deus ex underwear of Margie.
Andrew Sarris, in The American Cinema, included Margie in a long list of Henry King movies that “are likable enough in their plodding intensity.” For Margie, that verdict is unjust. When King’s camera holds fast on the everyday routines of 21-year-old Crain in the title role, it’s with a deliberate, loving simplicity that demonstrates his confidence in both story and star.
The flashbacks to Margie’s high-school days begin with a shot of a Herbert Hoover campaign truck, the one moment in the film that could qualify as ominous. Pretty blonde Marybelle (Barbara Lawrence) is waiting for Margie with her beau, letter-sweatered, raccoon-coated Johnikins (Conrad Janis). Marybelle rolls her stockings and rouges her knees; she rides unchaperoned in Johnikins’s car and cares not a whit for schoolwork. Margie, though, being our heroine, must needs be awkward, bookish, and possessed of a dorky admirer, Roy (Alan Young), who waits patiently while she moons over Johnikins.
Pigtailed Margie is dressed too childishly for her age, down to a pair of elastic-challenged bloomers that soon fall down for what will definitely not be the last time. She can’t get into the school ladies’ room to pin the errant garment, and winds up in the library in time to cross paths with her dreamy French teacher, Prof. Ralph Fontayne (Glenn Langan). When he first sees her, her face is framed by books. She’s smitten already, and Fontayne soon will be, charmed by Margie’s intelligence and the vivacity behind the shyness. In these stricter times, the idea of a student’s crush on a teacher being in any way reciprocated is “inappropriate,” modern parlance for “utterly depraved.” But Crain and Langan play their scenes innocently; this is not a tale of seducing a youngster.
And anyway, Margie’s love life isn’t the heart of the movie. Margie’s mother died young, and she’s being raised by her grandmother, a proud former suffragette who has decorated her mantle with the chain with which she lashed herself to the White House fence. The man Margie yearns for is her papa, Angus MacDuff (Hobart Cavanaugh), who lives separately from his daughter and mother and visits once a week as he pursues his business as an undertaker.
MacDuff awakens to his daughter’s true qualities during a school debate on the still-hot topic of foreign adventurism: “Should we take the Marines out of Nicaragua?” (The probable explanation for Margie’s politics lies with the story credits for Ruth McKenney, author of My Sister Eileen, and her husband Richard Bransten, both longtime activists and members of the Communist Party until 1946, the year that the film was made.) The rhetoric soars as Margie gestures in ways that suggest she’s posing for a Senate monument: “Ladies and gentlemen, would you turn in liberty for a bathtub?” MacDuff gazes raptly at her, and gives her a one-man standing ovation. Margie’s expression when she realizes her father is in the audience is more gleaming and tender than any glance she trains on Prof. Fontayne.
The next scene takes place at an ice-skating party, with King’s camera rapturously panning around the skaters. The giddy joy of the scene is helped along by the actors doing their own skating. Lawrence in particular executes a nifty arabesque past the bench where MacDuff, Grandma, and Fontayne sit. As Marybelle’s leg exits the frame, it becomes clear Papa isn’t watching. He’s musing on what Margie said: “She’s right. The child is right . . . We should take the Marines out of Nicaragua.” Of course, this conversion is really about discovering that the daughter he’s neglected is a bright and compassionate person. When Margie once more loses her bloomers on the ice, and faints to cover up the embarrassment, Papa rushes right out to her along with Fontayne.
MacDuff’s newfound attachment to Margie reaches its zenith when, after several reversals leave Margie date-less before the school dance, he shows up to escort her. Critic Blake Lucas says that it’s this scene that King used to persuade a skeptical Darryl Zanuck that the episodic script would make a great film.
Like all teenage girls, Margie frequently retreats to her bedroom, high under the eaves with a slanting ceiling that frames her actions. Has there ever been a movie more in tune with the world of a girl’s room? King understands that witnessing the heroine’s private rituals is as close as we’ll get to going inside Margie’s mind. The most piercing moment in the film is the silhouette of Crain pacing the floor brokenhearted as she contemplates a lonely prom night.
And so the director often lets his camera stand still while we watch Margie fold her clothes, put a record on the Victrola, scribble notes, or daydream. Lit by Charles G. Clarke with an attention to shadows that’s unusual for Technicolor, these scenes convey information as well as tenderness. When Roy leaves the house in a hurry after a gruff lecture from Grandma on women’s rights, the reproachful girl wails that he’s her only chance, and he’s gone for good. Grandma replies: “I bet you a cookie he calls after supper.” There’s no phone call shown, no one mentions it. The movie shifts to Margie in her bedroom, going over her speech for the debate. Hattie McDaniel, playing family maid Cynthia, enters to deliver tart wisdom and turn down Margie’s bed, an elaborate ritual that takes up a couple of minutes of screen time. As they chat and Cynthia bustles, Margie begins to munch a cookie from the plate in front of her.
Margie was a huge hit; Alan Young claimed it made back all the money its studio, 20th Century Fox, had lost on the lavish dud Forever Amber. Yet Margie has never been available on DVD or Blu-ray. Seeing the film now probably means waiting for one of the (very) occasional TCM screenings. Given that Margie is beloved by many to this day, it’s hard to understand the neglect.
Anyone unconvinced of Margie’s greatness might be converted by one scene. It shows Marybelle, who lives next door to Margie, as she dances with Johnikins on the front porch of her house and sings along to a record of “A Cup of Coffee, a Sandwich, and You.” It’s mostly one low shot of the teenagers, as though we were coming up the walk and stopped to observe from below. Back and forth Marybelle and Johnikins dance across the porch, now in near-darkness, now under the gleam of the overhead bulb near the door. King lingers and lingers, while these supporting players embody the full sweetness of his movie. First love, the joy of kids on their own, and the fleeting nature of beauty, all are there in the shadows cast by one dancing couple, until the boy envelops the girl in his coat, and the singers on the Victrola take over. King’s camera finds a light in Margie’s house across the way, and returns to Margie alone in her room.