When studio heads at 20th Century-Fox cast Jeanne Crain in State Fair and Leave Her to Heaven in 1945, they were continuing a two year process of grooming the actress for stardom. At 20 years-old, the former beauty queen was making a big splash at Fox and early in 1946 she began production of the first film she would carry on her name alone, Margie. It was enough to garner her, and the film, a Life magazine cover later that year (above).
Margie is an utterly charming period piece which pays homage to the Roaring Twenties in small town America. References are made to flag pole sitting, gold fish eating and raccoon skin coats, all set to background music via Rudy Vallee, who according to an older Margie, relaying stories of her youth to her teenaged daughter, "was the Frank Sinatra of his day." Margie MacDuff is a naive, socially awkward, painfully shy (and quite pretty, though strangely unaware of it) Ohio teen, coming of age in the 1920's. Shot in glorious crayon coated Technicolor, the story chronicles Margie's angst regarding high school, boys and the senior prom. Although not technically a musical, the film is scattered with great songs of the era, used as background or sung in a way to set the mood, not as mere performance.
Crain is lovely as the title character. The Cinderella story projects her for more than three quarters of the movie in pigtails and/or a knit stocking hat, wearing sailor suits only to blossom in the final scenes as the flower that classic film lovers know as Jeanne Crain. The actress' youth and lack of long term screen experience are evident but work in her favor as the bashful youngster. Filmed in and around Reno, director Henry King is said to have dismissed the University of Nevada co-eds hired as extras because next to Crain they looked too old to be students at Central High. He replaced them with Reno High School kids.
Rich in character and visual detail, Margie is filled with solid performances and touching vignettes, both tender and sweet as well as funny and familiar. Jeanne is supported by a host of marvelous actors, including the grumpy and frumpy Esther Dale as her no-nonsense, independent minded grandmother, a former suffragette who encourages Margie to become the first woman president of the United States. Blonde and leggy Barbara Lawrence is pretty and svelte as high school vamp Marybelle Tenner, one of "those girls" who rouges her knees and according to Margie's grandmother, uses "too much lip goo." As the high school's dime store Romeo and Marybelle's boyfriend, Johnny "Johnnykins" Green, is Conrad Janis. Slim and with a full head of hair, Janis is many years away from his role as Pam Dawber's father on the 70's sitcom "Mork and Mindy." Also an actor with a future in television, Alan Young makes his film debut as Roy Hornsdale, Margie's nerdy, poetry reading suitor. Young would become famous as the ever suffering Wilbur on T.V.'s "Mister Ed." Rounding out the particulars are Glenn Langan and Lynn Bari. Langan, as the new French teacher oogled by all the female students, was being groomed by Fox as a new heartthrob, but his career never really jelled. Bari on the other hand, had been a staple on the Fox lot for over a decade and was actually in the last stage of her career at that studio when the film was produced. As Miss Palmer, the school librarian, she offers just the right mix of glamour and sultry (wish my librarian had looked like her).
As stated earlier, music plays an important role in Margie. Lawrence gives an enthusiastic rendition of "A Cup of Coffee, a Sandwich and You" while spooning with Johnnykins on her front porch. In a wonderful bit of direction, King cuts the scene to Margie's dimly lit attic bedroom next door, where the music can be heard drifting in through the open window (these people were constantly opening their windows with snow on the ground). As our heroine is studying, she hums the tune and the scene is allowed to take its time to unfold at a slow, leisurely pace, so the viewer is able to savor the color and comely Crain in soft, low key lighting and silhouettes.
A definite box office winner for Fox, Margie advanced Jeanne Crain's career even further. The sentimental nostalgia evoked by the film was a boon to the studio with immediate post war audiences ready for the warm fuzzies it relayed.