In the 1950s it was unlikely that newly married couples, couples in the midst of the mating season knew each other intimately before they actually took the plunge. Or so the mores of the time dictated. As such being newly married meant you had to get to know your chosen life partner from square one, a difficult enough thing to do under normal circumstances. Now imagine having to go through that with two mothers-in-law all over your salad! With a twist added here and an unlikely scenario added there that’s the basic premise of Mitchell Leisen‘s THE MATING SEASON, screen play by Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch and Richard Breen; produced by Charles Brackett for Paramount Pictures.
Ellen McNulty (Thelma Ritter) is in debt and tired of the hamburger stand she’s run for years – first with her late husband and then on her own. Ellen hands the business over to the bank and decides to move to Ohio to be closer to her son Val (John Lund), a junior executive trying to climb up the ladder in a large manufacturing company. Upon arriving in Ohio Ellen learns that Val is getting married to socialite Maggie Carleton (Gene Tierney) and immediately recognizes her shabby clothes and working class background may offend the sensibilities of the family her son is marrying into.
The young couple is newly married when Ellen decides it’s time to meet her new daughter-in-law Maggie. To make a good impression Ellen buys a new suit of clothes and an $18 hat. The day Ellen goes to the couple’s apartment, however, Maggie is preparing for a dinner party and expecting the cook Val hired to help her she mistakes Ellen for the hired hand. To avoid embarrassing the young woman Ellen goes along with it and takes over the preparations shocking her son who sees his mother working in the kitchen just as the guests arrive.
After the initial shock wears off Val finds out his mother’s in need of financial help and convinces her to stay with him and his new bride. Ellen agrees, but only if she can do so posing as the couple’s maid, keeping her true identity from Maggie. You see, Ellen feels strongly that a mother-in law in the house would only create friction for the young couple. She says to Val, “This is your mating season, you’re entitled to be alone.”
Val reluctantly agrees to go along with the ruse and Maggie, none the wiser, is delighted that Ellen is now a permanent fixture in their life. The two women forge an instant bond and Ellen is a positive presence in the young woman’s life. That is, unlike the next house guest who’s a total nightmare.
Even before she meets her new son-in-law Maggie’s high-brow mother Fran (Miriam Hopkins) hates him. How could her pedigreed daughter have married a lowly executive? So when Fran announces to Maggie she’s coming for a visit the latter knows exactly what to expect – to put it mildly, a judgmental snob. Fran’s saving grace from our perspective is she’s also hilarious. Unlike Ellen who does all she can to ensure the couple stays together Fran is continuously trying to break them up. For instance, the first thing Fran does is throw Val out of his bedroom so she can have privacy, a comfortable bed and ample opportunity to make her daughter realize she’s made a horrible mistake. As if that wasn’t enough to throw into the mix, the ever suspicious Fran soon begins to suspect Ellen of having an inappropriate relationship with Val because the domestic is way too familiar with her employer. So you can see how having these four people living together in a relatively small apartment can lead up to all sorts of trouble. Add in the fact that Val has lied to his wife about who Ellen really is and you’re headed for confusion and marital strife – of the enjoyable kind.
THE MATING SEASON is a delightful movie albeit one with an implausible – perhaps even silly – plot. Lucky for us the cast is so good the rest hardly matters. Both Gene Tierney and John Lund are fine in their respective roles. The beautiful Tierney as Maggie has somehow grown up to be a woman of substance and integrity despite being raised by the likes of Fran. And Val has his shortcomings, but he loves his mother and his wife and tries to do right by them. But, for my money, it’s the mothers-in-law you pay to see in this instance!
Thelma Ritter terrific as Ellen, one of her meatier roles. Ellen is savvy, warm, wholesome and trustworthy and with that distinctive Ritter accent and wry humor she throws about wisdom like candy and we can’t get enough. Of pretense Ellen tells her son…
“If you’re a chicken, you can fool people about your feathers. But when you start laying eggs all over the place, they know you’re a chicken.”
On the other side of the spectrum is Miriam Hopkins as Fran – a selfish troublemaker, a complainer who’s overly dramatic, uses her socialite status in every sentence despite the fact she’s flat broke and name drops constantly – she got her sleeping pills from Mussolini! In short, Fran is a snooty hoot and if you subtract the “hoot” she probably has a lot in common with Miriam Hopkins herself. If one is to believe the stories.
Miriam Hopkins had a reputation for being very difficult on movie sets and the story goes that in her mind she had a leading role in THE MATING SEASON. According to several sources, including director Mitchell Leisen’s assistant Hopkins was compelled to make acting suggestions to Gene Tierney at every turn and would even tell the veteran director how to shoot certain scenes – of course so that they better served Marian. In addition, Miriam would work overtime to make her lines more prominent without thought as to how the suggestions would affect the roles or scenes of the other actors. Luckily, according to the assistant the director took it all in stride refusing to let Hopkins deter the production’s progress, “Leisen was always polite to Hopkins and never attempted to discourage her. He filmed whatever she wanted but he had no intention of using those scenes in the picture.”
Of the experience of filming THE MATING GAME Leisen himself said, “Gene Tierney was a doll. It’s always easy to work with Johnny Lund, and I adored Thelma Ritter. They were all wonderful…everything went along fine until we started shooting the scenes Miriam Hopkins was in.”
I have to admit I rather enjoy the stories of Miriam being difficult. That “I’m a star” attitude that as fans we normally get to see only in the pictures somehow adds to the mystique of cinema’s golden age. If only in my own mind. These people were STARS and Miriam Hopkins was one of the greatest.
It’s worth noting that Miriam denied the stories about her being difficult and was quoted as saying that she worked repeatedly with difficult directors who wouldn’t have come back for more Miriam if the stories were true. In the long run, aside from allowing us another level of enjoyment whether Hopkins was difficult or not hardly matters. She’s so enjoyable to watch in THE MATING GAME perhaps because she was difficult. It serves her well. And in the movies in general we cannot do better than Miriam Hopkins. That’s particularly true of her work in the 1930s, her most productive and successful decade. In film after film Hopkins delivers priceless performances, often combining her exquisite comedic timing with a flair for style and the dramatic. I mean, she could and did out act Bette Davis for chrissakes! Anyway, there are glimpses of all of that in Miriam’s performance in THE MATING SEASON and if she gave Leisen and others a few headaches along the way…we owe you.
THE MATING SEASON is one of only three films Miriam Hopkins made in the 1950s. Film roles had waned dramatically for her by then, but she focused primarily on television from that point on and enjoyed a decent run through the end of the 1960s. I’m actually dying to get my hands on one of her television performances – Miriam Hopkins as Norma Desmond in a 1955 Lux Video Theatre production of “Sunset Blvd.” Can you even imagine that, people out there in the dark?
For much more on the ever-fascinating Miriam Hopkins be sure to visit the fabulous Ruth of Silver Screenings and Maedez of A Small Press Life and Font and Frock, hosts of the Miriam Hopkins Blogathon, which runs through Jan. 25th. This post is my contribution. Here’s to Marian!