Irene Dunne in a Sinclair Lewis World

Among the many film adaptations of Sinclair Lewis novels over the years, Ann Vickers (1933) is probably the least known of them all, and, it wasn’t among the most popular or critically acclaimed of Lewis’s novels either. Those would be Main Street (1920), Babbitt (1922), Arrowsmith (1925), Elmer Gantry (1927) and Dodsworth (1929). Yet, Ann Vickers is probably Lewis’s most fully developed female protagonist and the 1933 film version starring Irene Dunne and Walter Huston is a flawed but fascinating movie that provides an apt example of how the work of a great American writer can be completely altered, distorted or softened by Hollywood and the Production Code officials.  

Nobel prize-winning author Sinclair Lewis

By 1930 – when he became the first American writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature – Lewis was probably the most famous writer in the United States. Ironically, his best work, according to most critics and Lewis scholars, was already behind him and his subsequent writings such as Ann Vickers and Cass Timberlane (made into a film with Lana Turner and Spencer Tracy in 1948) were considered lesser works in the Lewis canon. Still, it’s easy to see why Ann Vickers was optioned as a film project by RKO; it has enough subplots, narrative twists and colorful characters for twelve movies. And the title character was a rarity among female protagonists at the time – an independent, accomplished career woman and passionate idealist – but one who eventually presented a challenge to both the studio and the censors in a Hollywood where issues of morality, sexuality and the rougher aspects of life would have to be sanitized for the Code officials. 

The novel Ann Vickers was both a satiric and occasionally caustic portrait of a liberal whose passion for new social causes rose and fell like a teenager’s embrace of the latest fad, soon to be discarded for the next big thing. In her journey as the only child of a college professor in 1907 to her reunion in 1933 with Barney Dolphin, a recently paroled prisoner and father of their illegitimate son, Vickers rejects Christianity and embraces socialism, experiences lesbian advances from a college roommate, is seduced by her professor, has an abortion, joins the suffrage movement, works with the poor and recent immigrants to the U.S., becomes a prison superintendent, writes a best-selling expose (“99 Days and Nights in Prison”), hobnobs with radicals and becomes the mistress of a New York Supreme Court Judge who is accused and convicted of bribery. While Lewis’s depiction of Vickers may not always have been sympathetic, she was always a realistic modern woman, one who represented the many possibilities and emerging opportunities open to women of her era in a time of great change.

Ann Vickers (Irene Dunne) has some progressive ideas for social reform but can she change the system in Sinclair Lewis’s Ann Vickers (1933).

Lewis was considerably controversial in his day for his unromanticized portraits of small town life and American society that skewered hypocrisy, capitalism, religion and other social mores. In his Nobel prize speech, he made a reference to his often unpopular views, stating “in America most of us – not readers alone, but even writers – are still afraid of any literature which is not a glorification of everything American, a glorification of our faults as well as our virtues,” and that America is “the most contradictory, the most depressing, the most stirring, of any land in the world today.” And his 1933 novel Ann Vickers continued his critique of American society, but the film version became something else entirely.

Director John Cromwell has an unbilled cameo appearance in Ann Vickers (1933), based on the Sinclair Lewis novel.

For one thing, the novel’s narrative had to be pared down considerably for the 72 minute feature film helmed by John Cromwell (the director of Of Human Bondage (1934) and Since You Went Away (1944) and father of actor James Cromwell). This meant that major characters and situations were dropped from the screenplay and certain key incidents such as Vicker’s abortion had to be presented in a much more “coded” manner if they were to be included at all. Gone too was the barbed satire of Lewis’s prose and the complicated, resilient female protagonist becomes a more conventional soap opera heroine in the manner of Irene Dunne’s Post-Code characters in films like Magnificent Obsession (1936) and Penny Serenade (1941).

The film’s rushed, happy ending even suggests that Vickers has renounced her career ambitions for a nice, quiet life of domesticity which is an inaccurate reflection of the novel’s fadeout where Vickers may be more invested in her love life than a career but she is still a pariah in her community, living openly with a married man and their love child. You know their life together will be severely challenged by the changing times but the film fades out on a typical “happy family” reunion of convict father, disgraced mother and bastard son, with every indication that nothing but bright, sunny days lie ahead.

Irene Dunne plays a progressive social reformer who wants to change the system in the Pre-Code drama, Ann Vickers (1933), directed by John Cromwell.

None of this is meant to dissuade you from seeing Ann Vickers for, in spite of its obvious omissions, it’s an engrossing curiosity. While it was a modestly budgeted film, it wasn’t a B-movie even by RKO’s standards, and features excellent performances, impressive art direction and intelligent direction by John Cromwell, even if it tends to be episodic in nature due to the overwhelming demands of the narrative.

The prison sequences in Ann Vickers (1933) are as cruel and as despairing as anything out of a Charles Dickens novel.

One of the more bizarre episodes (especially on a tonal level) occurs in Ann Vickers when she accepts a new post as female superintendent at Copperfield Prison, a hellhole out of some Charles Dickens’ novel, where the corrupt warden and his sadistic head jailer quickly discover that Vickers will not play dirty pool with them. And what a loathsome pair they are, especially the neanderthal chief guard who tells her during her first encounter with the duo, “I’ve been in prison work for 32 or more years and I tell you the only way to handle criminals is to put the fear of God in ’em. Of course the warden ain’t supposed to know what I do round here so don’t you tell ’em. He passes the buck to me.” In one sequence, shot from above as Vickers gazes down, godlike, over the female prisoners, we see the horrible reality of life there starting with a food hall riot followed by the brutal treatment of the prisoners and an execution by hanging.

Ann Vickers (Irene Dunne, left) talks to a prisoner about conditions in the jail in Sinclair Lewis’s Ann Vickers (1933), directed by John Cromwell.

I’ve usually preferred Irene Dunne’s performances in comedies to her dramatic films but she is sensational here, combining her wry sense of humor with a direct, open manner in scenes depicting her interactions with men, either lovers or authority figures.

Ann Vickers (1933)
Directed by: John Cromwell
Shown from left: Edna May Oliver, Irene Dunne (as Ann Vickers)

The scene in the restaurant with her friend and confidant Marvina Wormser (Edna May Oliver as the film’s brief comic relief) when they spot Ann’s supposed fiancée (Bruce Cabot) with another woman and Ann takes charge of the situation is memorable. So is her tough love treatment of Kitty, a female prisoner who helped get her fired at her previous job at Copperfield before she became the head of a woman’s reformatory where Kitty was transferred. Vickers tells her bluntly, “Kitty, you’re an egomaniac but you’re rather competent…I intend to see when you leave this health resort of ours that you’re set up in a small hat shop. You told me at Copperfield that that’s what you always wanted to do. And you’ll be a success too. But in the meantime we’ll have to get you off the snow, cold turkey. Do you mind kid? I hate to have to do it this way.” (The censors were obviously ok with the cocaine reference, if they caught it).

Ann Vickers (Irene Dunne) will soon be seduced and abandoned by Army officer Captain Resnick (Bruce Cabot) in Ann Vickers (1933).

There is also something deeply satisfying about her dismissal of Lindsey Atwill (Conrad Nagel), an ardent suitor who pursued her for years but becomes judgmental and pious when she goes to him for help over Dolphin’s conviction. “I don’t want to hear about your skim milk purity, your white-livered virtue,” she tells him. “The trouble with you has always been you didn’t have enough red blood in you to be tempted by anything.”

Ann Vickers (Irene Dunne) finally meets her ideal match (Walter Huston) except he’s married in the 1933 Pre-Code drama Ann Vickers.

Another reason to see Ann Vickers is for Walter Huston’s frisky performance as Judge Barney Dolphin. His scenes with Dunne have an undeniable chemistry and spark when they’re together and it’s a shame his character doesn’t enter the story until the second half. Until his appearance, most of the men in Ann Vickers come across as predatory, corrupt, sadistic, fawning or dull. Dolphin, however, has an irresistible charm and rough-hewn masculine appeal. He’s the sort of judge who likes gambling and hanging out with the sort of riffraff he tries in the courtroom but he doesn’t cut them any slack if they appear before him. Unfortunately, he’s accused of bribery and sent to prison, but he was never less than forthright and honest with Ann about his intentions and situation. 

His character might not be as admirable as Sam Dodsworth but like that protagonist of Lewis’s 1929 novel he has the sort of adventurous spirit and restless curiosity that defined many Americans of the early 20th century. And like Dodsworth, Dolphin is trapped in an unhappy marriage with a woman who is spending all her time abroad chasing after younger men. It probably wasn’t a coincidence that Huston was tapped to play the lead in Dodsworth by director William Wyler just three years later.

Irene Dunne will soon regret being romanced by Bruce Cabot in Ann Vickers (1933), based on the Sinclair Lewis novel.

For a Pre-Code film, Ann Vickers is surprisingly discreet in some areas, particularly the seduction scene between Vickers and World War I soldier Captain Resnick (Bruce Cabot). She prepares to leave his apartment and they embrace and kiss as the camera tiptoes away from them and pans to the window where we see the neon lights of the city fade to the dawn light, indicating the obvious. The brief sojourn to Cuba where Vickers gives birth to her illegitmate daughter (she had an abortion in the novel) is also handled delicately with a brief reference to the dead baby (it died in childbirth) as Pride, the name Vickers wanted to call her. At the same time, the film doesn’t flinch from the brutality of prison life or the obvious sexual attraction between Vickers and Dolphin. Yet, in the end, the movie offers a different take on Ann Vickers than the novel, one with little  ambiguity or question about her aspirations or behavior. It’s not even obvious that the original source material was a critique of high-minded liberal causes and the people attracted to them.

Some cast members from Ann Vickers (1933) have a script meeting with director John Cromwell (far left).

OK, so RKO’s version of Ann Vickers is no masterpiece but in some ways it’s much more interesting for the issues it raises and how little some things have really changed since the year it was made. This is a movie ripe for rediscovery and a novel that definitely deserves another chance as a film adaptation. Ann Vickers is the sort of rich, multifaceted and challenging character role any serious actress would kill for in contemporary cinema where good parts for women are still a scarce commodity. 

For many years, Ann Vickers was difficult to see unless you had access to Turner Classic Movies where it might pop up occasionally. In October 2015, the Warner Archive Collection finally released the film as a no-frills DVD-R release. The film could certainly benefit from a Blu-Ray upgrade but in the meantime the Warner disc is your only option for purchase.

Irene Dunne fights for prison reform as the title character in Sinclair Lewis’s Ann Vickers (1933).

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