“No, dear. Holy cow.”
The first time I watched Confidentially Connie in 2016, I couldn’t believe that a movie with such a dumb premise could also be endearing. After watching it twice this year, I wouldn’t say it’s endearing anymore. Entertaining, yes. Much of it is so dated, frozen in the 1950s. The depiction of Indigenous tribes and customs is one example. It’s not the most egregious case of racism towards native people from studio era Hollywood, but I felt it was worth mentioning. The movie however does have its charms.
Connie Bedloe (Janet Leigh) is progressing just fine in her third month of pregnancy. The obstetrician advises her to get plenty of sunlight, vegetables, and red meat. That last dietary suggestion won’t be possible, although compared to Connie, “a tiger is a vegetarian.” Her husband Joe teaches poetry at the local college and they can’t afford it. (“Not on your salary.”) Meat is too expensive for the entire faculty. One of Connie’s friends Phyllis won’t step inside the butcher’s shop because “It’d be like turning a drunk loose in a brewery.” Connie marches inside, having resolved to give up her cigarette allowance in exchange for lamb chops. The butcher, Spangenberg (Walter Slezak) quips: “Did your husband quit teaching and get a job?”
Meanwhile, at the college, Dean Magruder (Gene Lockhart) is discussing the assistant dean position, which will soon be vacated. A baseball sails through the window and knocks the Dean’s totem pole over. A man follows soon after, demanding the ball which he throws back to a group of students who are playing a game on the lawn. He’s their professor, Joe Bedloe (Van Johnson). Joe agrees to have their class outside, where after chastising them for their low test scores, enumerates the wonders of the Bard: “You guys seem to have the idea that Shakespeare is something dusty and ancient. Well he’s not. He’s brand new, he’s streamlined. He’s just as true today as he was 400 years ago.” One of his students is on the football team and doing pushups. Joe challenges him to an “Indian” wrestling match to prove that Shakespeare is relevant to him as well. During their tussle, Joe recites a verse from Henry V and easily bests his opponent. There’s something about this scene that is so quintessentially Van: that distinct New England accent, his spirited recitation, it just works.
Back home, Connie is preparing the lamb chop dinner when Joe arrives. He demands to know how Connie could afford it. She’s evasive at first, claiming she wants to stop smoking for the baby’s sake, but Joe remarks that the waiting room at the doctor’s office is like a forest fire. When she tells the truth about the cigarettes, he becomes agitated. He thinks that because she has to go without them, he’s not a good husband and he isn’t making nearly enough. Connie however, doesn’t need plenty of money or servants, because “I’ve got plenty of love and pride in my man.” (Me too).
The Bedloes do appear comfortable and their modest home isn’t at all shabby. I wonder if their lack of wealth really is a sign that they are poor, and if this is determined by 1950s standards. Would a regular household look like theirs? And what would the average viewer back then think about their home?
Joe suggests they go down to his father’s ranch in Texas because they’re almost “starving to death” and he’s heir to a million dollar fortune. Connie won’t hear of it since Joe’s father is the one who drove him away. But she does insist that he lobby for that new position, which would mean a raise. With a baby on the way, they need more money. Joe is reluctant at first because he can’t suck up to the Dean, but he acquiesces.
The Bedloes are invited to dinner at Simmons’ house, the other professor considered for the promotion. Joe’s attempts to win the Dean over are disastrous. Phyliis asks how he manages to eat with his foot in his mouth. Maybe the night could have been salvaged if Joe had let Dean Magruder win at wrestling, but he sends him crashing to the floor instead.
Joe isn’t all that remorseful about his behavior. Connie brings up the ranch again because the promotion is no longer likely. Joe insists that “A kid doesn’t need luxuries, a kid needs a house full of love and happiness.”
The next day, Joe’s father Opie (Louis Calhern) shows up unannounced. He and Connie take to each other immediately. Initially he says he’s only passing by while on business, but Connie knows he’s there to persuade Joe to return to the ranch. Opie has a very low opinion of teaching: it’s for spinsters. Opie thinks Joe has gone too far to spite him, but Joe genuinely loves his job, and like Connie, thinks it’s a noble profession.
“Every 30 years there’s another generation of Americans. A whole new nation. 160 million new people. What’s to guarantee that they’re Americans? Why don’t they just turn into 160 million people with powerful airplanes and big bombs and an itch to rule the world? I’ll tell you why: because they’ve got a heritage. They’ve got a constitution and a bill of rights and a Declaration of Independence and a tradition of fair play. And how do they know it? Because the teachers of America tell it to them. Not only tell it to them but sell it to them.”
Opie isn’t swayed and cheerfully points out that Joe could get a higher salary on the ranch.
Dinner at the Bedloe’s is meatless once again. Opie is shocked to learn that Connie’s going to have a baby with a meatless diet. “Pregnant women gotta eat meat! You can’t have no good baby eating pills and fish!” A wacky dream sequence follows, in which Connie is lowered into a giant net and loaded into an ambulance. At the hospital, she gives birth to a bowl of fish and vitamins.
When Opie learns that his son and daughter-in-law can’t afford meat on their budget, he arranges for Spangenberg the butcher to lower his prices and Opie will make up the difference. It’s almost fool- proof, until Joe finds out what his father is up to. And when Joe and Connie host a steak dinner for the Dean, that promotion is as good as Joe’s. But not before Opie meddles once more in his son’s plans.
Confidentially Connie is based on a story by Herman Wouk, who wrote The Caine Mutiny. It tries to be a screwball comedy and message picture at the same time and doesn’t really succeed at either. Of course teachers deserve higher pay and should be valued, even all these decades later. But the way this idea is conveyed in the film isn’t terribly potent. It’s staid for a comedy and could be so much zanier. I do like that the tone is lighthearted throughout.
Janet Leigh is adorable but Connie is a thankless part. She’s just as determined as Joe is, but there’s something lacking. The gender roles of the time period were firmly in place; all she does is cook and keep house. Of course there’s nothing wrong with being a housewife, but maybe if Connie set the plans in motion or tried to get a job in secret, she’d be a more fleshed out character. At least she would have more to do.
This was the second of three films Van and Janet costarred in, and she named him her favorite leading man. Their ease and comfort is so natural, you can tell they were good friends off camera. And they remained close for years.
All the Van Johnson movies I’ve watched since 2016 (54 in total) have run the gamut from good to mediocre to absurd. Confidentially Connie falls somewhere between mediocre and absurd. Joe Bedloe isn’t one of Van’s most memorable or demanding roles. But I enjoy him so much in this. He portrays the playful, flirty, stern husband effortlessly. And he’s great as a cool teacher who’s passionate about his job. Joe’s female students wear saddle shoes and loafers with ankle socks, calling to mind his devoted bobby-soxers of the 1940s. Van was no longer the teenage heartthrob but he still had plenty to offer. Also, I swoon over him even more in glasses.
In his biography of Van, Ronald L. Davis claims that he’s simply not an icon of the same caliber as Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, or John Wayne. Davis believes that Van hasn’t had a great impact on film history. He cites Van’s exclusion from AFI’s 100 Greatest Stars list as proof of this, but I don’t think that’s a fair metric. Lots of unforgettable and exciting actors didn’t make the cut! Van was incredibly versatile in a wide range of films. From frothy romance to gritty war dramas, he really could do it all. Even as a “hidden” star, there is something so special about him.
As Ann Miller once said:
“There’s nobody like Van Johnson, red socks and all.”
I wrote this post for the Van Johnson blogathon, celebrating my favorite guy’s birthday today. Click on the banner below to read more!