Unfinished Business (1941) for Irene Dunne

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Unfinished Business commences with a wedding ceremony we’re trying to place. Because it is not Irene Dunne getting married, although she stretches her famed vocal cords in lieu of a wedding march. It is her baby sister — the girl she’s mothered her entire life up to this point. Now that the responsibility is over with, she wants to give up motherhood to be herself. After all, she’s been settled down her entire life and now she wants to get unsettled.

She’s a rural Ohio gal and intially feels like the most simplistic, idealistic I’ve ever seen Irene Dunne in a picture. However, this might establish the wrong impression. Because Unfinished Business gives an inclination of being in the mold of Theodora Goes Wild, though it does make its own digressions in favor of a softer even sadder tone. It’s actually more complicated than it appears, and Dunne’s character is very much the same.

The whole conceit is in the title really, although it takes on multiple meanings. First, there’s the unfinished business in reference to her life thus far. And then, when she has a romantic encounter rudely sidelined and left unrequited, it’s quite something else entirely.

The heart of the story starts aboard the train she boards to who-knows-where to live a little. Instead, she gets seduced by a handsome man who’s waging a bet he can find the most attractive conquest on the train. Their expectations and the meaning of the encounter mean two very different things to both of them. She will never forget him with a starry-eyed infatuation. He’s moved on to other things and over women soon thereafter because that’s who Steve Duncan is.

Not to be totally paralyzed by love, Nancy, endeavoring for an opera career, spends her waking hours on her arias. By day she must settle for singing telephone messages to customers, a rather demeaning art compared to what she’s used to. Though it does wind up getting her a new job; the pays better even if it’s hardly a more glamorous turn.

Billy Ross is the first truly curious character actor out of the rank and file old Classical Hollywood normally bequeaths us in pictures like these. He has this sense about him that screams screwball comedy as does Eugene Pallete, though he comes later. But the distinction is how La Cava’s film never resorts to this plane of existence. This is a far cry from My Man Godfrey. At first, it seems like this is a bad thing.

Nancy’s still a few rungs below hatcheck girl hidden behind a counter at a switchboard still singing messages. At least this time she gets some company with a touch of humor in the form of Tommy Duncan (Robert Montgomery) who is, among other exploits, a noted alcoholic.

Montgomery’s delivery always feels abrupt and unsorted to me. Though I’m admittedly coming around to him because in this picture, in particular, he’s the one man who notices Nancy’s tears — going so far as to commandeer the switchboard for her. If you’re beginning to connect the dots, you’ll realize his older brother is Steve, her one-time, one-day love.

Nancy and Tommy prove to be a strange company going out together. It’s almost like they have a shared camaraderie however thinly connected. He can’t stand his brother with typical sibling syndrome, and she still harbors a melancholy flame. At any rate, they drown their sorrows with some extra hard milk.

They wake up in the morning — the valet (Eugene Pallette) calling on Mr. Duncan, his musical shoes needing a grease — and they have flown to South Carolina and gotten themselves Married! But it almost plays as matter-of-fact, not one of those wonky sitcoms episodes. The whole movie functions like this.

Nancy dresses up and goes “wild” in an effort to make up for her ho-hum existence thus far. It comes with mixed results, eliciting the grouchy contempt of their sleep-deprived butler Elmer. Part of the issue is how we only hear word of her merriment after the fact. We are robbed of the delight of Dunne going a little ditzy and a little wacky and breaking up the screen. This is not that kind of movie (although Montgomery does get an extended number with a pair of opera glasses).

Otherwise it feels subdued in comparison to other contemporary examples like My Favorite Wife or Here Comes Mr. Jordan. It’s very possible La Cava’s film was striving for a more delicate tone somewhere in between, which is certainly admirable, but it never seems to reach its optimal effectiveness.

While Dunne is always lovely and we do appreciate here more often than not, somehow the movie never feels centered even as Preston Foster and then Robert Montgomery drift into her life for different reasons. There is an emptiness to it. Can we say purposelessness?

But then maybe there you have a bit of Dunne’s predicament. Shall she wait around for love, focus on her career, marry for money? The options are in one way bountiful but no less restricting for a woman in her position.

One visually impactful scene comes right after the wrong Mrs. Duncan kisses the wrong Mr. Duncan. That is Dunne and Foster. The catty blonde at the party passes what she’s witnessed along gleefully, and the camera takes a hop, skip, and a whip across the various partygoers as the words catch like wildfire. It’s the most blatant of ripostes in a film where stories begin to quietly overlap. Still, it hardly unloads on the drama.

What sets the movie apart is probably the honesty — this underlying sense of pragmatism. I have no illusions that it is similar to Daisy Kenyon, but I remember watching that film and Joan Crawford’s role in it, which somehow felt unextraordinary. And yet I realized it was extraordinary for the ordinariness, at times, because it was so very unlike the cultivated or perceived Hollywood of the 40s, not to mention its lack of emotional hyperbole.

I’m curious if my gut reaction to Unfinished Business is very much the same. There’s an undue skill and finesse to it no doubt, but this never moved beyond observation and then admiration for an underrated director. It didn’t get to my core through laughs or drama like My Man Godrey or Stage Door, and I must simply come to terms with it.

3/5 Stars

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