While I didn’t have glowing praise for 20th Century Fox‘s adaptation of Tender is the Night, just released on their Cinema Archives label, I found it in this 1948 comedy. Apartment for Peggy is a prototypical post-WWII tale about soldiers acclimating to life after wartime, and the wives who live in fear of not being enough. Lumped into all of that is a baby, and a suicidal old man who feels life’s not worth living. Despite its fluffy exterior, aided by a gregarious performance from Jeanne Crain, Apartment for Peggy is a charming comedy that doesn’t get bogged down in too much melodrama, but walks the fine line between comedy and social commentary.
Professor Henry Barnes (Edmund Gwenn) believes there’s no purpose for him anymore and decides to kill himself. On the same day, he meets the bubbly Peggy Taylor (Craine) who’s going to have a baby and needs to find an apartment for her and her husband, Jason (William Holden). The two, with baby making three, will be homeless if they don’t find something soon. Surprisingly, Barnes has a small attic that Peggy thinks would be perfect. As the Taylors make themselves at home, to the chagrin of Barnes, the stodgy old professor finds the ability to live again.
Apartment for Peggy is the follow-up to director George Seaton‘s excellent holiday classic Miracle on 34th Street. This film has similar attributes in terms of having exuberant personalities at the helm, and a magical uplifting heart to it. I would say there’s a darker, realistic quality here as opposed to the Christmas classic, but it’s never outright tragic – which I do consider a slight against it considering the subject matter. The movie does have depth to it in exploring the importance of education, at any age and regardless of gender; the creation of makeshift families in post-WWII America; and the ability to find a purpose in life. The opening credits are actually show the GI Bill housing rules which establishes why the trials the Taylor’s go through are important. It helps future viewers understand the tribulations the characters are up against.
After the horrors of WWII, comedy was in demand and several films during this period focused on the housing shortage and the struggles returning vets faced in acclimating to normality. I reviewed Love Nest during my Month With Marilyn which tread similar territory to dull effect. Apartment for Peggy throws in practically every item a normal couple faces throughout their life by compressing it and adding the struggles of post-war malaise. It’s refreshing not to see the courtship between Peggy and Jason; we start after courtship, marriage, consummation and pregnancy have been achieved. Really, we see them through Dr. Barnes’ eyes; a man who has lived his life out, he believes, and finds there’s nothing more to look forward to. Gwenn was also following up his turn as the magical, lovable Kris Kringle in Seaton’s last film, playing a character that couldn’t be more different. Barnes feels that amongst young men who have lived, and died, that there’s no room for a stodgy academic who doesn’t appreciate the beauty in the world any longer. By killing himself, his house could go to a family that needs it. His logic is morbid, but philosophical. His main reason is: Why wait till you get sick to die? In a way, Barnes is living the James Dean model of “Live fast, die young.” Barnes never makes the tone of the movie morbid, nor is his suicide particularly dramatic. He saves up sleeping pills throughout, and when he makes the actual attempt he’s never revealed to be in any danger. The thrust of the story is in watching him regain the will to live. At times, the dual storylines can be at odds because Gwenn is so serious, but it’s never to the film’s detriment. Gwenn is just as believable as a suicidal professor as he was playing Santa Claus!
Alongside Barnes’ story is that of the Taylors. Their story is congruent with the typical tales of this period focused on a couple dealing with a fixer-upper (in this case, Barnes’ attic) and mixing with a curmudgeonly neighbor. The themes are presented through them, and they’re relevant themes that I wouldn’t have expected to see in 1948. They extend not just to the older, wizened Professor, but to the young, dewy-eyed couple, as well. Jason and Peggy are equals in a loving, committed relationship. They’re well aware of the other’s flaws, but never use them as a creation for conflict within the relationship. Jason adores Peggy in spite of her making up fake statistics to prove her arguments, whereas she is the picture of supportive in his dream to become a teacher. The script doesn’t need to show their courtship because through dialogue and interaction we see how well they know each other. And it’s apparent they’re sexually into each other, and I’m not just saying that because Peggy is pregnant; we actually see them mention, suggestively, that they enjoy a healthy sexual attraction which is rare in films of the period.
Each character has their own desires that tie into what the movie wants to say, overall. Jason wishes to become educated and be a teacher, and yet his hoped-for job is at odds with providing for his burgeoning family. He feels at a loss getting a degree in teaching when “we spend twice as much on liquor as we do on education.” Jason’s a realist who needs to make money, but the moral implications of what he could be capable of aren’t going to lead to billions of dollars. He feels as useless as Henry because he’s supposed to be the breadwinner in the family, but Peggy is the one forced to scrimp and find ways to keep them afloat. As her husband, Jason believes she deserves more. Holden doesn’t scream “teacher” to me (how I wish teachers at my school looked like Bill Holden), but he works the realistic anger without artifice or staginess. He’s played veterans before, and here he’s not the broken man who needs a woman to care for him. His interactions with Crain are sweet and developed, and through it all her love is all he needs to keep going.
The heart and soul of Apartment for Peggy is the namesake played by Jeanne Crain. Crain is adorable, and while her fast-talking innocence could be construed as annoying, I found it endearing. She’s introduced by literally filling in the audience with her entire life-story in two minutes due to how fast she talks. Henry, completely flummoxed by this young lady detailing a lifetime’s worth of problems to a total stranger, simply says “My dear, I have great difficulty following your conversation.” Crain and the character of Peggy are a walking ball of sunshine and exuberance, and while she’s giving the audience (and Henry) an information overload, you can’t help but smile. Here’s where I wish the DVD had subtitles because Crain speaks so quickly it’s hard to catch everything. Crain is so delightful in this movie that no matter what, you want her to persevere because she believes in everybody. Her “grin and bear it” attitude does become a tad insupportable when she doesn’t mourn the loss of her baby, only that Jason abandons his dream to be a teacher in favor of a paying job at a car lot. There’s no reason a woman shouldn’t be able to mourn for the loss of a child; she’s not betraying her husband by doing so, especially since we see Jason so destroyed by it. Of course, Peggy has a problem that’s shared by the fellow wives of the army vets. All of them fear that with their men going to school, they’ll look uneducated in comparison and their husbands will seek smarter women. In a roundabout way, this causes the ladies to seek higher learning. Their feelings of obsolescence is as a group, as opposed to Henry and Jason’s individual concerns. It’s intriguing what this film says about female education; mainly, that it is important and can create a set of leaders for the future! When we see two men watching the class, one responds with “Perhaps the husbands should stay home with the children, and the wives should go to class,” it’s obvious we shouldn’t side with them. With the 1950s housewife looming in the future, it’s surprising to see a movie advocate for female schooling.
As the movie progresses, all three create a family and get what they want. Henry finds a second family (after losing his wife and son) and a second chance at life, whereas Peggy and Jason get a happy ending with a second baby after the loss of their first. The revelation of the pregnancy in the last two-minutes of the movie feels tacked on, but I understand the logic behind it; we can’t end the movie with the loving couple who started out with hopes for a baby not getting what they want. Overall, Apartment for Peggy is a sentimental, surprisingly sweet comedy that holds a lot of questions for the future. With a trio of delightful performances, particularly from Jeanne Crain, I recommend purchasing this on the 20th Century Fox Cinema Archives label.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.