A Life Of Her Own starts with such promise in its attempts to showcase the harsh world of the modeling industry. Unfortunately, the script takes a left turn into domestic melodrama, complete with infidelity, undermining everything that’s been built up. With engaging performances from Ann Dvorak and Lana Turner (an actress I’ve never felt was as great as she’s touted), you feel sad for the squandered potential that’s presented on-screen. Small-town girl, Lily James (Turner) wants to be a model. She ends up joining the Thomas Callaway Agency in New York City where success knocks on her door. Unfortunately, Lily’s life is foreshadowed by former model, Mary Ashlon (Ann Dvorak) who has been let go due to her age.
With a director like George Cukor, I assumed A Life Of Her Own would be a blend of domestic melodrama within the confines of working women. It starts out that way, but in the end the working aspect is tossed aside completely in favor of a sober domestic drama about infidelity. It’s unfortunate because the natural performances from Turner (who usually acts like God’s gift to cinema) and Dvorak, coupled with the social commentary about women in the modeling industry, is amazing. I was completely enthralled in the first half hour of the movie because it present’s a feverish indictment of the modeling industry, and by extension cinema. When Lily first enters the modeling agency, she realizes girls like her are a dime a dozen; a sea of women, all with the same general appearance, swirl around her and have their own dreams and histories we’re never privy to. Oddly enough, it reduces Turner to being ordinary, which works remarkably to get you on her side. We also witness the vague sexual exploitation that goes on – although this is never made explicit or threatening – as young girls are told to raise their skirts higher.
All of this could turn smutty, but it’s tempered by the carefree performance of Tom Ewell. Ewell rises up the ranks as a ray of sunshine in every film he’s in, and he does a lot to emphasize that not all men in the modeling industry are scum. He emphasizes to the girls that “the natural look is the beautiful look,” while acting as a fairy godmother/etiquette coach. He’s so approachable and well-mannered that you’ll find yourself taking his advice as you watch the movie. Once Dvorak arrives the plot of the movie picks up. Dvorak’s Mary is a woman who understands that she’s older, and there’s a sad exchange of complimentary lies that pass between her and Ewell’s character, Tom. He tells her that there’s no work at the moment but he’ll keep looking; she says that she’s ready to get back to work after having “too much fun.” The real reason for her careers demise is her age, and it’s an element that isn’t focused on nearly enough despite its set-up. Once Mary commits suicide (happening midway through the film), the script doesn’t find modeling fascinating enough to continue with. Dvorak has some incredibly heartfelt moments that sound drawn from real life and I applaud the script for refusing to make Lily and Mary rivals, which would have turned this into a stock “what price Hollywood” story (although that’s where we end up by the end). Mary understands that Lily’s acceptance into the modeling world is through no fault of her own: “She can’t help how old she is; what she looks like.” If anything, A Life Of Her Own could have been a story about two women, at opposite ends of the spectrum, struggling to survive in a career that values youth and beauty. Even though Tom warns Lily not to get consumed with partying because “it shows on the face,” the unspoken truth that’s never acknowledged is that women have a shelf life in the industry. It’s sad that the script, written by Isobel Lennart, isn’t as satirical as it could be and abandons exploring something that hits a little too close to home. The script also fails to give the audience any insight into Lily’s past, save for one sequence where she tells Mary that she’s running from her reputation and hopes to reinvent herself. I wasn’t interested in hearing a sob story, but something to explain why Lily is so willing to give up her career in favor of partying or for a man would help; as it stands, she just jumps into partying excessively and ignoring her career because of a guy and because the plot dictates it.
Once Ray Milland arrives all the air gets sucked out of the room. Outside of The Lost Weekend and Dial M for Murder (two films where Milland is villainous), he’s never wowed me; here, he’s simply “the guy.” It’s interesting to note that Milland wasn’t the first, second, or third choice; he was brought in after the original actor left the project. He’s a duck who doesn’t know where the water is, and doesn’t have any chemistry with Turner. The second half of the movie becomes a domestic melodrama where Turner models gorgeous gowns in her living room and gets lost in a world of booze and partying; a cautionary tale about the dangers of “having fun.” The ending of the movie is a disingenuous happy ending that was a last-minute change by the studios. Cukor hated it, and I agree that it doesn’t fit with the movie at all (then again, neither does the entire second half). By having Lily come to an epiphany, instead of following in Mary’s footsteps, what’s the point? She doesn’t have anything on the horizon, we haven’t seen any major fall-out from her partying; so what is there for her to learn? It all happens in about ten seconds, leaving the audience to wonder what the hell happened. She’s another woman character forced to learn to grin and endure.
In spite of its neutered ending and bland second half, A Life Of Her Own is worth a watch. The performances by Ann Dvorak, Tom Ewell, and (surprisingly) Lana Turner, are all natural and genuine. I just wish the script had sharper teeth and wasn’t so afraid to investigate elements that we all expect to see within the modeling industry. Overall, it’s a lot better than it should be for the time period.
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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.