Youngest Profession, The (DVD Review)23 Apr, 2012 By: Mike Clark
Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Stars Virginia Weidler, Edward Arnold, Agnes Moorehead.
Aside from, say, some cheeky folly that Howard Hughes conceivably might have launched, it’s tough to imagine MGM or anyone else in the early ’40s coming out with a movie called The Oldest Profession or one that even dealt directly with subject matter that such a title would imply. So this half-labored, half-cute curiosity is the “pun” alternative — a comedy about autograph seekers who toiled in a much more innocent time, before the practice became a big-business concern and even a pathological one. Or even before Boston Celtics deity Bill Russell made it a policy never to scribble his name for beggars.
Along the way, we also take away a curious view of upper middle-class New York living by people who seem almost completely divorced (one precocious kid brother aside) from World War II. The story’s dominant concerns are marital infidelity (wrongly assumed); the chicanery it takes to get an advance on one’s allowance; and, of course, what it’s like for a couple teenaged girls to become pals (of sorts) with Walter Pidgeon himself while asking for his signature in Greer Garson’s apartment. After, that is, Greer has served them pastries or some such fatty snack.
The picture was another in a near-exclusive phenomenon from the ’40s Hollywood studio system — one that enabled almost all of the majors (some more than others) to contrive vehicles that jammed their respective contract rosters into a single package with the actors playing themselves. Almost all of these movies were musicals (Thousands Cheer, Thank Your Lucky Stars, Variety Girl), but Profession is a rare case where the stars involved — Pidgeon, Garson, Lana Turner, Robert Taylor and William Powell — serve a tuneless narrative that was shot in between or even during major assignments. You can almost hear Lana complaining to Louis B. Mayer that here, in her one chance between pictures to get off for a four-day sexually illicit holiday, the studio chief has ordered to come down to Metro, get into makeup and portray someone’s fantasy version of herself — someone who actually enjoys responding to mounds of fan mail.
Because these movies were, above all, promotional devices, every participant here turns out to be an MGM player, and even offhand star references in the script (Judy Garland, Red Skelton) tow that same line. You can see the opportunities that are lost: imagine the two plot-central autograph vultures (Virginia Weidler, Jean Porter) going over to Universal and stalking W.C. Fields before he finally convinces them to take a swig — if, that is, Errol Flynn (Warners) isn’t already taking them out on his boat for trouble. By the way, even casual moviegoers may recognize Weidler from her role as Katharine Hepburn’s younger sister in The Philadelphia Story. And then there was her real-life brother George: one of those miserable Doris Day husbands responsible for finally turning the superstar into the Humane Society.
The nominal plot here, stargazing aside, has to do with Weidler’s fears that her lawyer father (Edward Arnold, oddly cast as a sitcom pop) may be philandering with his young secretary — a falsehood perpetrated by the family’s governess (Agnes Moorehead in one of her first roles after Orson Welles brought her to Hollywood for Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons). The story isn’t much, but I was surprised at how funny the latter’s characterization is. She’s impossible, perpetually meddlesome and family patriarch Arnold can’t stand her — but somehow she continues to be employed.
Like a lot of movies that delve into a fascinating sub-culture without realizing they’re doing it, Profession is more interesting around the edges than it is down the middle. The girls here are essentially harmless, though, yes, their time would be better spent listening to Edward R. Murrow broadcasts from London. But the innocent hobby here had an icky though fascinating evolution — not just in real life but also as portrayed in the movies. As it turned out, these silly teens became the mothers of the creepy fans who populate Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, a masterpiece so dead on about a certain sub-stratum of society that parts of it are still difficult to watch other than from an eyes-on-the-floor perspective.