John P. Marquand's popular Pulitzer prize-winning 1937 novel The Late George Apley skewered the pretentious upper-class Bostonian of the early 20th century. The deceased fictional title character is given the biographical treatment by one of his Boston Brahmin peers and through that narrow lens and the recollection of family and friends a portrait of George Apley emerges.
There is indeed much to snicker at in George Apley's exclusive existence, but as outside observers, we see much that escapes the notice of even his nearest and dearest. While the absurdity of the snobbery is rightfully put in its place, the reader also learns something about the heart of George Apley and his foibles. George Apley may be a fool, but perhaps no more so a fool than any of us.
Marquand and George S. Kaufman adapted the novel for Broadway where it had a successful run in the 1944-45 season starring Leo G. Carroll as George Apley. Since George Apley is no longer "late" as in passed on, we are left to wonder if "late" refers to the passing on of the old George Apley as he strives to adapt to the modern world of 1912 or maybe the fact that George is a late bloomer. Messrs. Marquand and Kaufman did not confide in me.
George Apley and his beloved Emerson
The 1947 Twentieth Century Fox film version was adapted by Philip Dunne (How Green Was My Valley) and directed by Joseph Mankiewicz (House of Strangers). Ronald Colman stars as George Apley in this movie released the same year as his Oscar-winning performance as the tormented actor Anthony John in A Double Life. George Apley's torments may be less harrowing than those of Anthony John's, but Colman's performance commitment is one hundred percent for both. As George Apley, he is initially the picture of upright, pompous certainty whose dawning bewilderment at events and people of differing ideas. George's enthusiastic attempts to set himself and all aright are a delight to behold.
George Apley has a place and standards to maintain. In his world, there is no excuse for shirt sleeves, no room in the cemetery plot for claim jumping distant relatives and no place for foreigners from Worcester. There is plenty of room for various clubs and committees. After all, someone must look after the orphaned waifs of Boston. To George's credit, an electric sign on the edge of the Common proclaiming "Grapenuts" would not add to the quality of anyone's life, but he seems almost anti-electricity. George's great love, beyond quoting Emerson, is bird watching. Of course, there is a committee for that as well.
Ronald Colman, Edna Best
Edna Best (The Man Who Knew Too Much) is charming and patient as George's wife Catherine, much softened from her novel incarnation. The Apleys have a headstrong daughter Ellie played by the vivacious Peggy Cummins (Gun Crazy). Her romantic involvement with a forward-thinking young professor played by Charles Russell (The Purple Heart) is a source of friction for the family. Richard Ney (Mrs. Miniver) is John Apley, so much like his father that it often makes his mother cry.
Ronald Colman, Richard Haydn
A large part of the plot of the play is based on the idea from the novel that George Apley truly likes his daughter-in-law. In the book, she is a divorcee from New York City. In the play and film, she is a young cousin determined to live life on her own terms, and that includes her marriage to son and heir John Apley.
Vanessa Brown, Richard Ney
Vanessa Brown, five years away from becoming the toast of Broadway as The Girl in The Seven Year Itch, plays cousin Agnes Willing. Agnes' parents are Nydia Westman (The Chocolate Soldier) as Jane and Richard Hadyn (Sitting Pretty) as Horatio. Horatio is a rather Iago-like character (shades of A Double Life) who supports all that is pretentious in George's lifestyle. He is overprotective of the class to which he has aligned himself.
If any of the ensemble come close to stealing the show it is the only import from the original Broadway run, Percy Waram (Ministry of Fear) as George's brother-in-law Roger Newcombe. Roger is the voice of wet wisdom (he likes to drink) and dry wit as the anti-Horatio. He is married to George's formidable "should have been born the boy" sister Amelia played like a battleship in full sail by Mildred Natwick (The Quiet Man).
Times are changing and dear Roger tries to open George's eyes to that fact while Horatio keeps dragging George back to the status quo. Life, in all its untidiness, is thrust upon George Apley when he disastrously intervenes in his daughter's romance. George's admonishment to Ellie that emotions must be kept down has forever coloured the way I will watch Star Trek. For me, Vulcan is no longer a planet of enlightened beings, but a planet inhabited by stuffed shirts.
It is a joy to watch Ronald Colman as George Apley stumble and blink at the sunlight as he rushes headlong into an unfettered future. The comedy of his situation is told with knowing wit and a warm heart. One minute you want to hug him for his ardent effort and the next you'll want to slap him for a silly ass. You'll laugh at George Apley and you'll laugh with him. You will never forget him.