I was thoroughly surprised and captivated by this movie. Made in 1953, I kinda expected this movie to be about the follies of a young woman, and filled with all kinds of 1950s morality. I figured it was set in the past (1910s) to highlight the "good old days" when women had fanciful notions but did the smart thing.
The premise of the movie is that Ruth (Jean Simmons), 17 years old and an only child, wants to be a famous actress, but is certain that her hard-headed, loud-mouthed, practical-minded father (Spencer Tracy) will think it's a ridiculous notion.
All through this film, I kept waiting for it to take the sadly all-too-familiar turn toward convincing Ruth to give up her silly dream. And, all through this film, I was continually, pleasantly surprised. Even after her father finds out about her dream, his only angry scene comes when Ruth threatens to quit school. "You listen to me, and I'm not going to argue with you, I'm laying down the law. You finish your schoolin'. As if schoolin' was something you could leave and then go back to. You can't do that."
"I'm affording you the luxury of an education. Don't treat that luxury too lightly."
That theme comes up a couple of times during the film. It becomes clear why later, when he talks about his own childhood and how his own mother died and he was sent to live with terrible family members who abused him. At 8 years old, he ran away and became a cabin boy on a trans-Atlantic cargo ship, starting his life as a merchant seaman. He tells about how he tried to continue his education when he was 18, but was humiliated when they placed him in the 4th grade.
There's plenty of pressure on Ruth to give up her dreams, don't think there isn't. She's being wooed by a handsome, rich young man, Fred (Anthony Perkins). Her mother (Teresa Wright) begs her to consider "being normal" and settling down with him.
When he proposes to her as she's about to go in to meet with a famous stage director (which you just have to know is going to end badly), I fully expect her to say "yes" and they go on to live a happily-ever-after life, just like they always do in these kinds of movies. But, she doesn't. Oh, sure, she's pleased that he asks, but she tells him, "If I was going to marry anyone, I'd pick you. But I can't. And you're lucky I can't. All my life I'll remember I didn't have to be an old maid because you went and asked me. No matter how it looks, I'll know I didn't get left. Say a prayer for me Fred. I'm going through that door, and behind it's my whole life."
Naturally, things don't work out the way she envisions them. Do they ever for 17 year olds?
But, even with her set-backs, and her father's financial problems, there are still many more really progressive surprises in store. Her father starts to reflect on his own past, and his dreams. "When I think of Singapore and all the ports I'll never see again..."
When Ruthie comes home upset, he makes her a promise that if she finishes her term at high school, he'll set her up in New York so she can pursue her dream of being an actress. In a moving monologue, he explains why it is so important to him that Ruth gets her education, and his motivation for helping her. "So, when the time comes for my daughter to go out in the world, I'd like to kinda grease the way for her."
The movie ends with Ruth leaving for New York City. I know that the road in front of her isn't going to be a smooth one. She hasn't really shown any real talent for being an actress, other than her very dramatic nature. But I still like to imagine that she goes on to become a some-what famous actress, happy in her choice, continually working toward her goal.
And, really, isn't that what being a self-rescuing princess is all about? Doing what you know is right, even in the face of set-backs and going against expectations?