Elderly academic Professor Henry Barnes (Edmund Gwenn) decides to commit suicide. A widower who lost his only son in the Second World War, he calmly and rationally outlines his reasons for killing himself before his startled colleagues, then bids them adieu. However, he never gets the chance because Peggy Taylor (a radiant Jeanne Crain), a chatty, whip-smart and quick-witted young housewife sits beside him on a park bench and innocently punctures his self-loathing logic. Peggy is married to Jason (William Holden), a former G.I. struggling through college. With low-cost housing at a premium amidst the post-war boom, Peggy persuades the crusty professor to let her and Jason live in the attic of his large home. As they turn the cramped space into a real home, Professor Barnes gets to know his young tenants better and share their hopes and dreams. Gradually, their optimism rubs off on him, but there are tough times ahead…
Feel-good entertainment is a much maligned term. Apartment for Peggy is an unabashedly joyous slice of feel-good whimsy, yet one that acknowledges the harsh realities of post-war life and offers thought-provoking discourse and philosophical debate in place of the fortune cookie wisdom and greeting’s card sentimentality you find in so many family films. This is largely down to George Seaton, the playwright, producer and screenwriter-director behind that Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street (1947). As good as Frank Capra was, it’s a shame he alone is held in high esteem while Seaton’s ability to cloak broader themes beneath hymns to the joys of community and infectious optimism, go largely uncelebrated. Even if he did inadvertently kick-start the despised disaster movie cycle with Airport (1970).
Seaton writes snappy dialogue that fair crackles off the lips of seasoned pros like Edmund Gwenn, while Jeanne Crain positively glows from her first scene. Armed with a knack for making up statistics to prove a point (“Everyone is always making up statistics. It might as well be me”), a determination to better herself and a zest for life, Peggy embodies the gutsy, can-do spirit of America’s golden age. On the surface, the film’s message appears to be “no man is an island”, with the cloistered, elderly professor reinvigorated through his encounter with sociable, exuberant youth. However, as such trials as poverty and child-loss enter the couple’s life and the spectre of suicide still lingers, the subtext ambitiously delves into the search for happiness and a better way to live in the post-war world.
It’s a movie that deftly skips from broad comedy (Jason and Professor Barnes’ fumbled attempt to assemble a child’s cot), to heartache (surmised in a memorably brief instance where Jason disarms the philosophy lecturer with one simple question: “Why?”), and heart-warming (a collection of stern academics subtly help Jason pass his exams), and even works in a gag involving a laxative. Yet what hits home is the soul-strengthening message how nothing worthwhile is every easy.