“They say you can get over anything in time. I don’t believe you can, but given enough time, you can put it where it belongs.”
H.M. Pulham, Esq., based on the novel by John P. Marquand, is a gentle study in class conditioning & its impact on adult values and the relationships we choose. H.M. Pulham, Esq. is, as his name hints, an inoffensive and stuffy upper class businessman. When the film begins, he’s middle-aged, married and he runs the family firm. The film begins with a very typical day at the Pulham household. These opening scenes define the life of H.M. Pulham (Robert Young)–a life of order, routine & predictability conducted with precision timing. Pulham’s morning routine depicts him expecting everything in the household in its place as usual. As he prepares to go to work, he puts his arms out, fully expecting the maid to be there ready to assist him with his coat (and she is), and he places covers on his shoes which are then removed in the office. These cinematic touches emphasise the predictability, fussiness and details of Pulham’s orderly life.
The trouble starts in two directions. Pulham receives a note from his old love, Marvin Myles who says she’s in town and would love to meet him. The second event comes in the form of a meeting to discuss an upcoming Harvard reunion. Pulham is required to write a class history and a short bio of himself, and as he labour over just how to sum up his life in just a few sentences, he re-evaluates some of the decisions he’s made. Over the course of a night he agonises over his life, and he begins to question just how much choice he ever really had about the decisions he made.
A large part of the film takes aim at conformity. Pulham is the only son of an upper class Bostonian family. He attends St. Swithin’s school (as did his father) where he is subjected to hazing. Individuality is discouraged and the boys are taught to think in very specific ways. As a young man, Pulham attends Harvard where once again he conforms into the slot assigned to a man of his social position. The film’s male ‘rebel’ is Bill King (Van Heflin)–a man who pokes fun of Harvard football and its sacred traditions. While Pulham marvels at Bill’s alien attitudes to the institutions Pulham’s been taught are sacred, he doesn’t rebel but neither does he reject Bill’s friendship.
A short stint in WWI (almost caricatured through a few ridiculous scenes of pomposity and then triumph through Paris), Pulham is sent back to America, but instead of returning to the bosom of his Boston family, he takes a job in an advertising firm in New York where he shares an office with his old friend, Bill King and the ravishing Marvin Myles (Hedy Lamarr)….
As Pulham reminisces about his past, he mulls over the guilt he felt about trying to establish his individuality and own youthful career in New York. In flashback, we see Pulham’s father, John (Charles Coburn) arguing that Pulham should forget this advertising nonsense and return back home where he belongs. Pulham’s mother (Fay Holden) isn’t above playing the invalid card, and even in Pulham’s early childhood both parents manipulate their son into relationships with ‘suitable’ girls. In adulthood, he’s expected to take over the family business and marry a girl who’s from their social circle. Pulham’s career is New York is viewed by his family as a rejection of their shared values.
There’s an underlying criticism of America’s old families–a dying breed according to Bill. He advises Pulham to break free while he can. The Pulham family’s corroding snobbery has its damaging impact, and this is mostly seen in the Pulham family’s treatment of Marvin Myles. But while Pulham may be able to navigate both the advertising world of New York, and the staid Victorianism of the Pulham family mansion, Marvin has her own values and future to think about. Marvin is an ambitious career woman, but she’s in danger of being judged as ‘fast’ and ‘immoral’ for simply requesting a drink.
The jolt from the past forces Pulham to re-evaluate his life, and there’s a definite ‘Road Not Taken’ moment. Directed by King Vidor, this excellent 40s film possesses a sort of quaintness and innocence in its depiction of a man who tests class boundaries and values without really understanding quite what he’s doing. It’s interesting to note that the topic of relationships between classes emerges frequently in the fiction of W. Somerset Maugham. In Of Human Bondage, for example, tragedy ensues when the classes mix. There’s no trauma in H. M. Pulham, Esq. but its lack of trauma and rather gentle approach underscores a different sort of anguish: the life that never was. H.M Pulham, Esq. asks whether or not its main character would have been any happier if he’d made other choices.