“Remember I said the first round goes to you or your father’s money.”
One type of film that really seemed to thrive in the 1950s was the soap-opera styled plot laced with drama, tragedy and a good old family fortune thrown into the mix. Invitation isn’t as splendid as a Sirk drama, but its soap elements made this fun to watch–even though the story is ultimately restrained and the characters never fully unleashed. Invitation can also be categorised as a medical drama film.
The film begins with Ellen (a svelte Dorothy McGuire) at home with hubbie, budding young architect Dan Pierce (Van Johnson). There’s a delivery in a large package which Ellen tries to hide from Dan. Inside the box is yet another fur coat–the third this season from Ellen’s devoted stinking rich daddy Simon Bowker (Louis Calhern). This interesting and significant early scene raises some questions: why is Ellen’s father showering her with fur coats and why does she feel that she needs to hide this from Dan?
After Dan leaves for work, Ellen drives out to daddy’s estate where she finds him out on the golf course with a doctor friend. By this point it’s clear that Ellen is not well at all, and there’s reference made to a heart condition. Suddenly everything slots into place: her husband’s tender concern, her father’s lavish presents, and her slight breathlessness. Yes, Ellen has an incurable heart condition.
On the way back home, Ellen stops to visit an old friend, Maud (Ruth Roman). Big mistake. Ellen appears to be on a peace-making mission, but a tightly wound Maud isn’t about to pretend that everything is ok. This bitter scene reveals that Maud is now Ellen’s ex-friend–the rift occurred when Ellen married Maud’s man. Maud was in love with Dan and claims she still is. On a roll, Maud makes some bizarre statements implying that Ellen stole Dan from her and that Ellen’s father bought Dan as a husband for Ellen.
After Ellen’s nasty visit to Maud, domestic bliss at the Pierce home is a thing of the past.The film includes flashbacks that explore Ellen, Dan and Maud’s relationships before the wedding, and then there’s a wedding scene and a bit of honeymoon before we’re back in the present. The scenes that show Ellen as a lovelorn young woman are particularly good, and the script plays with the psychological aspects of Ellen’s ability to gloss over her role in Dan’s broken romance with Maud.
Invitation is an enjoyable soap-styled film (and the meaning of the title becomes clear as the story unwinds), but in spite of the fact some pretty ugly stuff takes place, everyone lands on the positive side of humanity (with one bitter exception). Dorothy McGuire does an excellent job as Ellen; she’s spoiled and overprotected–not a bad person by any means, but she is used to a life of privilege and she’s a veritable princess wrapped in a cocoon by her devoted father. She’s a woman who has a wonderful, perfect life, and she appears to have everything … except her health.
While the ill-health issue is ostensibly the issue of Ellen’s heart, under the film’s surface the behaviour of the characters is also incredibly unhealthy. There’s Maud and Ellen–at one point supposedly best friends but now at war over a man. Maud spits some very nasty words at Ellen, but Ellen still plays the victim. And then there’s Ellen’s father … just what the hell was he thinking? That brings us to Ellen’s husband Dan…. Van Johnson’s murky motivations aren’t explored a great deal, and after placing some tawdry information in front of the viewer, the script pulls away and lands on the safe, warm and fuzzy side of character analysis. This move negates the possibility of a great tacky soap drama, so instead we get an optimistic film that reinforces the basic decency of human nature. Now whether or not you buy that is another thing entirely….
Invitation made it to DVD thanks to the WB Archive Collection. The film is from director Gottfried Reinhardt.