Majorly adult themes like regret and loss take a teenage turn in Robert Z. Leonard’s 1947 film Cynthia, based on the play The Rich, Full Life by Viña Delmar. Mary Astor and George Murphy star as a set of parents who sacrificed their own young-adult ambitions for the sake of raising their sickly infant daughter, who, now at the cusp of adulthood herself (and played by Elizabeth Taylor), is beginning to bend after shouldering the weight of these sacrifices her entire life. This film is an interesting examination of the American teenager, which was a relatively new designation at this point in history, yet a natural story to be told.
We begin with co-ed Louise (Astor) and baseball star Larry Bishop (Murphy) meeting in college. Their whirlwind romance reveals that they both desire to move on to bigger and better lives away from their small-town origins, fixating on Vienna as their land of opportunity—Larry to study medicine, Louise to study music. But before they’ve graduated, they decide to get married, and, as it happens, discover a baby is soon on the way. “What could a little baby do to a big city like Vienna?” they wonder, but as it turns out, quite a lot. Though at first they believe they’re only temporarily postponing their Austrian aspirations, their daughter Cynthia is born frail and sickly. Caring for her means acquiring significant medical bills, and they’re quickly grounded for good in Larry’s Illinois hometown of Napoleon, and still haven’t quite regained their financial footing.
Now a teenager, at the tender age of 15, Cynthia’s parents still treat her like the delicate baby she was. She continues to make near-daily visits to her doctor uncle, who provides her with an ample supply of potions and shots to ward off any illnesses, and a long list of “don’ts” to avoid (fresh fruit is too dangerous, for example). A relapse into her childhood sickness is always considered a very real threat on the horizon, should she not play exactly by the rules. But when she’s convinced to try out for the school play, a dazzling audition wins her the lead role in the school play, as well as the attentions of popular student Ricky Latham (James Lydon). Her parents worry that both the play and the boy will task her beyond her means, and the jealous girls at school (including her cousin Fredonia) are all too eager to replace her in either role should she fall ill. After fighting off a bout of the flu that seems to prove all their worries reasonable, she is sentenced to bed rest and forbidden from attending the prom—but Louise sees the specter of her own regrets filtered through Cynthia, and conspires to sneak her out of the house to attend the dance. In the end, it turns out that Cynthia is maybe not so sickly after all, and they realize that maybe if they treated her as though she were well… she’d actually be well.
Cynthia is a poignant and dramatic film about sacrifice and ambition. Because the Bishops gave up all of their personal ambitions for the sake of providing for their daughter, their anxieties about their own lives manifest through their treatment of Cynthia. They are overbearing and overcareful because, should anything should happen to her now, everything they gave up fifteen years ago would have all been for nothing. It’s not fair to Cynthia, of course, to carry the guilt of their decision—especially because her parents have never revealed how much she actually cost them. The relationship between Cynthia and her mother is particularly tense, but it’s here that there’s the most room for growth. Although Cynthia represents her lost dreams, Louise ultimately realizes that by accepting her situation for what it is, she can afford her daughter the opportunities she never had, and hopefully improve things for the future generation.
Family, and the concept of it, beyond the nuclear unit, is another central theme within Cynthia. Cynthia’s uncle’s family poses many of the immediate threats to Larry, Louise, and Cynthia under the guise of being helpful. Uncle Fred is a doctor and the foremost proponent for Cynthia’s continued coddling; he also refuses to alleviate some of the family’s money problems by cosigning on a loan for them to buy their home. And his daughter, Fredonia, is one of Cynthia’s main romantic rivals, spouting off impeccably underhanded remarks like: “You’re so lucky your mother can sew. She can make clothes for practically anyone!” Larry and Louise’s mistake was in trusting these outside influences, instead of focusing on creating a family unit of their own.
Cynthia’s aforementioned audition for the musical is actually featured in That’s Entertainment, though it’s not an ornately staged spectacle like many of the other entries. In fact, it’s incredibly simple, only featuring Elizabeth Taylor standing on stage at a microphone, singing “The Melody of Spring” with a light trill in her voice. No choreography, no special costumes or camera work—just the song in its purest essence. It’s a great counterpoint to the other numbers in the compilation, highlighting MGM’s commitment to building their stars.
The ending of Cynthia is a little strange in the context of all that’s come before, but maybe my modern sensibilities are invading my perception here. Larry stands up to his nitpicking boss, and is prepared to move his family to the big city in Chicago. But Cynthia is finally doing well here in Napoleon, so she wants to stay, so they do. Larry’s boss comes crawling back offering him his job back, which resolves the family’s immediate money issues, but not the larger themes of loss and missing out. I’m not quite sure this story has a happy ending outside of the confines of this film; hopefully the family can at least take a vacation to Vienna to alleviate some of their lost youths.
Cynthia is a quiet film, and a beautiful example of the transition between child and teenager, as well as the relationship between adult and offspring. As a young star, Taylor spent much of her childhood living a similarly sheltered life, and her input to the character helped establish Cynthia as a lasting picture of a real teenager.