The trope of the meddling mother-in-law is such a familiar archetype it has become a staple of comedy and film. It is a rite of passage in some cases, for newlyweds to endure the pain inflicted by an old lady who can’t help but offer “better” solutions to any and every problem they encounter. Such is the beginning of Alexander Hall’s 1950 film, “Louisa.”
When Louisa Norton (Spring Byington) moves in with her son Hal (Ronald Reagan), his wife, Meg (Ruth Hussey) and their two children, Cathy (Piper Laurie) and Chris (Jimmy Hunt), life becomes tense in the Norton household. Everyone is annoyed at Louisa’s impositions: She thinks the maid doesn’t know how to dust the house; her daughter-in-law needs instruction on how to do grocery shopping; her granddaughter needs moral formation when it comes to her relationship with a young man; and her grandson needs to be more tidy and not let the family dog sleep in his bed. Louisa, of course, does not want to impose on her own son, but Hal soon enough is vexed by the situation as well. and determines it’s time for a little talk with mother.
Louisa, it seems, needs some extracurricular activities that would get her away from the family, like the “Ladies Auxiliary,” or other things that are appropriate to a woman of her years and experience. The family is certainly pushing her in this direction and clearly want her out of their hair, even just for a few moments in the day. But things take quite a different turn when Louisa becomes involved in a courting relationship with two gentlemen, which sends a shockwave through the Norton household.
Although not explicitly labeled as “screwball comedy,” and largely disregarded by the film critics, “Louisa” has many elements of the genre. The film takes place in a town of Pleasantville, the family is in disarray, the moralist shock that reverberates throughout the household is punctuated by funny one-liners (especially emanating from Reagan’s character), nobody knows if or when the family chaos will end, and even the risqué behavior on Louisa’s part tends to be comically absurd.
Louisa begins a romantic friendship with the local grocer, Henry Hammond (Edmund Gwenn). At first, she keeps it a secret until Cathy sees her in a local theater with Henry. The family is scandalized (never mind that Cathy herself was engaging in some heavy necking with her own boyfriend, Jimmy), and they try to dissuade Louisa from seeing more of this mere grocer who, as they see it, is below her social standing.
In order to appear open-minded, however, Hal and Meg consent to inviting Henry for dinner. Things seem to be going well, even though Hal is still skeptical about the affair. He’s oscillating between being an annoyed and a dutiful son—one who is having trouble keeping his own family out of chaos, let alone his aging mother.
But then, another uninvited visitor arrives: Mr. Burnside, Hal’s employer. Burnside is a primary owner of the architecture firm where Hal works. Up to that point, things had been looking up for Hal at work. He is in line to be made a partner and a vice president. The film makes clear that he is a diligent architect and worker. But things start heating up when Burnside attempts to court Louisa right in the presence of Henry!
This geriatric love triangle drives the rest of the plot, and nobody seems to know how to extricate the family from the ensuing chaos. Henry and Burnside are fighting for Louisa’s attention: from a ridiculous fast car and grocery van chase, to wrestling at a country and western themed dance, to Burnside looking like a geriatric Theodore Roosevelt picking water lilies out of a pond, to expensive gifts, Louisa is finding herself a complete center of attention.
Which is perhaps the point. She certainly likes it and in many ways, acts like a schoolgirl (another comedic element to the film). Nevertheless, it’s clear that Louisa, above all else, is just a lonely widow and looking for a meaningful companionship, if not from her family then in this way.
“Louisa” is a hilarious and delightful film, but it also explores many deeper aspects of American life. We see a generational change from Louisa to Hal and Meg, and then again to Cathy and Chris. All want something seemingly different out of their life in suburbia. (We see a similar family dynamic in Henry Koster’s 1962 film, “Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation” with James Stewart and Maureen O’Hara.) Hal informs Louisa that kids “these days” are parented differently than she’s used to; Cathy’s boyfriend rails against the atomic age and the way their parents seem to be obsessed with war; Chris is a kid who just wants to play and be happy; and the elderly Louisa just wants happiness too. References to age are plenty!
Hal and Meg have chosen a life in the suburbs as Hal is a professional and his job hangs in the balance. They are part of an upper-middle and aspirational social class, but the problems of the heart and family upheaval know no social or economic status. Reagan’s Hal is a man of principle, even if he is mostly annoyed at his family which seems to be spiraling into chaos. When Burnside gives him an ultimatum (to be on Burnside’s side when it comes to courting Louisa or be fired), Hal speaks up. In this instance we see and hear that familiar spark in Ronald Reagan: his unwillingness to be owned by anyone and determination to stand for the right thing. Reagan’s delivery here (as is true in other films) always feels as if he is speaking not only for himself but for others as well.
One of the most underappreciated things about Ronald Reagan is the connection between his comedic gift and his talent as an actor. In “Louisa,” Reagan showcases this comedic gift as he engages in physical comedy, and his face is perpetually expressive, signifying a frustrated but essentially good husband, father, and son. Like any good and authentic comedy (and Shakespeare would certainly agree), “Louisa” ends with a wedding. Louisa escapes loneliness and finds love, a tie that binds everyone together.