Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A Lady Takes A Chance (1943)

This film is one of the few romantic comedies in John Wayne's lengthy filmography. The role of Duke makes few demands on Wayne, who is charming and restive enough. Although he was a star already in 1943, he was a star in formulaic westerns churned out by a third-rate studio (Republic). The films that would make him a superstar (The Angel and the Badman, Fort Apache, Red River, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Sands of Iwo Jima) were all made after World War II...by which time Arthur was free of her Columbia contract and very choosy about roles and directors (walking out of Born Yesterday during rehearsals, making A Foreign Affair for Billy Wilder and Shane for George Stevens, and returning thirteen years later for a TV series, The Jean Arthur Show, that was cancelled after twelve episodes).

In 1943, when Columbia's legendarily despotic chief Harry Cohn lent his top female star to Republic to make a romantic comedy with its rising male star John Wayne, Jean Arthur had a string of successful and very funny comedies (The Devil and Miss Jones, Talk of the Town, The More the Merrier), as well as having played the female lead in two of Frank Capra's best-loved movies (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington). Arthur exerted a pixieish charm with an odd mix of the prim and the brassy.

As the title character in A Lady Takes a Chance she plays Molly Trousdale, a stylish New Yorker. A young lady who earns a proletarian $23.67 a week leaves on a sortie into our Western wonderland via a $137.50 bus tour, touting "14 breathless days of romance and adventure". She is first seen wearing a very large hat—boarding a transcontinental bus. Each of her three suitors brings her presents and bid her very reluctant goodbye. With such ardent male attention, her seatmate is puzzled about why she is leaving. The back stories of her three relationships is never filled in, but it seems more that she is not in love with any of them than that she can't make up her mind. But maybe she is taking a trip to see the country to clear her mind and make a choice.

Within ten minutes of the opening, the bus tour members are at a rodeo. Molly is at the edge of the stands trying to take a snapshot when a cowboy is thrown over the fence and lands on top of her. The cowboy (and the "chance" of the title) is John Wayne, called (in this movie and offscreen) "Duke." He is drawn to her, but is used to rodeo groupies and saloon denizens and doesn't know how to talk to a "lady."

He takes her to a saloon, where many female friends flirt with him and Molly looks dignified, if pained. They try again and he wins $238 playing craps with her blowing on the dice. Listening closely to dice she is given to roll herself, she realizes they are loaded and reduces the all-or-nothing bet to $1. The Duke is impressed. He is also impressed by her downing a potent drink called "cactus milk", (see the video clip link below of Cactus Milk episode). Soon there is a barroom brawl, followed by offending Molly after she has missed her bus.

The brawl, the bandiage, the offenses, etc. are all standard issue 1930s and 40s Hollywood issue. The high point for viewers and the low point for Molly is a night on the desert, freaked out by coyote howls and being so cold she steals Duke's horse's blanket, causing the horse to get sick.

In a motel that is remarkably well stocked with everything Molly needs to whip up a romantic candlelit dinner, Duke recoils at being snared by domesticity—drawing the line at wearing an apron to help with washing the dishes. He is a "don't fence me in" man who enjoys many women, not (he thinks) a "one-woman man" who can be "hooked" by feminine wiles and domestic bliss. Indeed, his "better half" (the Duke's label) is Waco, one of those grizzled, maternal cooks so common in midcentury westerns. Waco is played by Charles Winninger, who created the role of Cap'n Andy in the original stage production of Show Boat and repeated the role in the 1936 film version. Screen formula requires Molly to supplant Waco.

The screenplay (by Robert Arsey) is formulaic sitcom, directed by journeyman William A. Seiter, who directed more than a hundred movies I've never heard of along with the Astaire-Rogers vehicle Roberta, the Marx Brothers's antics in Room Service, and One Touch of Venus, Ava Gardner's first leading role.

If "A Lady Takes a Chance" is quite continuously amusing, it is largely because of Miss Arthur's pert little ways, her prim hesitations at the wrong times, her un-cloying coyness. Quite gradually she had become one of Hollywood's delightful comediennes. Mr. Wayne, with his muscles and slow drawl, makes a sturdy partner in this romantic duet. Charles Winninger is excellent as an oldtime cowhand, and Phil Silvers brings back some burlesque gusto as the professional tour conductor who insists that all his customers be happy.

You can view the filmographies of John Wayne and Jean Arthur here courtesy of the Internet Movie Database. If you would like more information on Jean Arthur check out the book "Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew" by John Oller.

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