Thursday, October 19, 2017

Irene Dunne, LADY IN A JAM

Entertainment news publications reported that this year's summer box office was the lowest it had been in years.  Because I'm such a movie lover, I felt like I was personally responsible for some of that poor box office showing.  I'd grown weary of seeing caped comic book characters fly through the air with superhuman powers in sequels with fabulous special effects.  I wanted to see real people.  I didn't go to the movies as much over the summer because I got better, more satisfying entertainment on Netflix.  However, of the few movies I saw at the theaters, DUNKIRK was a very moving drama about a historic British event during World War 2, BABY DRIVER was exciting and different, and my absolute favorite movie I saw over the summer was the romantic comedy, THE BIG SICK.  I laughed, I cried, I got my money's worth.  Based on a true story from the life of handsome, young Muslim American comedian Kumail Nanjiani, last weekend's host on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, we get wit, a warm love story and a heartbreaking hospital element.  Just like in LOVE AFFAIR, one of Irene Dunne's best movies.  That 1939 gem starring Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer was remade as the very popular AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER starring Deborah Kerr and Cary Grant.  Remember the ladies crying about that remake in SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE?  THE BIG SICK was a wonderful reminder that the good romantic comedy has not become a lost art form.  When actresses like Irene Dunne, Jean Arthur, Claudette Colbert, Ginger Rogers and Barbara Stanwyck were tops in the 1930s and 40s, there was no shortage of romantic comedy scripts for them to choose from.  Nowadays, the pickings seem to be slim for actresses who long to do a good romantic comedy.  I watched an old Irene Dunne romantic comedy this week.  I laughed more in the first ten minutes of her movie than I did in all two hours of the 2012 romantic comedy, THE FIVE YEAR ENGAGEMENT.  And I was a background actor in that movie.  Irene Dunne's 1942 comedy, LADY IN A JAM, has some lessons today's Hollywood could learn.
Irene Dunne got five Oscar nominations for Best Actress in her career.  She should've received a special lifetime achievement Oscar for her remarkable career and performances.  Very effective dramatically, as in I REMEMBER MAMA, her last Oscar nomination, she was also a master at screwball comedy.  She started out as a dramatic actress in movies then came 1936's smart and sparkling comedy THEODORA GOES WILD.  That brought her an Oscar nomination and showed that she had a bright gift for comedy.  LADY IN A JAM is not one of her best and best known romantic comedies like THEODORA GOES WILD, THE AWFUL TRUTH and MY FAVORITE WIFE, but it's still good for some laughs and worth studying to see how Dunne makes the material pop.  Also -- and here's one thing I wish Hollywood would keep in mind -- Dunne and Jean Arthur were still doing knock-out romantic comedy lead lady roles in their early 40s.  And they looked fabulous.  Such is the case with 40-something Irene Dunne as the LADY IN A JAM.
Dunne plays Jane Palmer, an estate heiress who's been clueless about and keeping track of her finances. She's blown through all of her money and doesn't realize it.  When first we see her, she's smartly attired and wearing a chic hat.  Hats were Irene Dunne's movie signature look.  Jane is shopping for jewelry.  Expensive jewelry.  She can't quite make up her mind between two bracelets.  In Dunne's delivery and style, we see that Jane is a lovable ditz.

She'll return to her mansion to discover that, not only is she flat broke, but all her possessions are being tagged for auction because she's bankrupt.  In one touch that was delightfully typical of movies of that time, when the cook learns that the lady of the house is bankrupt and her items are up for auction, the cook makes a bee-line for Jane's mink coat.  The romantic element comes in thanks to Jane's guardian played by the gravelly-voiced and portly Eugene Pallette.  He gets a Manhattan psychoanalyst to talk to Jane and straighten out her screwball tendencies.  Patrick Knowles, best known for playing Lindsay opposite Rosalind Russell in AUNTIE MAME, is the by-the-book psychoanalyst who will fall in love with Jane.

When first he sees her, it's on the street after she's left the jewelry store.  She gets into the back seat of her limo, but the chauffeur quits on the spot because he hasn't been paid in a while.  She has to drive and, you guessed it, she'd bad at it.  The shrink takes over and drives her home.  He'll accompany her to Arizona where she's forced to live in a shack with her gun totin' grandma.
LADY IN A JAM was directed by Gregory La Cava (MY MAN GODFREY and STAGE DOOR).  Notice how he keeps the pace and dialogue delivery fluid.  Especially the dialogue.  It's back and forth and the metronome keeping time for an upbeat tune.  While I worked background on THE FIVE YEAR ENGAGEMENT starring Jason Segel and Emily Blunt, I watched one scene get improvised on the spot and shot a few times.  I had absolutely no reason really to be in the film and it didn't drive the story forward.  But it made guys on the crew laugh and it's in the final cut.  If you see that romantic comedy, notice that the first half hour could've easily been trimmed to fifteen minutes.  There was so much unnecessary dialogue delivered at a relaxed, rambling pace.  LADY IN A JAM is an enjoyable 90 minutes or less.  THE FIVE YEAR ENGAGEMENT was 2 hours and 5 minutes long.  It should've been 90 minutes or less too.

THE BIG SICK had a good, brisk pace and good characters.  Ray Romano and Holly Hunter almost stole the film as the girlfriend's parents.  Holly Hunter should get a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for THE BIG SICK.

LADY IN A JAM has supporting actors who know how to make screwball romantic comedy work.  Ralph Bellamy, who played the doofus cowboy beau in THE AWFUL TRUTH, has a similar role in LADY IN A JAM.  He calls the handsome big city psychoanalyst a "long-legged tenderfoot."            
Trivia note:  Some classic film fans tend to describe Ralph Bellamy as "the guy who never got the girl" in the 1930s and 40s movies.  Well...he did get the girl in one movie.  And the girl was Irene Dunne.  In 1934's THIS MAN IS MINE.

Of course, Miss Palmer, who was called a "spoiled brat" will learn to do things for herself and occasionally for other people.  Her feelings will get hurt in the process.  "Seems like the more you do for people, the less they appreciate it", she remarks in Arizona.

To me, even though LADY IN A JAM is a B-movie amongst her several A-quality films, it still has scenes that prove how watching her is a master class in comedy acting.  She can bring light and motion into a scene that has no activity.  In her opening scene, she's in the office of a gentleman breaking news to her about her account.  Notice how she moves in her seat, perfect for that screwball character, and notice the business she does with the ink pen in a holder on his desk. Marvelous.  That and her sitting on the shrink's lap in the final, she was a pro.
I repeat:  I'll take 1942's LADY IN A JAM over 2012's THE FIVE YEAR ENGAGEMENT.  And I was an extra in THE FIVE YEAR ENGAGEMENT.

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