In a jam, alright

All I knew about LADY IN A JAM is that it was a late one from Gregory La Cava — at the Edinburgh Film Fest retrospective, Chris Fujiwara declined to show it but said it had elements which were defensible, unlike its follow-up, LIVING IN A BIG WAY. I feel bad for La Cava, finishing his career, more or less, with Gene Kelly. A great talent, Kelly, but a vulnerable alcoholic shouldn’t have to work with a man like that.

I guess elements of LIAJ are defensible. I expected, based on the vague description, that it would start strongly and go off the boil — a number of La Cava’s great films have slightly shaky endings — but in fact it only simmers throughout, with an occasional gleeful bubble. The movie never seems to know what it’s about, and it’s a very strange case of casting Irene Dunne as a ditzy heiress but making her bitchy too — she’s a horrible person. The idea that she has no sense of money, and therapist Patric Knowles is trying to cure her of this irresponsibility, is a potentially appealing one. But she has no sense of people either, and basically tried to trample all over anyone in her path. She’s like Katherine Hepburn in the early scenes of BRINGING UP BABY but removed the comedy.

Knowles as therapist is a kind of machine-man, so the idea should be that he’s humanized by Dunne and maybe she gains a bit of orderliness from him, but La Cava can’t seem to get anywhere with this, so they’re still the same half-persons at the end that they were at the beginning, and we can never really empathise with either of them. I was a little mean about Knowles’ boringness in IT’S LOVE I’M AFTER but he does have good comic timing here, and throws himself into playing the buttoned-down, repressed aspects of the character.

Ralph Bellamy comes along as a cowboy doofus, a grating exaggeration of his Okie dope from THE AWFUL TRUTH. Mainly you feel embarrassed for the actor. Eugene Pallette is his reliable self, but hasn’t been given any comedy to play. Queenie Vassar is pretty great and there’s an unconventional little blob of a child actor, Jane Garland, who’s a nice presence. But it’s all predicated on nothing.

It reminds me of IF YOU COULD ONLY COOK, an early screwball in which millionaire Herbert Marshall, if I’m recalling this correctly, takes a job as kitchen staff. We were about half an hour into it when we asked, “Wait a minute, WHY is he doing this?” Similarly, why does Knowles abandon his research work to masquerade as Dunne’s chauffeur (a plot thread which goes nowhere as she immediately loses her car) and then head out to a desert ghost town and help Dunne strike gold? He complains often enough about having to do it, but we couldn’t see why he has to do it at all. That kind of thing certainly matters.

Still, the bossy heiress recalls FEEL MY PULSE, the earliest La Cava shown at Edinburgh, which had Bebe Daniels in the role. The interest in psychotherapy reminds me of PRIVATE WORLDS — La Cava had spent time in at least one sanatorium and I think his interest is genuine — he just doesn’t understand anything about it. Still, Knowles here communicates in psychobabble and stuff about represssed feelings, which is a bit better than Joel McCrea’s Horatio Alger homilies in PW. The earlier film is still far superior, though.

Maybe what kept La Cava from resolving this one (apart from the hooch) is that it’s not MY MAN GODFREY. A butler reforming the family he works for is an amusing conceit. A therapist reforming anyone isn’t, because that’s his job, after all. FIFTH AVENUE GIRL was able to use the reform plot, because Ginger Rogers was a low-status character who turned out to have more smarts than the millionaires she moved in with. SHE MARRIED HER BOSS did it with Claudette Colbert marrying into the family, which was less amusing on the face of it, but the clue is in the title — she’s still kind of an underling. But she can win too easily, and there’s nothing absurd about it, so the film starts relying on broad drunken knockabout towards the end to distract from a certain flatness which up until then we haven’t felt, thanks to La Cava and his cast’s skill.

So La Cava does all he can with Knowles, which is drive him to distraction. Which makes his half of the picture fairly amusing, but you never saw a less agreeable Irene Dunne. Her talent is working overtime, but it’s been aimed in the wrong direction.

After this and THE AFFAIRS OF CELLINI, I really must reconnect with some GOOD La Cava, but I’m also morbidly drawn towards LIVING IN A BIG WAY…

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2 Responses to “In a jam, alright”

  1. chris schneider Says:

    “Greg [LaCava] was most off-the-cuff creative when he was drinking. And his career only stalled when his doctors told him to go on the wagon in the 1940s” ~ Pandro S. Berman.

    Obviously there are many factors, and an “A caused B” explanation is to be regarded with skepticism, but it does sound as if the drinking had stopped by the time of LADY IN A JAM.

  2. Could be. He fell asleep and rolled into the orchestra pit while shooting the play in Stage Door, and went on a bender and disappeared on location for The Primrose Path. They found him selling hamburgers.

    He was part of WC Fields’ crowd (“The second funniest man in Hollywood,” Fields called him) but I guess that would have to stop too. Unless he was the designated driver for the gang.

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