DirectorGregory La Cava
Release Date(s)1942 (April 18, 2023)
Studio(s)Universal Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: C+
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: B
A lackluster screwball comedy, despite the talents of director Gregory La Cava (My Man Godfrey) and star Irene Dunne (The Awful Truth), Lady in a Jam’s (1942) many problems stem from its awkward, hard-to-swallow premise, an absence of likeable main characters, and a lack of chemistry between the two stars. The classic screwball components (including a good supporting cast) are all there, but the movie just isn’t very funny.
Heiress Jane Palmer (Dunne) has recklessly squandered her entire inheritance, her carefree spending prompting guardian Billingsley (Eugene Pallette) to seek psychiatric help for Jane at the Palmer Medical Foundation. Young psychiatrist Dr. Enright (Patric Knowles), popular with the ladies and overly-confident, presumes he can easily cure her. Surreptitiously following her on a shopping spree, he watches as she verbally abuses her (unpaid) chauffer, Milton (Hardie Albright), who quits on the spot, and for no clear reason Enright lobbies to replace him rather than reveal his true motives.
All this is rather pointless anyway, because Jane is already so penniless her car and everything else in her mansion, including the mansion itself, are repossessed and sold at auction the next day. (Why did Billingsley wait until it was too late for Enright to do any good? The film provides no answer.) Regardless, the film at this point shifts gears abruptly, with Enright revealing his true occupation, and insisting Jane return to her childhood home in Arizona to face repressed fears that caused all this money-squandering. (For what reason? Now that she has no money left to spend?) Further, Enright offers to accompany Jane on the unpaid cross-country trip, seemingly for no reason other than she’s an interesting case.
In Arizona, the pair arrive at the veritable ghost town of Jane’s grandmother, Cactus Kate (Queenie Vassar), who lives like Ma Joad but is possibly sitting on an untapped vein in Cactus Kate’s late husband’s long abandoned gold mine. Enright moves into the abandoned saloon nearby, Jane goes down into the mine hoping to strike pay dirt, and Jane’s old boyfriend, dumb cowboy Stanley (Ralph Bellamy), blithely assumes she has returned to rekindle their romance.
The screenplay by journalist Eugene Thackery (who co-wrote just three other movies), journeyman Francis M. Cockrell (who worked in every genre imaginable), and, most bizarrely, Otho Lovering (normally an editor), is a mess. In publicity materials for the film, Universal actually boasted the film was shot without a complete script, which seems entirely plausible. Instead of fashioning Jane into a likeable, blissfully ignorant kook along the lines of Carole Lombard’s many screwball heroines, instead she comes off as a 1940s version of Paris Hilton—selfish and spoiled, unconcerned that “the help” haven’t been paid in weeks or that they’ve lost their jobs through her irresponsible behavior. Enright—whom the writers never even bother to give a first name—is little better, a cocksure egghead spouting psychobabble: “Psychiatry is an exact science,” he claims, “If we know the ingredients we can compute the results.” (Psychiatric diagnoses? Easy-peasy.) Instead of something akin to Henry Fonda’s female-shy snake expert in The Lady Eve, Enright likewise comes off as self-involved and irresponsible.
Irene Dunne was a hugely popular and respected star, though largely forgotten today, despite appearing in many classics of Hollywood’s Golden Age. By this point she was well into her 40s, and pairing her with 30-year-old British actor Knowles doesn’t generate any sparks. Knowles was a decent enough actor, but by this point in his career had become a utility player at Universal, appearing in everything from the studio’s horror movies to broad comedies starring Olsen & Johnson and Abbott & Costello.
Ralph Bellamy had served a similar function in the classic screwball His Girl Friday the year before, but here his part is written as a clueless dope who dresses like Gene Autry but is hopeless as a cowboy, singing or otherwise. It’s to Bellamy’s credit that he allowed himself to appear so foolish in such an atypical characterization.
Again, many of the ingredients are there, especially in terms of the reliable supporting and bit players that turn up: Pallette, Irving Bacon, Al Bridge, Kathleen Howard, Charles Lane, etc., who milk their scenes as much as they can.
Licensed from Universal, Kino’s Blu-ray sources an excellent transfer of the 1.37:1 standard, black-and-white feature. The image is impressively sharp throughout with strong blacks, and the DTS-HD Master Audio (2.0 mono) is also fine, supported by optional English subtitles on this Region “A” disc.
There’s no trailer but there is a lively new audio commentary track by filmmakers Allan Arkush and Daniel Kremer.
Lady in a Jam is let down by a week script, written for a studio better-suited to broad slapstick than the harder-to-pull-off type of screwball comedy studios like Paramount and RKO excelled. It’s not terrible but the pieces don’t come together.
- Stuart Galbraith IV